Queen of tarts: Meet the chef behind afternoon tea at The Shelbourne
Pastry chefs have been dubbed the 'unsung heroes' of the Irish restaurant scene, writes Jillian Bolger, but with afternoon tea now being a sell-out affair, it looks like this culinary art is finally getting the recognition it deserves.
How many chefs could you name in Irish restaurants? Anyone with a TV presence - Neven Maguire, Kevin Dundon, Gary O'Hanlon, Catherine Fulvio, Paul Flynn, Dylan McGrath - is probably highest on your list followed by those with cookbook deals. Many of us know the chefs at the country's top fine-dining restaurants too, so people like Kevin Thornton, Ross Lewis, Oliver Dunne, Guillaume Lebrun and JP McMahon are the names we'd think of first.
Most of us know the name of the head chef at our favourite restaurant too, whether it's a casual neighbourhood place or somewhere we return to for special occasions, but how many of us know who makes the killer desserts we order time after time?
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 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 in luxury hotels each day at afternoon tea? 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 name-checked 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. The Castleknock native always wanted to be a pastry chef, ever since growing up around a grandmother and mother who baked. She spent two years training in Cathal Brugha Street, but left to work in restaurants before landing a job with The Four Seasons Hotel in Ballsbridge in 2004.
"I worked with an amazing chef called Franck (stet) Riffaud. The executive pastry chef, he was brilliant and I learnt absolutely everything from him over two years, from chocolate work to making croissants."
Part of a team of 11 there, Katie admits she is yet to work with anyone as talented as Riffaud.
"I'd go in on my day off and work for free," she laughs. "If you wanted to do chocolate back then, you'd nearly have to go to England and pay a fortune, whereas Franck would cajole us into coming in for the day and teach us something new. I learnt everything on that amazing team."
Katie has been at The Shelbourne for almost eight 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."
That's some quantity of exquisitely decorated pastries, scones and breads to be made from scratch, daily.
The high numbers demonstrate the public's growing appreciation for the art of pastry skills, a view shared by Paul Kelly at the five-star Merrion Hotel, where the lavish Art Tea afternoon tea is a bestselling 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 in 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 before moving on. It was probably one of the toughest transitions ever, from the hot kitchen, doing starters, mains, fish and vegetables, to pastry where everything had to be weighed precisely and presentation was massively involved."
Paul was in at the deep end but after finding his feet fell in love with the job.
"I have a massive respect for what the lads do in the hot kitchen, but to be true to myself, I knew this was what I wanted to do. Artistic ability came into play, my own drive to always push myself, and I never went back to the hot kitchen."
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 or pastry shop and Paul Kelly is the closest thing we have to a celebrity pastry chef. We do, however, love our pastries and desserts and it's clear the dining public gleans much pleasure from their hard work.
From Chapter One to Guilbaud's, L'Ecrivain to The Greenhouse, The Marker Hotel to Restaurant Forty One at Residence, Brioche in Ranelagh to Delahunt on Camden Street, our city is packed with 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."