10 minutes with: Benoit Blin MCA

The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen talk to  executive pastry chef Benoit Blin about Coupe du Monde de la Pâtisserie, British pastry chefs, the UK Pastry Club and why he is so passionate about developing the UK pastry industry.

Belmond Le Manoir aux Quat'Saisons is definitely tucked away in the Oxford countryside, but once you get there it’s simply stunning. Surrounded by beautifully groomed gardens, serene water features and of course Raymond Blanc’s famous kitchen garden this two Michelin star restaurant and hotel needs no more introduction.  

Firstly, what is Coupe du Monde de la Pâtisserie? Well put simply, this is the World Cup of Pastry where the culinary elite of pastry chefs come together in Lyon every two years to compete against each other.

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“It’s a tough competition,” explained Benoit Blin who is MCA and also chairman of the UK Pastry Club. “We are competing against countries like France, Italy, Japan and USA who are really, really strong. In France we are talking thousands of pastry chefs, in the UK it’s a few hundred. “We are hoping in the UK to breed young pastry chefs who in the future can keep competing every two years in the Coupe du Monde and be at the same level everybody else is at. The main aim is to see the British on the podium and why not win it one day?” Benoit arrived at Le Manoir 20 years ago and his love of pastry comes from a very early age as he was always drawn to the sweet side of cooking.

He said: “The street in France I grew up in had a bakery on each side and I was always attracted to sugar and the sweetness of pastry, this made me think it was something I could do for a living. “At Le Manoir I’m at the moment, the only French chef in the pastry team of 13 – they are all British except one, when I started there were no British pastry chefs. Now, there is definitely more passion for pastry and young chefs see they can make a living out of it. It’s a skill that is growing slowly but it is growing.” Benoit first became involved with the British Pastry Team in 2010, the president at the time whose role is to manage, support and coach the other chefs in the team, dropped out with just three months before the final and he was asked to step in.

“I’ve known about the Coupe du Monde my whole life,” explained Benoit. “As a French person I’ve  been following it for a long time and I know you can’t prepare for it in three months  from scratch– it’s almost impossible! Having said that, as the UK had not been represented at the final for a long time I thought it would be a shame not to give support to Chris Loder and Javier Mercado who had sacrificed so much and worked so hard to get the UK selected to begin with at the European selection in Paris few months before.

Javier Mercado (Le Cordon Bleu),  UK Pastry Team President Martin Chiffers, Barry Johnson (Rococo Chocolate) and Andrew Blas (Café Royal) low res

“I stepped in with my colleague and good friend Richard Victoria from Ritter Courivaud he was the promotion manager, with the view to help the team go through as successfully as they could, with whatever means we had – bear in mind we had no money! So we came up with £15,000 in three months which went towards a van to get to Lyon and getting equipment, moulds and an ice carving training course for Johannes Bonin who joined later as the third candidate. We decided to just do the best with what we had and represent the UK pastry industry as proudly as we could on the day.”

It turned out to be the first time a British team broke into the top ten when they finished ninth out of 22. Benoit said: “For us it was like being on the podium! We even won the prize for best promotion. It was completely unexpected and a breakthrough for us considering we didn’t prepare as much as we would have liked.”

Benoit would have loved to continue as president as he wanted to use the two years  before the next final to fully prepare, unfortunately, a rule change which said that the team president had to have a British passport forced him to step down from this role.

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Five years on and it’s a very different story, he is now chairman of The UK Pastry Club  which has been created to support the British team and its president Martin Chiffers. It includes a committee of renowned UK Pastry Chefs and professionals, who will assist the team with technical and financial support and also organise new competitions which will help find future talent.

“If I couldn’t be involved in the team directly,” explained Benoit. “Then I would try to set in motion something even more important which is a support structure around the team. So the UK Pastry Club, as we know it today, was created. There were five of us and now there are 30 of us.

“It’s designed to develop the UK pastry industry while creating a UK pastry team to represent the country at the Coupe du Monde.” He added: “Now the club means something, in the industry when you talk about the UK Pastry Club it’s known and respected.”

The club organised the first UK Pastry Open at Hammersmith college in 2011 in a bid to find candidates for the next team they would send to compete in European selection and from there the Coupe du Monde final.

“Again we had no money for this,” said Benoit. “But as the group got stronger and bigger, we got a few sponsors on board. It was very successful, we selected two chefs and the team that year lead by Martin as president, went on to win the European cup in Paris and finished ninth again in the final.

‘African Savanna’, the Valrhona chocolate dessert

“For us it was a building block, securing another top ten position was us saying to the rest of the world ‘this is where the UK stands…..for now!’"

Helped by Anne Sophie Labruyere the new promotion manager, the Club then developed a relationship with the Restaurant Show. This allowed them to hold the following UK Pastry Open at the show in front of a wider audience. Benoit said: “It added a great buzz to the competition and it showed the rest of the industry that the pastry art was alive and kicking.”

The UK Pastry Team has now won the European selection twice, back to back and this year they came sixth in the final, their best position so far.

“Finishing sixth was a great achievement but we will continue to work on preparation,” explained Benoit. “Our aim has always been to slowly build a pastry team that could compete at the final in Lyon every time, in the past we’ve been considered one of the weaker countries and I believe this will not be the case in the future.”

The fantastic results for the past three competitions has allowed the UK to total up enough points to be in the top seven teams in the world, a brilliant achievement for what started as just a handful of chefs with a dream. This position also means they no longer have to compete at the European selection, they go straight to the final instead.

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Benoit said: “It means we don’t have the distraction of the European selection, we can focus on the final and we hope this will make a difference.”

For the final of the Coupe du Monde each team is expected to present a sugar sculpture up to 120cm, this presents a chocolate entremet. Then there is a chocolate sculpture, again up to 120cm and presenting a plated dessert and finally an ice sculpture which presents a frozen dessert. But as with any live competition this doesn’t always go smoothly.

“If you make a mistake the sculpture breaks and you have to learn from these mistakes,” said Benoit. “This year the chocolate piece had an accident but fortunately it had been marked and judged before it broke! I remember Italy one year, the guy was building a sugar castle and as he added the last piece the whole thing fell flat – everybody goes quiet, including the crowd. It’s gutting because it’s not just ten hours work on the day, it’s two years of preparation which has just shattered into pieces.”

The final is bigger than what you may expect, with thousands of supporters travelling to cheer on their team. Benoit said: “It’s fierce because it’s a competition, everybody is looking at each other trying to gauge strengths and weaknesses. At the same time it’s fantastic, you meet pastry chefs and other chefs from all around the world.  It’s a full rush, a full buzz, dynamic, exciting and it’s tiring!”

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He added: “I’d love to see more British supporters – they are getting louder and louder every year, but if you take the Asian country the supporters take a third of the seating. When their team is competing they wear full flag and colours and the noise they make, they scream their hearts out!

“The noise and working live is something as a pastry chef you really have to get used to, but that’s what the UK Pastry Open at the restaurant show is designed to represent and it helps them prepare for it. It puts them on the spot, it takes them out of the kitchen and allows them to be recognised for their skill and ability.”

He added: “The whole idea of what we are trying to do is, doing it, winning it and passing it on. To pass it on that is just as important as anything else, we are not here to be selfish or looking after one individual we are here to work as a group and contribute to develop pastry skills in the UK.”

Click here to enter this year’s UK Pastry Open at the Restaurant Show on October 5, 2015, if you want to be part of this year’s UK team at the final of the Coupe du Monde de la Pâtisserie

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The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 26th May 2015

10 minutes with: Benoit Blin MCA