Chris Underwood, The Five Fields, London

The  Staff Canteen

Chris Underwood is the Pastry Chef at The Five Fields where he serves up his excellent, imaginative desserts using often overlooked ingredients.

In a wide-ranging career Chris has worked as a pastry chef at Gidleigh Park, Pied a Terre, Colettes, L’Ortolan, La Becasse, Hibiscus and Tom Aikens Restaurant before finally moving to The Five Fields where he has total creative control over the pastry and bread sections of the menu, working alongside chef-patron Taylor Bonnyman and head chef Marguerite Keogh.    

How does it feel as a pastry chef to have your name on the pastry menu at The Five Fields? Do you find that freedom to create inspiring?

Definitely yes, I have so many ideas and things I want to create but I have to hold back and wait sometimes. I’m working on a strawberry and elderflower dish with red pepper at the moment. I want to do it tomorrow but I can’t because the strawberries aren’t good enough. I’m champing at the bit to do it but I have to restrain myself. I’ve just changed the petits fours because I wanted them to go down a kind of sweet shop route, so I’ve got marshmallow cables, I’ve got salted nougat, I’ve got little sweets wrapped in white chocolate fudge; I’ve got sherbet dib dabs, cherry aid flavour lollipops, peppermint creams, rhubarb and custards.

There’s plenty of scope. I do up a dish, give it to Taylor and Marguerite and 99.9% of the time they love it, which is great. We print our menus out new everyday so we have the flexibility to change something every day, which is great, and also the fact that it’s dinner only means we’ve got all that time to prep and develop stuff and be bang on the money in terms of seasons.  

You’re well known for your use of vegetables in desserts; when did you develop that style?

I did a bit at Hibiscus with Claude Bosi and it really rang a bell like, hang on a minute, peas are naturally sweet, parsnips are naturally sweet, carrots too, but you’re so taken with everything else going on in the pastry world, with chocolate and all that, you never stop to think about vegetables. I really like using vegetables and I think they’re just as important as fruits in desserts. When you think about the process and marriage of flavours, it really works; it’s been working for years but nobody’s really bothered with it.  

What’s a new vegetable-based dessert on the menu at the moment?

I’ve got a white chocolate and cucumber dessert on at the moment. It’s with a burnt basil meringue, made from basil that you cook in the oven at 200 degrees until it’s black; you then make it into an ash and fold it through a French meringue; I do that with a white chocolate ganache and a white chocolate and juniper sorbet, so it’s very much like a take on a gin and tonic; then there’s compressed cucumber balls with dill and juniper syrup and also dill oil and a dill powder. I split the dill oil with milk so it makes pearls on the plate; and it’s finished with lots of fresh dill so it’s very clean and really nice in the spring.  

What aspects of pastry do you most enjoy?

I do like baking. At work I don’t let anyone else do the bread; it’s just me. I’m very anal about it. I love the act of making it and seeing the final product come from something that was just a bit of yeast, flour and water. When you’ve made it, you want to eat a bit straight away and everybody comes around to see it and smell it. Everybody loves bread. It’s the first thing that gets served at a restaurant and it’s something that’s present throughout the whole meal rather than just the beginning or the end – so pretty important stuff really.  

How do you get ideas and inspiration for new dishes and flavour combinations?

It comes from experience really; even just going down the shop and seeing what’s on offer or going online and seeing what’s in season; even the flavour thesaurus – that always helps. I sit on the train at night going home, flicking through that, seeing what matches and trying it out. I take on board what I’ve learnt in my career and cross-reference different recipes that I’ve done and generally play around really; also eating out experiences are important. My idea for the pea and coconut dessert came from when I went to Tetsuyas in Sydney. We had this pea and chocolate dish and it was amazing; I think I scribbled it on my old passport cover and found it years later and thought, ‘hello!’  

Of all the great chefs you’ve worked for who inspired you most and who taught you the most?

I think the guy who inspired me the most has to be Michael Caines. If he’s got two stars with one hand imagine what he could have done with two. The guy’s amazing. We used to have races in the morning to make bread and I was struggling with my two arms against him. He’s also one of the nicest chefs I’ve ever worked with, very softly spoken but he knows how to get the team going as well and he’s just an amazing all-round chef. In terms of developing I’d have to say Tom Aikens. I learnt a lot about speed from Tom, that guy is seriously fast, and all the techniques and the skills that he teaches are amazing. He’s a machine.

And he can get the best out of ingredients but in so many different ways; the diversity of what he does, just in pastry is unbelievable. Not only does it look fantastic but just the whole skill level involved, all the techniques; you’ve got one ingredient done this way and another ingredient done that way and you’re like, crikey, who’d have thought you could do one thing six or seven different ways; the whole diversity of it and the whole approach to how to plate as well, plus his ambition and his drive; it’s just amazing really. He’s the best chef this country has produced, I think.  

You’ve mentioned before that it’s your ambition to open your own bakery; is that still the case?

Yes, I’ve wanted to do that ever since I was young really, not a big thing, just a nice old-school look to it – very humble, great bread, birthday cakes, celebration cakes – just a high end bakery really, and make it really accessible to everybody; turn it into a school to show people how to bake. There’s lots of avenues I’d like to explore like pastry recruitment as well but definitely a bakery is at the top of the list.

Read Chris's recipe for cucumber and basil here

Read the recipe for Chris's lemon, coffee and pumpkin here

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The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 15th April 2014

Chris Underwood, The Five Fields, London