Kee Ling Tong
Meet the International Culinary Center alum.
A Q&A with the founder of Kee's Chocolates.
Current city: New York
Course of study: Classic Pastry Arts
Graduation year: 2000
One food/beverage you can’t live without? Coffee
Describe your culinary POV in three words: fresh, creative, memorable
Best meal of all time? One of the best meals I’ve ever had was one I ate with my grandmother more than 20 years ago that included cooked figs.
What would your last meal consist of? Fresh fruit, veggies, and fish or chicken.
When you first entered the pastry program at the International Culinary Center, what was your background in cooking?
Actually, I never really cooked in my life! There are six siblings in my family, and I’m the fifth, so all my older brothers and sisters did all the cooking and cleaning — I was spoiled and pampered that way! I just never had to go into the kitchen. So going to ICC was a completely different lifestyle and environment for me.
Was enrolling at ICC a career change?
For the first 15 years of my career, I was in the corporate world. I started interning at JP Morgan when I was 16, and it just escalated into a career. But you reach a certain point in your life when you think, I’m not happy with what I’m doing — it’s not gratifying anymore. I thought, you know what, I’ve never spent time in the kitchen and I’ve never cooked in my life, so why not try it?
Were you considering other schools besides the International Culinary Center?
No, because I already lived in lower Manhattan, but here’s a story. When I was 25, my friends took me out to eat at L’Ecole, the school’s restaurant, and I thought the food was so amazing, and I was so impressed by the students. I thought, One day, when I have time, I’m going to go to school here. So I kind of made a wish. It took 10 years, but I did it. My wish came true.
How would you describe the education you received at the International Culinary Center?
The chef-instructors are so dedicated to teaching their students what they know, and they are so knowledgeable. They want to teach you, and they want you to succeed—that is more important to me than anything else. Any school that you go to, or any education that you get, you do have to do the work yourself, but the International Culinary Center’s chef-instructors guide you.
How did you decide to focus on chocolate?
I interned at Ron Ben-Israel’s wedding cake studio and Olive’s at The W Hotel. I enjoyed what I was doing, but I felt like I wasn’t being creative enough. There was an opportunity through ICC for an externship in France, so I went out there to learn chocolates, but it was July and scorching hot, and humid. When I asked the chef if I could learn chocolate, he said that they don’t really work with chocolate in the summer because it would never temper correctly, so they wait until winter. Basically, I didn’t learn anything about chocolate there.
So how did you learn?
When I got back to New York City, it was two weeks before 9/11. After it happened, there were basically no jobs in the corporate world, in the cooking industry—in any industry. So, for five months, I stayed home and practiced chocolate. And I loved it. In school you get 10 recipes: truffles, bonbons, whatever. I kept three, and I tweaked them to add the flavors that I liked.
What do you love about working with chocolate?
Chocolate is completely different from baking; it’s not structured. As long as you know how to temper chocolate, you can be as creative as you want. You can decorate it anyway you want, use any filling, make it any size.
What’s your normal workday like?
Twelve hours a day, seven days a week … Not to say I don’t have much of a life, because I do. But for the first five years, I basically worked seven days a week, and sometimes even more hours than that. It comes down to dedicating yourself.
Do you have any advice for aspiring chefs?
It might sound like a cliché, but you have to follow your passion and dream. If you love what you do, you will succeed, no matter at what age. You just have to love what you do, and patience is very important.
This interview was originally published by the International Culinary Center (ICC), founded as The French Culinary Institute (FCI). In 2020, ICE and ICC came together on one strong and dynamic national platform at ICE's campuses in New York City and Los Angeles. Explore your culinary education where the legacy lives on.