Aya Fukai, executive pastry chef for Chicago’s contemporary steakhouse, Maple & Ash, excites the taste buds of her guests with classically inspired seasonal desserts melding haute technique and playful zest. Complementing the menu’s savory selections, Fukai’s sweets continue the engaging experience to impart delectable lasting impressions.
“I like to give guests what they want, or what they didn’t even know they wanted,” she explains. “The menu is crave-worthy, not just interesting—I want people to think about it the next day, to dream about it.” Fukai can typically be found right alongside her team, preparing a diverse range of desserts for Maple & Ash’s dining room and the more relaxed Eight Bar & Patio downstairs. Balancing science and art, her dishes impress both technically and aesthetically.
Fukai’s culinary inspirations harken back to her childhood in Chiba, Japan, which included both exceptional restaurant experiences and plentiful home-cooked meals—“I think that had a lot to do with my desire to join the culinary industry,” she says. Her scientist father and art curator mother moved the family to Boston when Fukai was 9 years old, allowing her to study hospitality at Boston University later on. The school’s event space, the Boston University Club, provided her first opportunities in the kitchen, and a childhood desire to “eat cake everyday” encouraged her to gain pastry experience in various assistant positions at L’Espalier—where she met her mentor, chef Jiho Kim—and Radius. Menton, Boston’s renowned French restaurant, provided Fukai her first executive pastry chef role, prior to her Midwest relocation.
She first worked alongside colleague Danny Grant at RIA and Balsan in Chicago’s Elysian Hotel, now the Waldorf Astoria Chicago, helping the former earn two Michelin stars. In 2014, she went on to craft desserts for Trump International Hotel & Tower’s fine dining restaurant, Sixteen, as well as its Rebar and Terrace lounges, in-room dining, and banquet services. During her time in Chicago, the chef became a finalist in StarChefs.com international pastry competition in 2012, and was nominated for Jean Banchet’s Rising Pastry Chef Award in 2015. In 2016, she was named Eater’s Pastry Chef of the Year, and in 2017, she was a semifinalist for the James Beard Foundation’s award for Outstanding Pastry Chef.
Reuniting with Chef Grant, Fukai joined Maple & Ash’s opening team in 2016, at which the two intrepid culinary minds work together to craft a seamless progression from contemporary steakhouse fare to artistically re-imagined desserts, utilizing seasonal, market-fresh ingredients. “First and foremost, it’s fun,” she says of the dessert program and overall experience. “We make the meal extraordinary, using sweets to bring guests to a happy place.”