Where do you find inspiration for your cooking? It could be from your family, perhaps your mother or grandmother, or perhaps from a particular meal you had while on holiday. For some, it comes in the form of spectacle, as in cooking as performance. Andrew Blas’s inspiration, to become a chef, came from the TV, and in particular watching a chef chop vegetables really fast. From that moment, it was a path to the kitchen, which was just what his parents seemed to hope for.
From an early age, Andrew was inspired to work in the world of food and cooking. Coming from a background and a family where food was an important part of their life, where the kitchen was the focus of the household and where his father, a French pastry chef instilled a basic philosophy of eating well, Andrew’s youth gave him a basis on which he has built his career.
I met Andrew at the Hotel Cafe Royale in Piccadilly Circus in the heart of London, where he is now the executive head pastry chef, in charge of a kitchen that turns out pastries for several restaurants and the famous cafe, as well as managing a team of around 20.
As we sit down to talk, two words keep running around in my mind: pastry and chocolate. As I’m looking at the cakes, the delicate pieces of tart and macaroons sitting in the display cases, I keep hearing a repeat, pastry, and chocolate.
Why pastry and chocolate Andrew? This was my first question because I thought that normally chefs chose one or the other, it was rarely both. What he told me was that in general, they are separate, but also that it can cause a bit of a divide in the kitchen, a rift. So to help instil a peaceful workplace, he has chosen to combine chocolate into the pastry chef’s group of jobs, so that now at the Hotel there are around 13 people who can manage the chocolate room on their own, as opposed to just 1.
If you’ve been to the Hotel Cafe Royale, it is a beautiful space that is at once elegant and classy, but also, most importantly, warm and inviting. It feels old, but with a glossy veneer on the surface. The Hotel is a great place to learn and to experiment with pastry and chocolate, and for Andrew it has given him the chance to expand on his skills and knowledge and to advance in his ability as a professional. He is part of the small team representing the UK that will be headed to the Pastry World Cup in Lyon, France taking place in January 2015. As part of the team, he is in charge of the ice sculpture and the ice dessert portion of the competition and has only been practicing for about 1/2 a year on the sculpture part. During our interview, I heard about a recent practice session where the blade in the chain saw came off while he was working on a block. Snap! No one was hurt, but it does remind you that these guys are not just standing around chiselling small pieces of ice with a hammer.
With a 10-hour time limit in the competition, the timings for each of the team members and their respected sections have to be exact. So far, team UK have been practicing for on average around 4-5 weeks together, and before that, alone, in order to get their pieces together in a constant and consistent manner.
While there are a number of great pastry chefs in the UK, a lot of them go unrecognized. I asked Andrew about the skills needed to be part of the team headed to Lyon, and what I found was that it comes down to mental stability and the experience to know how to manage stress. The stress on the competition day can really affect those who are not able to adapt and work with the team, and it can mean the end of the competition if just one member doesn’t pull through. During the event the contestants might have to field questions from the judges while creating their pieces, and there is a live audience of around 4,000 people who make a lot of noise, so you have to be focused and know what you’re doing — nearly robotic in nature to be able to survive. It’s not easy.
This year, with France and Spain not in competition (two of the most competitive and awarded teams) it is now anyone’s game. He mentioned that Japan and Korea are two teams that they watch out for, as well as Denmark who has a strong team this year. In the end, it comes down to the group effort, what you can put into it, and he feels that the team from the UK is particularly adept at working together.
Sitting in the dining room talking with Andrew, you can see the passion and enthusiasm that he has for his craft, for his art. You hear it in his voice and conversation and he has a unique ability to draw you into his world. As we came to the end of our conversation I wanted to know what kind of music inspired him and his team in the pastry kitchen, and surprisingly he told me that his staff are so happy and content with their work that often there isn’t any music playing, because most of the pastry chefs are singing. It is a joyous image to think of, singing pastry chefs working in the middle of London, sending out pieces of delicate cake, biscuits, chocolates, and pastries made with care and filled with music.
Andrew and the UK team will travel to Lyon for the pastry world cup that takes place on January 25 and 26th.