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JILLIAN BOLGER wonders why we so rarely see the work of highly skilled pastry chefs credited by including their names on menus
Over many years as a food writer I’ve always been struck at how many of us rank our dessert as the highlight of a meal. It’s not always those of us with the sweetest teeth either. That sensational citron tart, that amazing crème brûlée, that luscious chocolate fondant: they’re often the thing we remember most about dining out.
Yet how many of know the name of a single pastry chef?
The reality is that while top class pastry chefs create incredible desserts every day very few of us have a notion whose jaw-dropping treats we are tucking into. And what about the pastry chefs whose exquisite bite-sized confections delight hundreds of guests at afternoon tea in luxury hotels each day? Does anyone know who they are and do we even care?
TV chef Gary O’Hanlon, of The Restaurant, always names his pastry chefs on the menu at VM Restaurant at Viewmount House, where he cooks, but this practice isn’t commonplace. Colleagues like restaurant critic Tom Doorley believe good pastry chefs are ‘unsung heroes’, while Katy McGuinness, restaurant critic at The Irish Independent shares my opinion that these ‘neglected’ chefs should be namechecked on menus.
But what do the pastry chefs think?
Katie McLoughlin, executive pastry chef at The Shelbourne Hotel, isn’t fussed about making a name for herself, but does admit that a little recognition might be nice.
She has been at The Shelbourne for ten years and manages a team of eight in the pastry section. The hotel is celebrated for its afternoon tea, something she and her team can take much credit for. “When we started out we were maybe doing 20 covers at afternoon tea in The Lord Mayor’s Lounge. Now, on a Saturday, we sell out and do a minimum of 140. Some Saturdays we’ll serve 170 people.”
The high numbers demonstrate our growing appreciation for the art of pastry, a view shared by Paul Kelly at the five-star Merrion Hotel, where the lavish Art Tea afternoon tea is a best selling experience. Best known as a judge on The Great Irish Bake Off, Wexford-born Paul agrees that pastry chefs are unsung heroes. “I would love to see the day when people go into a restaurant or hotel here because they know so-and-so is the pastry chef and they want to taste their signature tart or soufflé because they’ve heard so much about it.”
When Paul started out there was no such thing as a pastry chef in Ireland. “No one wanted to do it,” he recalls. “It was too technical. Weighing up was a hassle, equipment was a hassle and the knowledge behind it was a hassle. It was always someone who had no idea what they were doing put into the corner of a kitchen and expected to produce something nice.”
Paul found his calling by accident while working in the Park Hotel Kenmare. “For my fourth and final season I was asked if I’d come back as a pastry chef and I thought it would be nice to give it a go. It was probably one of the toughest transitions ever, from the hot kitchen to pastry where everything had to be weighed precisely and presentation was massively involved.”
In Europe a pastry chef is a seriously respected profession and Paul looks to the continent, especially France, for trends and inspiration. “They’re like gods out there! They go through a long period of training specific to pastry and nothing else. It’s tough getting to the top but you can really establish yourself over there and you’re so well respected, both by peers and the public.”
In Ireland we may have favourite bakeries and cafés but we’ve never really embraced the idea of an amazing patisserie and Paul Kelly is the closest thing we have to a celebrity pastry chef. We do, however, love our cakes, pastries and desserts.
Everywhere from Chapter One to Campagne, L’Ecrivain to Luna and OX to The Greenhouse you’ll find gifted pastry chefs, but will we ever get to the stage where we know their names? “I hope so,” admits Katie, who is keen to state how important her whole team is. “It is nice to get some recognition but I think pastry chefs are quieter by nature, always tucked away in the background working hard.”
Jillian Bolger is an award-winning editor and journalist specialising in food and travel writing. A member of the Irish Food Writers’ Guild and former editor of Food & Wine magazine (1999-2003,) she writes for The Irish Independent, Image, Food & Wine Magazine, Image Interiors and The Herald and is editor of Irish Brides magazine. She has worked with Georgina Campbell’s ireland-guide.com since 2008 years and is the Dublin Editor. Jillian has won several awards for her travel writing and holds an honours degree in the Arts. Her love of travel has seen her live in Australia, Sri Lanka, the USA and Germany. She lives in Dublin with her husband and three young children. Follow her on Twitter at @JillianBolger