Behind the Blow Torch with Ireland’s Top Pastry Chefs
We all associate sweet treats with celebration. Each one of us marked our birthdays over the years with a centerpiece candle-studded cake, no wedding is complete without a towering baked offering and special meals more often than not end on a sweet note. With this in mind, isn’t it time we celebrate the chefs who put their all into ensuring these occasions become sweet memories?
With a collective interest in the world of cakes and goodies developing in Ireland over the last few years, who are the people behind the patisserie? What drew them into the pastry kitchen and how has the pastry chef’s role evolved in Ireland? Can they handle the heat in the kitchen or is it an easier path than life on the pass? I asked five of Ireland’s top pastry chefs to paint a picture of life in the sweet spot.
Chef Shane Smith is a lovable TV regular, like Neven before him, Shane has proven there is something sweet in the water in Cavan. His food is his personality on a plate: playful, sweet, sharply dressed and most importantly, loads of fun. He is living the dream in Airfield Estate having spent the last few years as head pastry chef in Dublin favourite Fallon and Byrne.
Shane knew his love for food was strong from a young age – laughing as he recalls attempting to make a pavlova at age 13 with disastrous results. Despite leaving his home reeking of burnt eggs for a week, his passion for cooking remained.
The inkling towards cooking was always there, I definitely was that way inclined more than the sports side of things.
At the age of just 27, Aoife Noonan has recently left two Michelin Starred Restaurant Patrick Guilbaud to take up the prestigious title of Executive Pastry Chef for Luna, Butcher Grill, Dillingers, 777 and Super Miss Sue. The Luna dessert trolley experience just got taken up several notches with her gifted hands behind it.
Aoife credits the development of her flair for pastry to her years under Guilbaud’s executive chef Guillame, who taught her pastry allowed you to be more playful and creative in the kitchen, but her love for food dates back to getting hooked on TV cookery shows and cookbooks as a child.
Paula Stakelum is the Queen of tarts at Ashford Castle, at one with nature out foraging for inspiration in the opulent grounds of the sprawling estate. Paula ensures that all those who walk through the opulent doors of Ashford leave with sugar-sponsored smiles on their faces but once dreamed of earning a living as an accountant crunching numbers rather than feuilletine.
Darren Hogarty lives on the cutting edge of pastry. He speaks with such eloquence on the topic of what it means for food to be Irish, making him the ace in Chapter One’s deck. In Cathal Brugha Street at 16, he knew since then cooking was for him, although he has ‘no earthly idea where it came from’.
His pastry journey includes a twist of fate. A promising chef at 21, filled with an inexplicable passion for cooking from a young age, he discovered he had developed a severe seafood allergy. Did he feel hard done by having the decision to specialise in pastry taken out of his hands? Not in the slightest he notes, feeling it was in fact a twist of fate which led him ‘exactly where he needed to be’. Going on to become the Head Pastry Chef for Gordon Ramsay’s London Restaurants at the age of 27 before returning to Chapter One, Darren had clearly found his calling.
In a similar vein, Aoife never set out to become a pastry chef, or a chef at all for that matter. Leaving school she knew one thing – that she loved food. She didn’t know how that would translate into a career when she enrolled in DIT’s Culinary Arts Program, feeling slightly hard done by, as she laughs recalling having received a D in Leaving Certificate Home Economics, her favourite subject.
For TV favourite Louise Lennox, who is dyslexic, the desire to become a chef came at a very young age, from an emotive place. When given a homework assignment to make a cake in primary school, a love for food was born.
I wasn’t good academically, I was always way more creative and for the first time I felt top of the class and it gave me self-belief to get me through secondary school
She was drawn to pastry as she is a very colourful person with a genuine interest in science, which she can get creative with in the world of pastry.
On the topic of pastry chefs remaining in the shadows with the executive often being attributed all glory and honor, Darren feels that pastry chefs don’t get the recognition they deserve – calling them ‘the unsung heroes’ of the kitchen. Each meal begins and ends with the work of the pastry chef, the crucial moments where lasting impressions are made, the same point Shane highlighted when asked why a pastry chef’s work is so important.
It is possible, Darren believes, to gain personal acclaim and recognition as a pastry chef and step out from the executive chef’s shadow but it takes a concerted effort. Participating in patisserie competitions is one way to achieve this and ensures that pastry chefs don’t fall into the trap of ‘boxing themselves in’. Darren was the first Irish person to win the Valrhona Patisserie Championship, followed by the Aoife’s win in 2014. Darren explicitly states that Aoife has spearheaded the rise of the pastry chef in Ireland, and speaks with great admiration for her efforts to put herself out there, move up in the pastry world and encourage others to improve.
Aoife attributes the phenomenon of pastry chefs finally gaining their own profiles to social media, which she has committed to utilising as a platform for her masterpieces – ‘it just plants the seed that these dishes are out there and you also need to put yourself out there’ she says. Shane welcomes the advent of social media and its effect on today’s pastry chefs noting that they are ‘coming out of the woodwork, using Twitter and Facebook to share their creations and get a bit more personal recognition for the work they do.’
As the architects of plated art, I wondered how important it is for pastry chefs to be artistic creative types by nature. As the head of pastry in a Michelin star establishment, battenburgs won’t cut it for Darren. He has no tolerance for style over substance and feels that in the case of some pastry chefs presentation is prioritised over palate with dishes which look colourful and inviting but taste of nothing – there has to be a balance, he says.
This is a point with which Aoife concurred wholly, stating the obvious truth that you have to eat the dish at the end of the day and while it may take a beautiful photo, the lasting impression comes from the flavour. She feels that pictures on Twitter and Instagram can be very deceiving and you can come away very disappointed. ‘Taste is the number one thing’ she affirms.
Is the word desserts just stressed spelled backwards? A nasty misconception of pastry chefs can be that it is the preserve of the weaker, with less stressful, more sociable hours. Hearing about lugging 25 kg bags of flour into the kitchen and early starts, any truth to this notion is definitely dispelled. Each chef notes that they endure a different time frame of stress but their work is overall no less pressurised. The pressure is merely different from that of a chef working an evening service on the mains section for example. Louise notes that constant deadlines for tasks loom early in the day and you work against the clock. Darren and Shane agree that service as a whole is slightly easier on pastry chefs but this is balanced out by having to hit targets all day with mise en place duties – ‘you have to hit the ground running’ Darren says.
Aoife tells me 75 to 80 hour weeks were standard for her during her time at Patrick Guilbaud and says ‘it may be cooler in the pastry section in some kitchens’ but it is no less intense or physically demanding nor is she immune from the heavy lifting duties, ‘you don’t get to hide in your little corner making ice cream!’ she laughs. But she says with conviction, that the hours don’t phase her. Darren estimates that his own hours level out at around 60 per week, maximum. Paula feels that ‘the hours are long, but they don’t feel long… when you are creating new desserts, you don’t feel time.’
Shane has had to adjust to being up and ready to go before dawn noting that he is far from a morning person. In Chapter One, Darren keeps the same long hours as the rest of the kitchen team, proving that there is no such thing as an easier ride for the pastry section.
But can pastry chefs have an entrepreneurial streak and make it outside the kitchen if they choose to? Louise certainly believes so and the proof is in the pudding with her, having veered away from the restaurant kitchen completely. Taking a leap of faith and opening the pop-up Cupcake Cottage in Airfield, Louise followed her instinct that there was something for her beyond restaurants. Later she would win fans with her bubbly humour on TV3’s The Restaurant and she now has added another string to her bow, encouraging children to bake with her new Food Oppi initiative. Proving pastry chefs can branch out, she has her finger in many pies indeed.
She is definitely sugar and spice and knows the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach, specifically targeting her beau’s sweet tooth in the early days. ‘We ordered 3 cakes on our first date and I had him hook, line and sinker!’ she laughs heartily. Both Louise and Shane have capitalized on the growth of the Irish sweet tooth by taking their sweet skills to the TV screen and this collective sweet tooth is at an all time high, says Darren, mentioning that dedicated sugar shacks like Aungier Danger reflect the turning tide.
On a more serious note, I was keen to find out if there is a perceptible gender stereotype associated with pastry chefs. Louise feels there should be more women choosing to be chefs, at all stations, but admits ‘you have to have a stern back bone’ recalling an incident of a hot potato being flung at a junior chef by a furious executive chef in her restaurant days. Aoife embraces the fact that she can express her femininity with delicate pastry creations but thinks pastry is by no means the preserve of the woman in the kitchen, nor did she ever feel ‘confined’ to pastry as a chef who happens to be female.
It depends on the person – regardless of whether you are male or female, if you want to do a good job and succeed then you will.
Paula concurs, saying ‘for me, gender doesn’t matter, it’s about being creative, no matter what sex!’ Shane however did note that there was a preconception when he started out that pastry was a women’s domain. Mentioning that it can be “back-breaking, hard, pressurised work”, Louise makes the point that it is as demanding a job as that of a doctor or nurse, for females and males alike. Darren feels the pastry path is a conscious choice and can’t imagine that any pastry chef chose that path because of their gender.
While their views vary on many things, there was an enduring truth across the board – pastry chefs are perfectionists. Paula attributes her need for ‘straight lines and perfection’ to her mentor Stefan Matz. Louise affirms that a pastry chef must have attention to detail and above all else be meticulous in their work. Aoife will never cut corners and likes things done right, preferring things in their proper place and organised to a tee.
At the end of the day, what is really the driving force behind the desire to spend long hours plating perfectly precise patisserie? The common thread with pastry chefs appears to be one simple thing – they all have genuine love for what they do but more importantly…they generally have a massive sweet tooth of course. But is this sugar craving only ever satisfied with high end dessert creations? ‘Of course not’, Darren laughs before heading back to intricately spray paint graffiti on chocolate – ‘I absolutely love Kinder Buenos!’.
Growing up with the name Darina, I was constantly asked if I could cook like my namesake. With that (and greed) as the ultimate motivators, I quickly realised that home-baked goods make excellent bribes and an obsession was born! With bachelor’s and master’s degrees in law I undertook a PhD, but a preference for cookbooks to textbooks persisted. As a (self-confessed!) demon in the kitchen, I am the only person to have contested both Masterchef and the Great Irish Bake off, which fuelled my desire to set my focus on food in a serious way. Working with The Taste allows me to satiate this craving and marries my food fascination with my love of writing and ranting. Follow me as I share my food adventures and hopefully inspire others to indulge their passion for cooking and food in the process!