Working in the restaurant industry is already an intense job, what with the long hours, hot, crowded kitchens and demands from both front and back of the house.
Throw in working at one of the most celebrated restaurants in the Midwest and recently being named an Eater Young Guns semifinalist – and the pressure is definitely on.
Oh, balancing all of this during Ramadan – the Islamic Holy Month that calls for abstaining from food and drink from sunrise to sunset – and a promising chef has her work cut out for her.
For Lena Sareini, pastry chef at Selden Standard in Detroit’s Midtown neighborhood, it’s all in a day’s work.
The 24-year-old Dearborn resident dished with Tostada Magazine on how she got her start in pastries, her Instagram-famous father, Fred, whose foodie pics are a source of friendly rivalry in the Sareini family, how she keeps her cool in the kitchen during Ramadan and more.
Tostada Mag: Tell me about your specialties.
Lena Sareini: I’m originally classically trained in French cuisine at Schoolcraft College’s baking and pastry program, but ever since I graduated and started working at Selden, I started adopting their style, which emphasizes on what’s fresh now and works with a number of Michigan farms. So really, right now my focus is on seasonality. These days, we’re doing a lot with strawberries, rhubarb, beets. For example, we have a chocolate and beet tart. Chocolate has that earthy undertone, which plays so well with beets.
TM: You have any favorite pastries?
LS: (Laughs) That’s like asking a mother to choose a favorite child. Everything has its own shine. What I like about pastries is the research that goes into it. There’s an ongoing learning curve. So no, there’s not any specific desserts, I just enjoy the chase of learning more.
TM: Can you remember your your earliest memories baking?
LS: I’ve always had a creative drive, was always a weird kid, and my parents have always been into food too, so its all kind of came together. Grandma was always into baking and I would help her make cookies. It was like that classic American picture, of me licking the spatula. With my creative, artistic background, I wanted to do something coincide with it. I got lucky because I knew at a young age what I wanted to do.
TM: Yeah, your father is actually a bit of a celebrity around Detroit. What’s that like?
LS: (Laughs) People act weird around him and he always has to take so many photos everywhere we go, so it’s embarrassing to go out in public.
TM: And your father is Arab American and his photos focus a lot on food in Dearborn, which has a huge Arab American population. How does your culture inform your style?
LS: I guess in Arab families, all of their social gatherings revolve around food. Everytime I show up to a family gathering, and I come empty handed, I get my ass handed to me.
TM: So your family observes Ramadan. What’s your experience with baking during Ramadan? How do you make it through the day?
LS: It’s so hard, it’s a struggle. All day without food, I have no energy, no patience and I’m just counting down all the things I have to do before I can go home and sleep. People are cool with me at work, they try not to give me a hard time, but it’s not easy. It’s a big test of self control.
TM: What are some foods you eat during Suhoor that help keep you energized while you’re in a hot kitchen all day?
LS: I drink so much water before fasting starts, because that’s the most important thing, especially working in a kitchen. Also coconut water. I just try to stay replenished as much as possible, with lots of lighter, healthier food. I eat lots of veggies.
TM: Selden Standard has won tons of accolades since it opened. What’s it like working in one of Detroit’s hottest restaurants?
LS: I’ve been there about two years and I love it. Sometimes I don’t even notice all the hard work, I just feel like I get to hang out with my friends all day. All the great stuff we put out, I love everything on the menu. (Laughs) I’m not even just being biased, because I would eat there even if I didn’t work there.
TM: If you weren’t making pastries, what would you be doing?
LS: It would be a very sad life, first of all. I have the most passion in this field, it’s the main thing that drives me. But I also have this other side of me that’s interested in the earth and the unknown. So either astronaut or marine biologist.
You can find Sareini on Instagram @lenapatissier
(All photos by Rizwan Lokhandwala. Check out more of his work on Instagram @naaksaafkur)