If James Campbell had gone straight to college from school, there’s no doubt he would have been a high-flying accountant by now. As it happened, he missed his place on the accountancy course by a month and was told he would have to wait a year to start again. His parents insisted he filled the time by getting a job - a move that would change the course of his professional life.
Now, 14 years after admitting he couldn’t even boil an egg, he is the head pastry chef at one of London’s finest hotels, the five-star Mandarin Oriental, Hyde Park, Knightsbridge. Heads of state, business leaders, celebrities and even royalty have all stayed in the hotel, with its Michelin-starred restaurant, Foliage..
"It’s fabulous," says Campbell taking in the opulent surroundings. "I guess I wasn’t meant to be an accountant." But even he is surprised at how his unexpected career has taken off: "It has all escalated at such a rapid speed, but I want to carry on to see where it takes me."
His journey started at the five-star Cameron House hotel on the shores of Loch Lomond, close to where he grew up in Glasgow. That first day, he remembers, was a bit of a shock to the system. "I finished at 2pm, thinking that was it for the day, when I was told my shift started again at 5pm. I was stunned."
But he quickly adapted to the long hours. After working his way around the different food areas in the kitchen as a trainee, Campbell moved into the pastry section and soon discovered where his culinary heart lay. "I just fell in love with it," he says. "I enjoy the scientific and creative aspect of pastry-making. You have artistic licence to be creative, but you also have to work within certain boundaries and be meticulous about how you use ingredients."
He continued to fine-tune his skills at other hotels in Scotland, before moving south and later taking over as group head pastry chef for Gary Rhodes; the celebrity chef owns two Michelin-star restaurants in London and has brasseries in Edinburgh and Manchester. He worked for the top chef for five years before moving to the Mandarin Oriental Hyde Park nearly three years ago as a senior sous chef, taking over as head pastry chef in March.
learning on the job
To get to this level, Campbell has had to work extremely hard - perhaps even harder than most, because he did not go to catering college and had no previous baking experience. So everything he learnt was on the job and he proved a good pupil.
One of his role models was another Michelin-star chef, Marco Pierre White. "I am a great fan of his. I like his style of cooking and his attention to detail," says Campbell. And it is Campbell’s own meticulous attention to detail, hard work and consistency that has also set him apart - plus an understanding of what people want and value for money. As he says: "In order to compete at this level, you have got to be at the top of your game."
Campbell, who is a pastry judge for the Academy of Culinary Arts’ annual excellence awards, has a team of 12 pastry chefs. The kitchen has two bakers in its employment at the moment who get involved in the pastry production, though new recruits tend to come from chef backgrounds.
"I’ve worked with pastry almost all through my career but I’ve evolved into a pastry chef since I came here," he says. "It’s an area that takes a while to get used to - it’s very challenging at first. I don’t think there’s necessarily a divide between pastry chefs and bakers. But I think you certainly become a more successful pastry chef if you have an understanding of baking."
For that reason he believes there’s no great divide between pastry chefery and bakery. "There’s certainly a difference in the way we approach the job and our way of thinking, but as a baker, you have all the fundamental characteristics to become a very successful pastry chef in terms of timing and understanding of product. In both, you have to be very precise and have an artistic flair. Both have very similar components to the make up of the job and there’s no reason why you can’t be as good as one as you are at the other. If you’re a born and bread baker, a bit of pastry work could broaden your horizons and give you more options in the future."
Being part of an international group, Campbell has visited Prague and Kuala Lumpur in 2006 and will be visiting the patisseries of Paris next week to gain inspiration for new pastry products, which are developed as business dictates. "We created a couple of new desserts for Christmas," he reveals.
Everything is baked as late as possible for ultimate freshness, which Campbell says is unusual for a hotel. Lemon tarts for a big function, for instance, would be baked a few hours before serving, rather than kept for two or three days. "We are meticulous about the products," he says. "Everything is made fresh on the day. If it is not used, it is not kept; nothing is carried over. It does take a lot of advanced planning," he admits, "but it means the quality of the products is so much better."
For breakfast, the hotel handles up to 200 à la carte covers in the Park restaurant as well as 100 room-service orders. These include homemade brioches and croissants. A further 120 plated desserts are served at both lunch and dinner and there are 120 covers a day in the Michelin-starred Foliage restaurant. Campbell also has to factor in last-minute orders and special dietary requests. For Jewish halal functions, the whole kitchen is stripped back the night before and re-built.
Campbell admits: "It can be demanding; people are paying a lot and expect a lot in return. But if you have the right equipment, the right tools and the right people, I wouldn’t say it was easy, but it is surprisingly straightforward."
One of the highlights of the day is afternoon tea. Diners can savour a selection of savoury, sweet and baked items. These include sandwiches - from cucumber to smoked salmon - to cakes and pastries, such as Sachertorte, strawberry tarts, petits fours and éclairs. There are also traditional scones with clotted cream, served with wild strawberry compote and rose petal jam. The chocolate and sugarwork is created in-house, as are celebration cakes.
Developing new recipes
Campbell and his staff are encouraged to come up with new recipes. "Every couple of days I go to one side and play about with ingredients," he says. "But I also try and get the guys involved. It is useful having so many different nationalities working in the kitchen, because you get an authentic feel for the product."
Any technical challenges in producing such large volumes of products are met with state-of-the-art equipment in the marble-topped kitchen. Some were installed as part of the hotel’s £57 million refurbishment in 2000. These include a three-deck oven and the Koma computer-run fridge system.
As the baking area in the grand Victorian building is small, a few products have to be bought in. Items such as breads for the restaurants are made by specialist companies to specific recipes and delivered daily.
For such a high-pressured environment, the kitchen seems surprisingly relaxed, unlike the aggressive antics favoured by some celebrity chefs. "There is none of that nonsense," says Campbell. "Inevitably mistakes will happen, but if you give your absolute best and are big enough to put your hands up if something doesn’t go right, you make it better the next time."
Maintaining such exacting standards means having a good relationship with your staff, and Campbell says he has the best. "I am blessed to have such a good team. Chef Nichols is also supportive and understanding of what we need to run a pastry operation of this quality. It is very fulfilling to know that, when you come to work, you are with people who are on the same wavelength, who want to do better all the time, and never want to stand still. It makes it challenging but also very rewarding."