For pastry chefs who want to become the best there are some very tough competitions around the world, but if you have the ambition where do you start?
In March I had the chance to interview the UK Pastry team in Paris after their stunning victory in the European Pastry Cup. As a chef and food writer I wanted to find out about the process and share it with you. First lets meet the team:
Michael Ho Lam is the chocolate candidate and Head Pastry Chef at the 5 star luxury Hotel Café Royal, London.
Nicolas Houchet is the sugar candidate and Deputy Head of Pastry at the renowned Le Cordon Bleu, culinary school in London.
Denis Drame is the President overseeing the team and is Head of Culinary & Development at Classic Fine Foods running the Taste Lab, London.
They also got lots of valuable support from Pastry Chef Martin Chiffers, a past European Pastry Cup winner in 2012 and 2014, who these days is a international pastry consultant and coach who supports aspiring pastry chefs to compete with the best. Also, last but not least, Anne Sophie Bruyere who is their PR Manager who helps raise the profile of the UK team.
Besides being current European Pastry Champions the UK team also competes in the Pastry World Cup (Coupe du Monde de la Pâtisserie ) which takes place every 2 years in Lyon, so no time to relax and savour their achievement, they want to now get onto the podium at the World Cup. This interview talks about both competitions and their journey as elite pastry chefs.
Kevin: For Michael and for Nicholas how did you become members of the UK Pastry Team?
Michael: So for me it is a bit of a long story. The first time I saw the Coupe du Monde de la Pâtisserie was in 2013 in Lyon and I thought it was something quite cool so I wanted to take part in it. I applied for the mentorship programme to help with the team in 2015. And in 2017 I applied for the UK Pastry Open to qualify to join the team. And I’ve been part of the team in Lyon for both 2019 and 2021.
Kevin: So you came fourth in 2019?
Michael: In 2019 we came fifth and 2021 fourth
Nicholas: I met Michael in 2017 and that’s when our partnership started.
Martin: Creating a team is not just about getting highly skilled pastry chefs, it also needs dedication because a lot of the practice takes place in your free time, but you also need a place to practise.
Kevin: Is the Cordon Bleu involved at all?
Martin: Only in the very beginning we used them for a couple of practise sessions. It wasn’t easy, any competitive pastry team needs a permanent base to practice, to compete with the very best.
Kevin: Is the competition London centric?
Martin: We have had people outside of London but because of the Taste Lab this is the perfect training place for us.
Denis: That’s where the difference is. Westminster College obviously it is a college so there are a lot of restrictions such as time of entry, time of leaving and making sure your equipment is locked away when you leave, because that classroom space may be needed.
Martin: Sometimes we would go to the Cordon Bleu and it was like swapping and changing, we couldn’t keep our equipment anywhere. It was very difficult for us to train until the Taste Lab was built.
Kevin: Where is the Taste Lab?
Denis: The Taste Lab is owned by Classic Fine Foods which is one of our main sponsors and I work for them. I run the Taste Lab which is more of a marketing tool, it’s kind of a school where we train pastry chefs. We invite all our clients for some demos and some product testing. Like I said because I run the place there are zero restrictions basically. We can access whenever we want, weekend, anytime.
Kevin: And you don’t have to move the equipment.
Denis: Exactly! That’s a must when you do something like this.
Martin: It’s been a life saver to be honest with you.
Kevin: Perhaps Anne Sophie could give the readers an insight into your role within the UK team?
Anne Sophie: The organisation behind the UK Pastry team is not just about promoting the team but about raising the profile of the contests both with the general public but equally with young culinary students across the UK. Before Covid we reached out to culinary colleges and organised a sugar competition in Birmingham to inspire pastry chefs and possible candidates of the future. A chance for students to interact with us and meet the UK team.
Kevin: Do your employers give you a flexible schedule when you sort out what your practice is going to be?
Michael: Yeah, so personally, I work in a hotel it’s very busy and as soon as I organise my job I can be free anytime. They give me time off if I need to.
Kevin: And they appreciate the prestige that you bring as a member of the UK Pastry Cup Team?
Michael: Yeah, it’s good for the hotel as well. It’s good for the company and the marketing. It’s good for the team as well.
Kevin: Yeah but not all employers are like that. How about you Nicolas?
Nicolas: My situation is a bit more complicated as we have been extremely busy post Covid. We always wish we had more time. There are only so many hours in the day.
Kevin: Who sets the schedule when you decide ok we are going to begin preparation for the European Pastry Cup?
Denis: It is difficult to all get together sometimes so at some point because Michael was too busy he was coming later and you know Martin is in Cornwall. It is not as smooth as we would like it to be. And we were off at some points because of Covid. It has been challenging but that is the same for everyone else.
Kevin : Having just been crowned champions of Europe, how soon now before you start practising for the Pastry world cup (Coupe du Monde de la Pâtisserie) which takes place I believe in January 2023?
Denis: Well I think we are going to take a week to get our energy back, let our victory sink in and then we will get together but it’s pretty much going to be the week after next. I think we need to begin as early as that. We need to get together and do a debrief and then start to plan because it’s coming soon.
Anne-Sophie: The rules are usually released in July the year before. They told us that’s going to be sooner, maybe in the next few weeks.
Kevin: Do they release the rules in English?
Denis: Yes of course, French and English.
Kevin: I remember many years ago, I was helping a friend of mine in a Dutch competition and even though his Dutch girlfriend spoke really good English trying to translate the rules from Dutch to English and get the nuances was sometimes difficult.
Denis: We have to remember that the people who wrote the rules are French but even as a French speaking person when you translate into English it can be quite tricky sometimes, but we all have to deal with it. Then to add they’re doing a great job on the side because I think Natalia who looks after the Coupe du Monde has been absolutely amazing, very communicative and very helpful. I think that was a big plus this year.
Kevin: What sort of mise en place (preparation) are you able to do ahead of the European Pastry Cup and is it the same as you’re allowed to do ahead of the World Cup?
Nicholas: It has been complicated as not much mis en place is allowed.
Martin: Maybe some dry sponge and meringue in the past.
Nicholas: You used to be able to bring some baked items already made to save on time and space but now everything is captured in the tasting. You can still bring moulds and equipment but as far as the tasting goes I think it has been harder than it’s ever been, more challenging because everything is made on the day of the contest.
Denis: Both competitions are designed to take chefs out of our comfort zone. The time challenge of working against the clock. And elements like making complex icecream/frozen desserts, because lets face it none of us are ice cream makers. You know we are pastry chefs. Yes we know how to make ice cream.
Martin: But it’s not our profession.
Denis: Exactly so we need to adapt to the circumstances. I think that’s the reason we have competitions like this, it’s not just about skill.
Kevin: The bowls and the plates the UK team used, are they a special commission?
Denis: No, we chose them based on the desserts that we were creating and felt they were the right fit. Of course we looked at many different plates to arrive at our choice, which is to make our dessert stand out. We saw the evolution when we were struggling for every single bit of equipment or help, and now I’m not saying it is not difficult but it is easier because of the surroundings.
Denis: I think we are the first one in the world to really have the support we have now because of those years of our work.
Anne-Sophie: The consistency is because we have a club and a committee which supports the team and includes people in the industry who would like to raise the profile of the club.
Kevin: Is the provision for the UK team much more aligned with what the French do for their chefs?
Denis: We do much more.
Anne-Sophie: We have the best accommodation and support.
Denis: The French don’t have a kitchen where they can practise every time based on whoever is their president, that’s where they decide but we know who ever is going to come in the future teams the Taste Lab is the place where we will practise.
Kevin: What advice would anyone here give to a culinary student in the UK who wants to follow in your footsteps?
Martin: Be prepared to work hard.
Denis: It is a lot of sacrifices.
Kevin: If a UK culinary college has a star student who is excelling at pastry, would you tell them to get in touch with the Taste Lab?
Nicholas: Yeah, for mentees and pastry stars first and foremost. For example, this is how Michael started and how many candidates started as well. This is how potential candidates get to see what is involved which I think is very important rather than jumping straight in.
Martin: You see the process and the struggles.
Michael: People who work in the food industry already work very long hours, often antisocial hours. So adding competition work to your schedule can be very stressful sometimes. It often means practising on your days off. Some pastry chefs are very good but they just want to do their job and go home. I appreciate that as well. It is a very big commitment to get into the European and Pastry World Cup. And you have to remember it’s not just about yourself but your partner and family as well.
Denis: It is pretty much a seven day operation basically because you’re working your five days at work but then those two days where you want to relax you’re in the lab.
Kevin: Denis, would you please explain your role within the team?
Denis: I am the team president and before that the manager
Anne-Sophie: The team is comprised of a President / Manager and three candidates: an ice carver, a chocolatier and sugar sculptor
Kevin: So they still have ice carving?
Anne-Sophie: For the European cup and the Continetal selection you just need to have chocolate and sugar. Then you bring the ice carver if you are selected to go to the final. Me, I am Promotion Manager so I am just part of the club. Martin and ten others are part of the committee. We organise all around and behind the scenes.
Kevin: It doesn’t take 10 hours to do an ice carving, do they have pastry skills as well? Will they do other things in the competition?
Denis: They will do the ice carving but they will most of the time carve the chocolate block and then they will be very much be involved in the tasting.
Michael: The sugar and chocolate pieces take a much longer time, the ice carving normally takes two and a half hours to three hours maximum, so they have more time to help. They can be helping with the sugar, the chocolate and the tasting.
Kevin: At the 2009 competition the Dutch team had a James Bond theme and they bought out their display pieces, which were absolutely stunning. Unfortunately in front of live TV cameras the sugar display fell over and the huge audience fell silent.
Denis: I was there!
Martin: It happens quite often!
Kevin: The crowd were absolutely horrified.
Martin: One time we broke every piece! We broke our ice, chocolate and sugar on the competition but we stuck it back together and we still got sixth place.
Kevin: I wanted to thank you all very much for your time. Obviously there is some good chemistry between the guys.
Anne-Sophie: Yeah, Martin was President three times he won the European cup. I was working with the Pastry World Cup too at the time in France. We are all very close. The aim is not being on the podium the aim is winning! So we need to find money and candidates.
Kevin: Sorry, one final question from me. In addition to your scores do you get any kind of feedback at the end?
Martin: Normally there is a breakdown of the score with all the jury marks.
Denis: Well we have some good feedback.
Nicholas: And things to improve.
Denis: Yeah, because those guys you see with the blue, white and red colours they are tough.
Nicholas: You’ve got to take it on the chin and sometimes it can be quite bitter sweet.
Martin: But this is how you win. If you don’t push and don’t get the feedback to say if you’re not good enough then you won’t win.
Denis: And this year is a lot of pressure because like I said we’ve been going up and up the in the last 12 years. The only step next year is the podium; we don’t have the choice we have to get them there.
Interview with the UK Pastry team Ⓒ Kevin Ashton 2022
*I would like to give a special mention to my wife Sophie Ashton who spent hours and hours listening to the recording and transcribing the interview for me. The interview took place in a less than ideal public space.,