THE BIG INTERVIEW: Claire Clark talks pastry kitchens, training academies and serving the Brit Awards

Claire Clark

Acclaimed pastry chef Claire Clark has worked in kitchens all her life and is now inspiring the next generation of patisserie talent with a specialist training kitchen and course at Milton Keynes College carrying her name. Andrew Seymour met her at the Commercial Kitchen Show for a candid discussion about the equipment that’s integral to her work and the future of the industry.   

I understand that you initially tried to embark on a career in music before you chose a life in the pastry kitchen. What went wrong — or right?

Something definitely went wrong! Basically I wasn’t good enough to be a musician. My mother is a sort of semi-professional cellist. When I said to her that I really wanted to go into music she said I wasn’t good enough — it was as straightforward as that! The other thing I really enjoyed was baking. And even then, at 16, I knew that if I was going to go into cooking it was going to be on the baking side not the cooking side. So I went to college, the same as most people did back then, and did two years full-time doing everything — cooking, waitressing, housekeeping, very little pastry oddly enough. I was very fortunate to get a good job in London at the Ritz hotel almost straight away.

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You also cut your teeth in the industry at Claridges during the early part of your career. What did working for some of London’s most iconic hotels and restaurants teach you?

Consistency is a big part of cooking in general, but for a pastry chef consistency and uniformity is everything. Whether you’re cooking for 10 people or 10,000, everything has to be the same and that’s very hard to do on a day-to-day level, over and over again. And I think that’s what I learnt, especially from hotels because back then we did everything — the bread, the ice creams, the sorbets, the coulees — there weren’t fruit purees that came in frozen packs. I used to work at the InterContinental on Hyde Park Corner and we would have banquets for a thousand and the worst job was the blackcurrant sorbet. You would have 25kg of blackcurrants come in and you’d have to turn it into a sorbet. That is not a fun job when you’re a commis and then you’re got to quenelle it standing in a blast freezer. So we had a really rounded, good education.

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Patisserie is a very delicate culinary art and commands a lot of creativity from chefs. Where does equipment fit into this process, and just how important is it to have the right kit in place?

It’s an instrumental part of it. Because it is so detailed and so technical, if you don’t have the right equipment it’s really not going to happen and it’s that basic. We have specialised kit and, yes, you can do it without the specialised kit but your life is so much easier with the right equipment. And, of course, with the way technology has moved on, it has made it possible to achieve even higher results in what we’re doing. And that goes back to the consistency as well. We use Rational ovens and they’re like computers these days — they’re amazing.

“There are more high profile chefs in the world than there are high profile pastry chefs, but we’re an important part of a kitchen and an important part of the process”

You can programme into them as well. I’m pretty old school and I like my staff to learn the old way but having said that you get somebody who’s not so clever or is slower at learning, you can programme it in and they can just press the button and go straight to the programme. This saves us time, and time is money, so it’s efficient and it’s effective.

But does it concern you that modern equipment might remove some of the skill level associated with being a pastry chef?

I think there’s a balance. I have a business [called Pretty Sweet] and when you have a business you need to make money. We need to make money, we need to make profit and we are still all hand labour. Yes, we use machinery but it’s all made by hand. It’s a lot about finishing and the decoration, but your core foundations have to be right. And by core foundations I mean you’ve got to be able to make a schuh pastry and you’ve got to be able to make puff pastry, you’ve got to be able to line a flan shell. All these things are called basic foundations. You can’t learn those if you don’t have the education and you don’t have the background and you don’t have the training. So even if you’ve got the perfect oven to cook it in, you’ve still got to have that lecturing and somebody showing you what to do.

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Does it follow that if you used a brand or type of equipment in training, you’re more likely to carry that through with you when you work in the industry?

Yes, I use things that I used when I was training because I know them and I trust them. Even though they’ve moved on with technology I feel confident that I can produce what I want to produce at my level with that piece of machinery. I think that’s something people underestimate. I’m not saying that I never change because something might come out and I’ll go, ‘oh my goodness, that’s a completely different piece of kit all together’, such as the Pacojet for instance. That’s an amazing invention, especially for small restaurants. It’s vital but it doesn’t take away the skills, it just adds to having that precision and getting the results that you need. I also have a Rondo laminator that I have always used.

Is there one specific piece of kit that really stands out when it comes to assisting you in the pastry kitchen?

We’ve got a Frima [at Pretty Sweet] and it’s my business partner Sarah [Crouchman’s] baby. I’m not really even allowed to touch it because I might break it! It’s a piece of kit that’s really for the kitchen but you have to look at it outside the box and when we saw it we were thinking, ‘we do functions for 30,000 and we could make lemon curd in there and it’s going to come out exact time and time again’. It makes something like 50 litres in 20 minutes. So I can make that and I can fill up my tart shells and my job’s done.

“There are seven separate marble top workstations, each with their own induction and mixers”

We cook vast amounts of rice pudding in it — again it takes about 20 minutes and it delivers consistency time and time again. Yet until I saw somebody else using it I would never have looked at it as being a piece of kit for a pastry chef. The Rondo is another vital piece of kit, and I’m a Rational lover. Induced Energy is another one. They heat up in no time at all.

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When you invest in a heavy duty piece of kit like the Frima, do you look upon it as a chance to attain contracts that would otherwise have been difficult to bid for or is it purely a tool to save time and achieve volume?

Both. It definitely saves money in terms of time and efficiency. It is easy to use as well, so all the staff can use it, and it’s very easy to clean. The water actually drains away out of the back so it doesn’t go onto the floor, which is amazing. It was an expensive piece of kit, but it’s already paid for itself through time management, consistent results and being easy to operate.

What sort of kitchen do you have at Pretty Sweet? Your orders range from food for 10 people all the way up to functions serving thousands. How does your kitchen scale up and down to cope with that?

The lay-out is very different to a main kitchen where you have the central stove and most things happen around that, and the sections are based either on that or around it. Because we’re a product unit, we have tables down the centre aisle. I think everybody understands that there has to be a flow in all kitchens and so we knew from the outset where the delivery of goods was coming in from, where they were going to go, how we were going to decant them and what their travel was going to be after that. It was important that it didn’t affect the flow of our production and that people could get on with their job. The ovens are based in the centre of the room, we’ve got tables going down the middle and equipment mostly around the outside. But basically no one has to go too far to get to anything. It is fairly long and narrow, the ovens are in the middle but the rest of the kit is sort of repeated at each end. There is induction at each end and mixers at each end, so regardless of where you are working you haven’t got too far to go to reach your equipment. We also have a lot of trolleys for baking.

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Your Pretty Sweet business is involved in some interesting jobs. What’s the most outlandish order you’ve ever received?

We’re actually doing something for a major rock star at their house — a four foot round millefeuille, and that’s big. You’ve got to have a big deck oven, which we don’t but we’re going to borrow somebody else’s, and even then we’re going to have to do that in two halves. They want us to assemble it in front of the guests when the main course is going out, then cut it in the room and serve it to the guests. That’s pretty scary, even for me! We do the Brit Awards every year and we love that. The big numbers are always very exciting for us, but even so when you get an order and it’s for 30,000 pieces or something over eight days it takes a lot of planning and organisation.

Have you ever declined a job because it was simply impossible from a production perspective?

There are things that we won’t do, but again it’s down to the equipment or rather not having the right equipment. It’s not that we don’t have the staff, we’re very fortunate to have staff, but we might not have the necessary equipment to do it. For instance, we don’t have a chocolate tempering machine, so if somebody wanted us to do a vast amount of chocolate it’s not possible. But we try not to say no.

What would be your message to suppliers in terms of the role they have to play in supporting the work of UK pastry chefs?

‘Don’t forget about the pastry’! There are more high profile chefs in the world than there are high profile pastry chefs, but we’re an important part of a kitchen and an important part of the process. So if a pastry chef approaches you, don’t write them off, listen to what they have to say. Many of the people that come around to do the demos only show what they can offer to the chef, well pastry chefs use them too, so get the right training to be able to promote it to the pastry chefs as well. If your equipment doesn’t just benefit the kitchen but the pastry side as well then promote that fact.

Claire Clark: CV

During her career, Claire Clark has worked in some of the most prestigious restaurants and hotels, including the Ritz and Claridges. She ran the pastry department at the then-largest conference and banqueting hotel in Europe, the London Hilton Metropole hotel, and opened the famous Wolseley restaurant with head chef Chris Galvin.

In 2005 Claire relocated to California to become head pastry chef for Thomas Keller’s three Michelin Starred restaurant, The French Laundry, working in the US for five years before returning home to set up her own consultancy firm. She also runs Pretty Sweet, a high-end patisserie catering service that she co-founded with fellow international pastry chef Sarah Crouchman. Claire is the first person in the UK and only female recipient of ‘Meilleur Ouvrier de la Grande Bretagne’ (MOGB) and she has been crowned Craft Guild ‘Pastry Chef of the Year’ twice.

In 2011 she was awarded an MBE in recognition of her commitment to her craft. Claire also appeared as a judge on BBC2’s Bake Off: Crème de la Crème.

Designing a state-of-the-art pastry training kitchen

From September, the first cohort of patisserie students will be taking their place at the new Claire Clark Academy at Milton Keynes College. Learners will benefit from studying in a brand new state-of-the-art pastry kitchen fitted out with the latest equipment and receive expert tuition from experienced lecturers and industry pastry chefs, including Samantha Rain and Helen Vass. The programme will also include part-day, one-day, evening and weekend courses for home bakers and professionals in addition to the 14 full-time students it can accommodate.

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For Clark, seeing the project come to fruition after months of hard work is wholly satisfying. “There are not enough pastry chefs in our profession or, let me rephrase that, there are not enough pastry chefs with the right training,” she says. “You need good, solid foundations to build on in the world of pastry. At the moment there is a lack of base training across the country and I wanted to bring some of that back. I knew I couldn’t do it by myself and so I think the reason it’s unique is that it is sponsored by the industry. A lot of manufacturers jumped on board straight away when I explained to them what I wanted to do, which was amazing.”

So did she have much influence over the equipment that students will train on? “Of course I did!” she responds. “Again, I go back to what I was trained on and the equipment I can trust. We have an amazing dishwasher from Winterhalter, a Carpigiani ice cream machine — I think they have the best of the best in the world — a Rational combi oven and Induced Energy induction. There are seven separate marble top workstations, each with their own induction and mixers.”

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