In Dubai to promote new book Chocolat and Jumeirah Zabeel Saray’s new tea menu, Penelope Walsh meets the pastry chef to the stars.
How did this collaboration for the new Jumeirah Zabeel Saray afternoon tea start?
They saw the afternoon tea I created for the Jumeirah Carlton Tower in London. I was supposed to be going on holiday, so they said why don’t you come and stay at the Zabeel and take a look at the afternoon tea. I love Middle Eastern food, all the flavours and the spices. I haven’t got a sweet tooth though, so Arabic sweets are too sweet for me, but I love working with honey and rosewater.
No sweet tooth? Why did you become a pastry chef?
I started making cakes at a young age, but it wasn’t about eating them, it was about the ingredients, the glamour and the sense of occasion. I loved going to patisseries. French patisserie is like buying an expensive watch or handbag. It’s beautifully wrapped in a box with ribbons, and you have to pay a lot of money for it. The French appreciate that, and they walk in the street proudly with their patisserie bag.
How about bringing your patisserie Cakeboy to Dubai?
[Laughs] We get asked that a lot, because many people from the region visit Cakeboy in London. It’s something we’re thinking about. We’re very proud of the concept, so it would have to be the same.
You were in the Navy
I did my apprenticeship as a pastry chef in the Navy. Military service in France was compulsory then. They offered me a choice of The Élysée Palace, to cook (allegedly) for the president, or the Navy flagship. I really wanted to travel, so I’d already made my decision, but I asked the advice of the recruitment officer. He looked at me and said, if you go to The Élysée Palace, for one year, you’ll be peeling apples, they’re not going to let you touch any presidential food whatsoever. If you go on the ship, it will just be you. The irony was, when the ship left France, President Mitterrand came on board, so I got to cook lunch for the president. He gave me some gold cuff links, which I still wear today.
Where did you travel?
North Africa, South America and French Polynesia. I went to a pepper plantation in Trinidad, we got all the ingredients from the markets. For me it was an eye opening experience.
You discovered new flavours?
I’d never seen papaya in my life, or mango. I’d never seen a fresh vanilla pod until Tahiti, and I later learnt it is the most expensive vanilla in the world.
You’re the only chef on the Virgin Galactic space programme, how did it start?
With a cheque, after a very good dinner. I said, ‘I’m happy to listen to the sales pitch, but I’m not interested’. By the end of dinner, I’d signed up, but I’m glad I did. The scary thing is, it is getting closer now. I’m going to add ‘pastry chef/astronaut’ to my business cards. It’s a great pick-up line.