Alistair Birt, head chocolatier at William Curley

The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 21st May 2013
Alistair Birt is head chocolatier at William Curley. At 25 years old he already has quite a career behind him. While still at university he represented the UK in the 2009 World Skills competition in which he came fifth, the highest rank ever achieved by a UK pastry chef. Last year he came second overall in the UK section of the prestigious World Chocolate Masters competition, where he also won best showpiece, best pastry and best workmanship. He is currently helping to train the UK’s latest contender for the World Skills competition while coming up with new weird and wonderful flavour combinations for William Curley. The Staff Canteen caught up with him to find how he is coping and if he ever gets sick of eating chocolate…What does being head chocolatier at William Curley involve on a day to day basis? My day to day job ranges hugely from training the guys on my section, developing new products, ensuring quality is always the same, making sure the shop is always stocked and making sure all our wholesale orders go out. Sometimes William might be doing a demonstration or a photo shoot and I might help out with that. At the moment we’re making a second book so a lot of time is going into development for that as well. How does development of new dishes and new flavours work at William Curley? Ideas come from everyone in the kitchen not just me and Sarah, who runs the patisserie side of the kitchen. William comes up with most of the ideas, or he might just give us a flavour combination then I will go away and try to come up with something for him to try, then I’ll listen to his criticisms and develop it further until William and everyone is happy with it. Could you give us an example of the more exotic or challenging flavours that you’ve come up with? We did an interesting desert for a dinner at Paul Merrett’s gastro pub, Victoria. It was a dinner to promote Dingley Dell rare breed pork and we got to do the desert which had to involve pork. It was very interesting to work with bacon in a chocolate desert and in the end everyone was very pleased and impressed with it. It had a smoky bacon caramel with it and bacon crumbs and a sweet tuile made of pork fat. You also have a large Asian influence running through your dishes at William Curley, don’t you? Yes we have wasabi, lots of sesame seeds, yuzu, lots if vinegars and soy sauce. If you think about it, it all really works with chocolate, like for example everybody is going mad for salted caramel at the moment and salt, in whatever form it comes, still works really well with chocolate – so soy sauce or anything like that will work really well. It’s the same thing with acid, so vinegar works really well with chocolate. It’s just trying to get that delicate balance of flavours. Is there anything that really hasn’t worked? Seaweed. We’ve tried several times with seaweed but we have yet to accomplish that one! How much chocolate do you think you eat over the course of a year and do you ever get sick of it? I think you have to distinguish between good chocolate and bad chocolate. With good chocolate you eat a little bit and it lasts on your palette like a fine wine so when we taste stuff, we don’t need to taste huge quantities and the same when you just want to eat a bit – you don’t feel that you need to eat a lot to get your chocolate hit. How difficult is it to train your palette to recognise the different types of chocolate? Is it a similar process to wine tasting? I would say I’m still learning that and I don’t think you ever stop learning it. My palette can detect the things I need to detect. We use Amedei and use several of their blends. Each blend has different attributes that marry well with different flavours, it’s important to understand the flavour profile so that you can pair them up. Everybody has a different pallet and will interpret the subtleties of chocolate differently. And those subtleties can be as much about texture as about taste. For example I use Callebaut chocolate in a personal capacity for my competition and sculpture work because of its flexibility. The chocolate industry gets some bad press about how ethically it sources its chocolate. How do you ensure your cocoa is ethically sourced? As I previously mentioned  we use a very small company in Tuscany called Amedei. I’ve been to their factory and they use really artisanal methods. They go out and check everything; they check the farms; they source the product themselves; they buy straight from the plantations and ensure the growers get a fair price. Also Amedei don’t buy from western Africa where for a number of reasons child labour is rife. The topic of fair trade chocolate is not black and white; it is definitely grey. There are many issues surrounding the supply chain and child labour especially in war torn countries like the Ivory Coast. Fairtrade is a symbol of good and as an industry we should support it and other such incentives, however as in most of the poorest countries with a lack of stability systems like Fairtrade can be abused for the good of the few instead of the many. To ensure that all of the worlds chocolate is ethically sourced is a massively complex and slow moving task but one I think everyone will want to see happen. How important is it within William Curley to bring on new pastry chefs and give them a good grounding and training? It’s very important. William is very passionate about that. He’s very passionate about having apprentices and bringing on younger members of staff,  training and keeping the industry afloat and alive. We send our apprentices to Westminster College and we make sure that they get good training and are pushed creatively and technically as well. Competitions are a great way of doing this they stretch people’s imaginations and instil a determined attitude Why do you think there is such a shortage of pastry chefs around? I think it’s perhaps not perceived as so macho as other chefs, also all the media attention is on other chefs so there are no role models for a young person looking around for a career who might be attracted to pastry. For a young pastry chef thinking of joining the industry, would you advise them to specialise early? I would say it can’t hurt to train early as a pastry chef. Even if you go on to be a different kind of chef you can use those lessons you learn about being precise and scientific and so on into your career as a chef. Michel Roux originally trained as a pastry chef and look how much he achieved. View Alistair's Gastronomic Chocolate Dessert here.

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The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 21st May 2013

Alistair Birt, head chocolatier at William Curley