How I Get It Done: Malika Ameen, Top Chef: Just Desserts Contestant, Cookbook Author, and Pastry Chef

Illustration: Rebecca Clarke

Malika Ameen is a pastry chef and cookbook author. Her new cookbook, Sweet Sugar, Sultry Spice, came out in October. She was a contestant on Top Chef: Just Desserts and a pastry chef at the Chateau Marmont, and is preparing to go on a book tour this February. She also maintains a social-media presence where, at around 4 p.m. every day, she shares something she’s baked. She has three sons and lives in Chicago. Here’s how she gets it all done.

On the busy day in the life of a pastry chef with a new cookbook out and three sons:
I get up at 6:15 a.m., and I usually start the day with about 10 to 15 minutes of meditation. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve become more spiritual, and I enjoy taking that calm time in the morning, especially during the winter, when it’s dark out. I just feel so ahead of the game — especially because soon after, I have to wake up all three of my monkeys. I take deep breaths, focus on what I have to do for the day, and then I start waking up the kids at 6:45.

I start with my 9-year-old first because it takes forever to get him out of bed. There’s always some sort of problem in the morning. Then I go to my older son, who is 14, and gently tap him, and then I go back to my youngest and my voice gets a little louder and then usually there are some kisses and hugs to encourage him to get up. He always insists that he doesn’t need to get up until 7 a.m. So I say, “We’re just not going to go to basketball the next day.” I spend a good 20 minutes going back and forth between my three sons’ rooms. By the time I’m done doing that, I feel like I’ve had a full day’s work.

I cook breakfast for them every morning: Monday is old-school porridge with almond milk and bananas; Tuesday is scrambled eggs; Wednesday is French toast; Thursday is eggs any way they want them; and Friday is cereal. They’d probably prefer to just have cereal, honestly. Or bread. They love bread. But when I give them cereal, it always comes along with a lecture about how bad it is for them.

I drive them to school and head straight to Whole Foods to pick up snacks for my middle son’s basketball game. Then I’ll go to a meeting for a new consulting job, where I’m working on creative ideas to redesign a bakery menu, so we’re looking at bakery trends, recipes, menus. After a few hours of that, I’ll head straight to Soho House, where I usually do most of my work. I refuel with some lunch while I start working, returning calls and emails. I work at Soho House for about three hours, and when I’m done handling business, I go back home to start prepping dinner. On this particular night, I made a pot roast.

I also try to post on social media around 4 p.m. every day. Recently, I made a big batch of apricot-rosemary cookie dough and I had to rush to get them baked in order to get good light in my apartment by the window.

On how she guides curious cooks on the things they might be doing wrong in the kitchen:
The thing is, I understand why my cake might fall in the oven because I’m making it every day. As chefs, we forget that people aren’t doing this every single day, all day long. They’re just starting or they’re not doing the same recipe ten times a week. At my signings, people have a lot of questions about spice substitutions because people have very polarized responses to spices, and there can be a feeling that a spice that a recipe calls for was “too overwhelming” or “too ethnic.” With this book, I really wanted to create something that was user-friendly. People don’t realize how much they eat spices, so I’m trying to show them.

People are really interested in my ethnic background and the food I ate growing up. My book was really about me finding myself again. I grew up in South Asia in a Pakistani household. Early in my career, I’d get a lot of questions like, “Oh, you’re a pastry chef? Do you cook at an Indian restaurant?” I used to go home and cry. People would look at my skin color and my ethnicity and make decisions based on what they saw. I tried to distance to myself from spices because of that. As I progressed in my career, I began to return to those spices, those flavors.

I’m very careful about what I advise new cooks. I don’t think every spice is interchangeable. I will talk about flavor profiles and proportions. Sometimes there are things that just don’t work, but you just have to play and work with them a bit. We’re always afraid to work with things that we’re not familiar with.

On why she builds time into her day to just let her mind wander:
I work in my kitchen area a lot, and for 30 minutes, I like to just stare out into space and think through my creative ideas. Things randomly come to me, so I do a lot of recipe development in my mind. I sit down and stare into space a little bit to let the ideas rush in. When it’s quiet, this works really well.

I have three small legal pads, one that I use for my to-do list, one for concept ideas and work, and a third for just recipe ideas. As much as everybody likes to do everything on their phones, I still write things by hand. There’s something very gratifying about it.

On the daily moment of bliss she builds into her schedule:
There’s this little artisanal coffee shop downstairs where I have 10 to 15 minutes of bliss every day. I’ll go down there and order a cappuccino. Even the sound of the machine making it, oh my God, it makes me so happy. When I have that cappuccino, I feel like I can do anything. That’s my ritual every single morning. If I’m going to have caffeine at any point during the rest of the day, I’ll have some green tea.

On why she’s come to accept her perfectionism:
When I was recipe-testing for my book, my family was always so mad. “I see the stuff you’re making on your social media,” they’d say. “Why don’t you bring it to us? Share it with us?” That’s that pastry chef in me. Everything has to be exact. When you’re testing, you can post photos of anything that you’ve made because it might look beautiful. But if the flavors are just not there, you aren’t going to share it with people. I’m so picky. I don’t want to give anyone anything I’ve made if it’s not perfect.

On what she’s currently reading to inspire her cooking:
I love reading cookbooks. Right now, I’m reading Taste of Persia by Naomi Duguid. I’ve been crazy over Middle Eastern food lately. I cook so much from the Ottolenghi cookbook. I love Diana Henry’s A Change of Appetite.

I’ve been cooking a lot of food from Central Asia and Iran. That region uses a lot of really subtle but delicious spices, a lot of dried fruits and nuts. I’m obsessed with pomegranate molasses, which is just the juice of fresh pomegranates cooked down into a really thick syrup. It’s very sour the way tamarind paste is, and in Iranian food it’s put in everything from meats to stews to desserts. I love it.

I just finished Eric Ripert’s book, 32 Yolks. Reading really helps me to stay inspired. Time is precious, so I hardly watch any TV.

On the profound fulfillment she gets from cooking for people she loves:
Cooking is really calming. It’s so rewarding when you get to share something you’ve made with someone, and you can see the expression on their face: They’re taken aback, they want more. I can’t describe it. You’re providing a service to somebody. Food is love. It’s a way to express love, a way to say, “I really care about you.” Even when it’s a stranger, it’s such a beautiful way to connect. You can be from any part of the world, and suddenly you’re connecting over a grandma, an aunt, something that happened on a Saturday, something you used to eat when you were young.

People love to share those memories. A lot of desserts in my cookbook are nostalgic desserts for that reason. Oatmeal cream pies, Concord grape pies, fruit roll-ups. People love that. I love baking those kinds of things because it takes you back to your childhood. You’re immediately catapulted back to a different time in your life.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

How a Pastry Chef and Cookbook Author Spends Her Day