Ana Paula Oliver, Head of Pastry on site, Restaurant Associates

The Staff Canteen

Ana Paula Oliver is Head of Pastry at Restaurant Associates.

Having worked at Michelin-starred restaurants in Spain and England, pastry chef Ana Paula Oliver took the decision to move into contract catering and is now head of pastry at Restaurant Associates (forming part of the Compass Group)

The Staff Canteen spoke to Ana Paula about where she gets her inspiration from, taking part in Crème de la Crème and why flavour must always come first.

Plated and ready to go! 

You have worked for the Compass Group for almost 8 years, can you tell me a little bit about your role as head of pastry and what that entails?

As head of pastry on site, I am responsible for the creation of menus and the production of all the desserts which include plated desserts for fine dining, desserts buffets, afternoon tea and any other pastries for all occasions. 

Have you always worked in pastry or have you worked in other areas of the kitchen?
Pastry wasn’t really my first choice. When I decided to pursue a chef’s career, I felt like I had to explore all the areas of the kitchen in order to find my place.

Chef Angela Hartnett once asked me if I was sure I wanted to get out of pastry and she allocated me to the garnish section at Murano. I realised then how much I missed the organisation and the planning we have in pastry - how precise we must be and how we cannot just show up for service and expect things to work out - it's a different world.

What advice would you give to aspiring pastry chefs?

Pastry is about passion, precision, patience, attention to detail. It's about planning and prepping for days, weeks, what you will present on that day.

Take pride in your work, and know that there will always be room for improvement. A pastry chef never stops learning. We will never be a finished piece. A good pastry chef is always looking for new techniques, new flavours, new textures, new ways to produce and deliver a better dish.

For me, the flavour always comes first. At the end of the day, we are producing food and it has to taste good. The presentation is important, but if your food doesn’t appeal to the palate, all the efforts put on its looks will be irrelevant.

Pistachio and  chocolate 'fruit basket' cake
Pistachio and
chocolate 'fruit basket' cake

What attracted you to working with pastry?
Pastry is like a piece of jewellery for your meal. It's how you end your experience and it will be memorable.

Your dessert has to seduce all the senses, you have to use all your abilities to deliver a desirable dessert.

Presentation, flavours, textures, aromas, colours… Everything has to be perfect for a “grand finale”. For me, pastry is taking food and transforming it into some kind of art. That for me is a passion.

Why do you feel pastry is such a specialised area?

Pastry is precise, a pastry chef must respect recipes, measures, temperatures, or it simply won’t work.

It’s a much more delicate part of cooking, and if you’re not passionate or patient enough, then pastry is not for you.

How was your experience working with Santi Santamaria in Spain? He had a reputation for not being fond of female chefs. Did you manage to convince him otherwise?

Santi Santamaria was a genius, and very traditional on the way he used to run his kitchens. As a student, it took me a long time pestering him to let me do some free work experience until I heard he was opening another restaurant in Barcelona. I went to speak to his head chef in a day, did my trial and got the spot. Santi was not impressed when he saw me in whites at his brand-new kitchen.

It was an amazing experience and I was offered a permanent contract at the end, but it was time to come to London.

Were there any major differences working as a pastry chef in Spain at Michelin starred restaurants like Sauc and Evo to working at Michelin starred restaurants in the UK?

The basic differences between Michelin stars in Spain and in the UK would be the hours, to start with. Spain has a much more relaxed approach when it comes to working hours. Ingredients and how you deal with the product are another massive difference.

Eggless lemon cream  with berries and meringue
Eggless lemon cream
with berries and meringue

You took part in Crème de la Crème on two different occasions, how was the overall experience for you and how did each experience compare?

I believe that competitions, in general, make you a better chef somehow. You’re forced out of the comfort zone and must deliver in order to stay “alive”.

Crème de la Crème was incredibly tough, with timings and tasks that you wouldn’t normally face in a real work environment.

At the first season, I was invited to take part on the team with another 2 amazing pastry chefs, with whom I haven’t worked before. I learnt a lot from them during the process, but we didn’t go further than the first round.

I felt like I had unfinished business after that, but the team had other commitments and chose not to enter again. That’s when I decided to get a team of people I already knew and admired as professionals. 

We all work in different places, and getting together to practice, especially at Christmas period was really hard. We had to completely give up on our personal lives and commit 100% to work and competition.

And It pushed us to the limits, forced us to learn a different set of skills to be able to progress, and it showed me how important teamwork is. It was tough but we had a great time. I will always have to thank Gimena and Jisun for being by my side.

Info Bar

Signature dishes

The Tiramisu Opera I made for our Hidden Chefs book is a dish that is very dear to me.

We also made it for Crème de la Crème and managed to win that round with it.

Desert island desserts

I would definitely take a huge portion of Bread & Butter pudding, then Mascarpone Ice Cream, Anything Chocolate, Brillat Savarin Cheesecake and Mato con Miel.  Technically it's a cheese, but I don't know a single pastry chef that would leave a cheese board unattended.

What would you say has been your career highlight to date?

Being made Group Pastry Chef for Restaurant Associates is something that I’m very proud of. It’s a lot of work but also very rewarding. Training new generations of pastry chefs is a massive responsibility and is essential for the future of our trade. 

Where do you find the inspiration for your creations? 

Inspiration is everywhere. A trip to the market can bring new ideas of flavour combinations, eating in different places is a massive source of research, of course, the internet is a very handy tool to find seasonal products, recipes, ideas, unusual ingredients and so on. What you make out of that inspiration is what shows the sort of chef that you are.

What are your favourite flavours and flavour combinations and why?

I have my phases. Sometimes I get obsessed with a particular type of chocolate and all I can think about are ways to use it and how will it pair with other flavours. I think is healthy to be this way, as you don’t risk repeating yourself over and over when it comes to new menus and creating new dishes. 

How important is training and do you enjoy learning new techniques? 

Learning the basics is everything for a pastry chef. When you know the fundamentals, there’s when you can start adding your personal experiences and touches to your work. You can only create something original if you understand what has already been done and how.

chocolate dessert
Chocolate delights

We see lots of young chefs starting in the kitchen, eager to progress and sometimes skipping steps that would be important for the future of their careers. Basic techniques are essential. Sounds crazy to have to say that, but more and more we see young chefs rushing their way to what they think is the top, neglecting the basic learning and compromising what would be a solid foundation for their future.

I’m aware that no one will ever know everything about pastry. It's exciting for me to be always looking to find new techniques and new approaches to my work.

You are an ambassador of WomenInFood – how important is this initiative to you?

I believe women need to be made aware that there can be equality in the kitchen. Being a chef is a career choice for both men and women, and I believe the women in food scheme supports this idea and encourages more women to enter the industry.

It's important that we discuss ways to make things in this trade fairer for both genders, and support women who want to pursue a career in cheffing as much as we do with men.

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The Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 20th March 2018

Ana Paula Oliver, Head of Pastry on site, Restaurant Associates