How many hotels and restaurants in the UK can boast of having a patisserie? The answer is not many. There is clearly not a tradition for it in this country - unlike in Europe. But then again, maybe it’s quality and not quantity that counts.
The Homage Patisserie at the five-star Waldorf Hilton Hotel in London, is set in a room full of sumptuous rich fabrics, period furniture and restored Waring and Gillow wood panelling (the cabinet-makers to Queen Victoria). The centrepiece is a large ’jewel box’ - a glass counter full of fine pastries and cakes.
No wonder head pastry chef Colin Bennett knows how lucky he is. "Not many hotels or restaurants have their own patisserie, so it’s like the cherry on the cake for me," he says. "I know it’s not ’mine’, but it feels like my own room."
The patisserie opened about two years ago, following a £35 million refurbishment of the hotel. The new ’room’, bar and Grand Salon were all designed to pay homage to the grand cafés of Europe.
It was also about the same time that Bennett started his employment there. He had already worked as head pastry chef for five years at top hotels and restaurants in London. But this was different. "I’ve been given carte blanche to do what I want, which is great," he says. "As long as I’m making money, I’m left alone."
Lined up in the glass counter are eight of his recipes. Each one is made fresh daily, in batches of up to 40, by his team of four; Bennett prefers to make small frequent runs, rather than cook big batches.
He changes the menu every season, getting inspiration from seasonal fruit and nuts and any new products on the market. He also comes up with new ideas on how to cook the pastries, as well as their presentation, colour and shape.
"I am always trying to source moulds," he says. "I look through supplier catalogues, but they are so difficult to get in England. I have to go to Paris to get them or pick them up on my travels."
On display in the cabinet, when British Baker visited the patisserie, was an array of golden colour to reflect the shades of autumn. The pastries include a Pear and Almond Financier, which he made by putting a skewer through the pear and sitting it on top of a square mould. When the frangipane, which was already inside the mould, cooks, it rises and sets around the bottom of the pear. The skewer is then taken out.
For the White Chocolate and Black Cherry Diplomat, instead of making a normal pastry cream, he substituted parts of the milk with purée to make a flavoured pastry, then added layers of sponge and poached cherries.
There is also a Classic Round Strawberry Tartlet on the menu, as well as a Chocolate and Hazelnut Truffle, a Viennese Sachertorte with a chocolate spiral, and the popular Raspberry Crème Brûlée that has been cooked in a square mould. For his Passion Fruit Bavarois and Cocoa Nougatine, he used a spray gun to make a chocolatey crust on top.
Bennett likes to keep the flavours simple. As he admits: "I am not into fusion food at all. I think my Pink Grapefruit and Basil Tartlet is as far as I will go."
But he is not afraid to experiment with new products on the market. These can be from microbiological foods - to enhance the flavour of, for example, ice-cream or crème fraîche - to using albumen powder as an egg substitute or adding a compound to a fruit purée, which forms into a skin that can be rolled out and made into shapes. He is also keen to use some of the vast array of food colourings that are now available. "These products are groundbreaking," he says, "but I only use them for certain things. There is no getting away from traditional ingredients and skill."
Bennett uses a couple of key suppliers to source good quality traditional ingredients and he orders a "good staple" French flour for his pastries. The products are not organic, as that can "easily double or treble the price", says Bennett, and the pastries already cost up to £4 each.
There are deliveries every day, although the larder is not overstocked. "We don’t get bulk loads of ingredients and leave them sitting around for ages." He also has bread delivered every day - from wholegrain and white to carrot bread. He would like to bake bread on-site, but admits: "We have a very small kitchen. It’s something we are looking into, but at the moment it’s not feasible."
As well as the patisserie, which is open from 9am to 11pm, Bennett and his small team provide for up to 120 covers for afternoon tea. This includes a selection of sandwiches, scones, tartlets and other specialities. It costs £19.50. The hotel also caters to about 100 covers for the restaurant every day for lunch and dinner as well as handling covers for room service, the executive lounge, conferences and banquets and orders for about 10 celebration cakes a day. Special dietary requests, such as allergies to nuts and wheat, are included.
The 300-room hotel is situated in the heart of London’s theatreland and, during its 100 years, it has hosted many opening night parties and film premieres - usually held in the ballroom. These have attracted many stars, including Elizabeth Taylor, Sir Laurence Olivier, Vivien Leigh, Dame Judi Dench, Piers Brosnan and Princess Anne. In recent months, Bennett supplied products for about 250 people who attended the opening night party of the Sinatra show.
In his kitchen, which is a small room off the main kitchen area, he uses new "top quality" equipment, installed as part of the refurbishment. He also uses an electric oven but hopes to get a deck oven in due course.
A lot of planning and preparation goes into running such an operation. Bennett works closely with the executive chef and the food and beverage department. He also plans his menus well in advance. "After I’ve put a menu on for a season, I am already starting on the next," he says.
Preparation for the festive season begins in August. This includes making 1,000 individual-sized Christmas puddings, packed with traditional fruits and spices and made, he says, to "grandma’s recipe". Both his grandmothers and his mother were influential in sparking his interest in cooking and baking when Bennett was a boy.
As he explains: "They were very good cooks. My grandma was more a Women’s Institute cook, who used all the old recipes. In school holidays, we used to spend hours making bread and cakes, such as simnel cake. We also made jams together and bottled fruit. On the other side of the family, my nan was a commercial cook. She used to run a kitchen in Crawley, Sussex."
Bennett works incredibly hard - an attribute he puts down to his father: "He instilled a work ethic in me when I was young." He starts at 8am and he finishes sometimes at 9pm, depending on evening events held in the hotel.
But one of the best parts of the job, he says, is teaching his trainees. He prefers to work with a young, relatively inexperienced team, whom he can bring up to the exacting standards required. They also go on one day a week release to college.
"I’m very lucky, as they’re keen and want to learn. I enjoy watching them thrive and grow. But it also keeps me on my toes. I teach them new processes and explain the scientific aspect of it. But I have to check everything."
While this adds to the pressure on Bennett to deliver top-quality products every day, he alleviates it by keeping the atmosphere in the kitchen as relaxed as possible. "It’s very relaxed here, which breeds learning," he says. "It’s a hard job, but if you’ve spent your day creating something new, there’s nothing better in life than that." n