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My life on a plate: Copenhagen pastry chef, Cathleen Hall

Cathleen Hall tells Katy McGuinness about her New York training and the guilty pleasure of doughnuts


Cathleen Hall

Cathleen Hall

Cathleen Hall

Cathleen Hall, 27, grew up in Monkstown, Co Dublin and worked in New York before moving to Copenhagen two and a half years ago. She is the head pastry chef at Alice, set up by Noma alumnus Anders Lorenz in the residential neighbourhood of Amager. Recently her croissants were named the best in the city in a blind tasting.

Did you grow up in a family where food was important?

My mum was from Puerto Rico. And all the women on her side of the family are wonderful cooks. She made the most amazing desserts, and at weekends we would eat pancakes and waffles for breakfast. When she came to Ireland she adapted her cooking to the ingredients that were available and taught herself lots of new recipes; she had a great collection of cookbooks and was always tearing recipes out of magazines and newspapers.

What's your most vivid food memory from childhood?

I still have a book, Mister Cookie Baker, that I had when I was a child - it's very colourful, with lots of glazes and sprinkles. I used to bake from it with my mum each Christmas.

What was the first thing you learned to cook?

Tall stacks of American fluffy pancakes with maple syrup.

Did you always know that you wanted to be a chef/ work in food?

From the age of 15, I knew that I wanted to be a pastry chef. I had a summer job in Bake My Cake in Booterstown down the road from where I went to school. Everyone from school spent way too much time in that shop! I went to Trinity to study Italian and classical studies because I thought it would get me to Italy, but it was not for me and I left after a year. I knew that I wanted to bake full-time. I moved to New York and enrolled in a six-month intensive course in the pastry school at the Institute of Culinary Education. Afterwards I took up an internship at the Gramercy Tavern, and went on to work there.

Who has been the biggest influence on the way that you cook?

At the Gramercy Tavern in New York I worked with an amazing group of women pastry chefs who became my best friends and my biggest influence. We still share recipes on Google Drive.

How did you come to work at Alice?

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Initially, Anders set Alice up as an ice cream and coffee shop. He has worked in restaurants around Copenhagen for years and taught himself how to make ice cream. The winters are brutal in Copenhagen and he didn't really have a winter plan. When we met, we got on immediately and I suggested that I make pastries and bread for him to sell in the winter when people didn't want to eat so much ice cream. I was eager to learn how to make laminated pastries such as croissants and he was happy to give me the space to experiment. That was two years ago and we started with a very small production but now we've taken over the space next door where we're selling bread and pastries, natural wine and local cheese and charcuterie.

What's your signature dish?

Since my sister Naomi bought me a pasta machine, it's been pasta carbonara. (I have another sister, Soma, who is definitely the foodie of the family.) And croissants. I make a lot of croissants.

Is there any ingredient that you hate?

Licorice. It's everywhere in Denmark. I can't stand it.

Is there anything that you love to eat that you'd prefer your friends didn't know about?

Cheap jelly doughnuts from the supermarket. They are my go-to indulgence.

What's the strangest thing you've ever eaten?

At Noma during the seafood season I had jellyfish. The texture was how you would think it would be. I wasn't crazy about it.

What's your guilty (food) pleasure?

Copenhagen has so many wonderful bakeries, I love visiting them and trying out all the different pastries when I'm not working. My favourites are Hahnemann's, Hart and Juno.

What kitchen gadget could you not live without and what's the most overrated?

A metal bench scraper for getting the dough off the surface, cutting butter and general cleaning up. I can't imagine ever needing an avocado slicer.

What current cooking trend do you dislike the most?

I don't feel strongly about trends. Watching people make banana bread and sourdough during lockdown made me happy.

What's your desert island cookbook?

Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat by Samin Nosrat. I recommend it to everyone. I loved her show on Netflix, she seems so charming and approachable.

What three things do you always keep in your fridge?

Butter, eggs and jam. I just made some raspberry jam; it's delicious.

What's your go-to store-cupboard meal?

A simple vegetable curry with coconut milk.

What was the last great meal that you ate?

I visited a friend who's a pastry chef at her house and we had dumplings from the Chinese restaurant, salad and home-made sorbet. It was so good.

What's your favourite restaurant in the world?

Estela in New York. The food is so simple and delicious. I worked at another restaurant in the same group, Flora Bar in the Met Breuer, so I got to go a few times.

What do you think the impact of Covid-19 will be on restaurants?

I'm hoping that good things come out of all this. So many of the things we do in the restaurant industry are wrong, perhaps it's an opportunity to change them? I'd like to see people treated fairly, work normal hours that allow for better work/life balance, and be paid a living wage. I also think there will be a shift away from fine dining to more community-based food. I really hope that happens.

Do you eat breakfast?

I love breakfast. I usually have a sourdough bun with butter and cheese or jam, and a mug of Barry's tea. I get my dad to send it over from home. I use tea bags, not leaves.

What are you going to have for dinner tonight?

I'm not sure… my boyfriend, Tobias, is cooking. He's not a chef but he is a very good cook.

And what will you drink with that?

Some rosé I think. It's summer, after all, and rosé goes with everything.

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