From butterfly pea to swimmer crab, Bangkok designer kills boredom with daily pizzas (Interview)

Feng Chen, at left, and her pizzas with tom kha swimmer crab and butterfly pea custard. Photos: @leopardcrust / Instagram
Feng Chen, at left, and her pizzas with tom kha swimmer crab and butterfly pea custard. Photos: @leopardcrust / Instagram

Like many, Feng Chen, 30, didn’t expect to be isolated indefinitely during the pandemic. To seek adventure despite the confines of her home, the graphic designer started making a pizza every day while chronicling her journey at Leopard Crust

During the COVID-19 pandemic, Chen said, she set a goal of making 100 pizzas — one a day, every day — to cope with boredom. 

What started as a hobby has become a passion. In two years, Chen’s recipes have expanded to 600 combinations and earned her nearly 20,000 followers. Among her pizzas are unexpected flavors such as butterfly pea custard, pumpkin, purple sweet potato, pomelo, and even tom kha with swimmer crabs.

We sat down to speak with Chen about her pizza philosophy.

Feng Chen at Sarnies Pop-up. Photo: Vatanya Bongkotkarn / Coconuts Bangkok

How did you start your Leopard Crust?

The pandemic was hard for everyone, and with all that [depressing] news and uncertain circumstances, I felt like we all lost a sense of control. It was pizza that helped me get through those moments. Making pizza reassured me that I still had some control over my life. So, I set myself the goal of making 100 pizzas — one a day, every day — to cope with my boredom. Before this account, I only had my personal one. When I posted the pictures of my pizzas on Instagram, I could share something positive with everyone. Since I had all those pizza pictures on my phone, I asked myself, ‘Why don’t I just share them?’ It’s been a pleasant surprise to see so many people interested in my pizzas. Pizza gurus and chefs all around the world started to recognize my works. When traveling becomes easier, I’d love to go and eat their pizzas so we can exchange methods and techniques and hopefully push the craft forward.

A pizza with Swimmer crab, chilli oil, tom kha (coconut cream, shallots, kaffir lime leaves, oyster mushrooms, chilli, coriander, lime juice, fish sauce, palm sugar, lemongrass, galangal)⁠⁠. Photo: @leopardcrust / Instagram

Tell us more about your pizza combinations.

I’m sure that among these pizzas there will be some bad ones. It’s not easy, the craft. That’s why I set the goal for 100 pizza recipes because even if I fail, the next day I can just try again. I collected photos of every single pizza I made – not the ones I made for my customers, of course, since it would be unprofessional of me to take pictures of someone else’s pizza before serving them. All the combinations are written down in my journal, and I also number every single one of them so that I can track them on my journey.

A pizza with butterfly pea custard, cream, yuzu peel & butterfly pea flowers.⁠⁠ Photo: @leopardcrust / Instagram

You rate your own pizzas. Why?

That’s for my #WeirdoughWednesday. It’s a practice I made up. It’s permission to make something and challenge myself to think about something really unusual once a week. Even if it turns out to be a bad one, the next day I can just eat a good pizza. But these weekly practices really helped me grow as a pizza maker. Sometimes you find something really good that you never considered. You just have to try and break away from the traditional. 

I have deep respect for traditional pizza making, but I believe it can go beyond where it came from. When you look back into the history of the food, tomatoes were not accepted by the Italians for almost two hundred years. If tomatoes had arrived in Italy and had been accepted culinary practice before that, maybe there would have been even more dishes made out of tomatoes in Italian cuisine. That’s my thinking when I try to do different things. Now that I have 500 pizzas, I can just bring out the best ones to Sarnies Pop-up.

Feng Chen’s pizza notebook. Photo: Feng Chen / Courtesy

What is your favorite Weirdough Wednesday pizza?

It’s really hard to choose since I’ve been doing this for about a year now, so that would make around 60 of them. Last week’s combination was pomelo and chili flakes. I didn’t expect it to work as I thought it would be just okay. Turns out that the crunchy pomelo toppings are really good for pizzas. Another one was chestnuts. I bought chestnuts from Yaowarat and combined them with cured egg yolks, grana padano, basil, and a bit of mozzarella. The chestnut has the right fragrance and the texture, with a subtle sweetness and smokiness in there. The saltiness from cured egg yolks and grana padano also help balance out the sweetness. 

All of these weird combinations, you just need to try it. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it works better than you might expect. You can push it as far as you want or just keep it simple. It’s this accessibility that I love about pizza. There’s nothing wrong with that.

A pizza with homegrown oystermushroom, egg yolk, and pesto pizza. Photo: @leopardcrust / Instagram

Do you have any pizza places you like in Bangkok?

Delices de Capoue in Ekkamai, their pizza was a life-changing experience for me. Before their pizzas, I associated pizza with something heavy. But their 72-hour fermented pizza opened my eyes to the possibilities of what dough can taste like and how it doesn’t have to make you feel bad after eating it. The pizza we know is usually heavy and there’s nothing wrong with that. But if I want to eat it every day, I need it to be a bit lighter so that I can feel like I want to eat it tomorrow.

Dough combinations. Photo: Feng Chen / Courtesy

What’s next?

I want to open a supper club where I can connect with more people. For me, food is all about connection, and I want to do something more intimate. I’m just someone who loves seeing other people eating my pizza, not a restaurant owner. When you open a restaurant, you have to handle all the stress and responsibilities that come with it. I always have a lot of respect for those who open pizzerias, but my relationship with pizza is different. I want to have some free time to experiment with the recipes. Diversity made me fall in love with the city, so this is my chance to give it back.

This story originally appeared in BK.

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