Daniel Clifford, William Curley: ‘The big pastry chefs don’t exist anymore’

The  Staff Canteen

Has the traditional pastry chef disappeared for good?

In the most recent episode of The Staff Canteen's Grilled podcast, returning co-host and chef owner of two Michelin-starred Midsummer HouseDaniel Clifford, and his guest, chef pâtissier, master of the culinary arts and owner of William Curley Ltd, William Curley discussed how times have changed since every kitchen had their own pastry chef.

At Midsummer House, Daniel said, “We’ve had to restructure the way pastry’s done, because there isn’t that skill level that we had before", describing the change as “a crying shame.”

That having been said, pastry as a culinary artform “gets more attention now than ever,” William said, with the increase in media coverage of all kinds and the increase in pâtisserie shops in London.

"There is more reason [than ever] for people to come into it, but there is only about a handful of good [pâtissiers] in the UK.”

When he started out in kitchens, William continued, “there were about 12-13 guys in the pastry kitchen” and even if they didn’t all go on to become pastry chefs, “there was a period where it felt like there were more and more young people coming into the industry.”

So why don't young chefs want to work in pastry?

Asked what stands in the way of more chefs specialising in pastry, Daniel said, “I don’t think there’s the training anymore," and the reason for that being that "the big pastry chefs don’t exist anymore.”

Two or three decades ago, when you spoke about great restaurants, “the pastry chef was nearly as famous as the chef was… Now, I don’t think that actually exists,” he said.

William concurred, explaining that as compared to Europe, where most universities have a culinary arts and a pâtisserie course, in the UK there are only a few places that have courses on being a pastry chef.

But even if there was a curriculum for them to follow, he added, “there’s not a huge wave of young talent coming into it.”

Daniel, after being asked if he enjoys pastry, discusses how he often wants help from pastry chefs that aren’t there anymore and how “It’s a real shame it’s a dying art in this industry.”

How can we change pâtisserie training to entice more people into it?

More widely, hospitality education has changed drastically in the past generation. When Daniel and William  started working in kitchens, they were 15 years old, but now it’s a requirement to be in education until 18 - making it a lot harder to get people into the kitchen, and a much bigger shock to the system to adapt to kitchen work.

"We’d have a lot more chefs in this country” if we were be able to hire people at 16, Daniel said. “If you look at my generation - they all started when they were very young.” 

William agreed, and said, "a lot of people who do well in our industry come in young, they get an appetite for it” and “it becomes a career path very quickly.”

"The older you get, there are other things that appeal… and I think it gets harder and harder to entice people.”

Brexit again

We know that Brexit has caused great upheaval in the UK hospitality industry, as the EU workforce comprised a large percentage of the total, especially in the capital.

“There’s a lot less people from the continent, who bring a lot of their skills with them,” William said.

"There are only so many UK pastry chefs.”

In order to generate new talent in pastry, he said, our infrastructure requires “an influx of people."

"There aren't enough people in the UK that are going to take this up as a profession to do that.”

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The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 29th October 2021

Daniel Clifford, William Curley: ‘The big pastry chefs don’t exist anymore’