Damien Wager, Head of Pastry, Beechfield House Hotel

The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 18th July 2017

Self-taught pastry chef, Damien Wager is currently head of pastry at the Beechfield House in Beanacre near Bath which has 2 Rosettes in the AA Restaurant Guide.

Whilst spending his teenage years studying to be a PE teacher, Damien discovered his love for pastry. Rather than follow the conventional route into the industry Damien taught himself how to temper chocolate and to make macarons by watching YouTube videos. After mastering the techniques Damien worked his way up the ranks in the kitchen until he felt comfortable enough to move into the pastry section and hasn’t looked back.

The Staff Canteen spoke to Damien about being a self-taught pastry chef, his new patisserie venture, Edible Art and why his best ideas come to him whilst he’s driving.

Do chefs need to go to culinary school?

Lemon, thyme panna cotta
Lemon, thyme panna cotta

You haven’t been to culinary school, but worked your way up, how do you think this has helped you throughout your career?

I think by ‘cutting your teeth’ in the kitchen environment you tend to keep up with ‘trends’ and the modern side of the industry instead of the classic style which is taught from the ground up within culinary academies/schools. I am also biased to the type of chef that has grafted from the bottom up.

They tend to have more respect for everyone within the brigade as they have experienced it all and earned the respect along the way without the thought of ‘self-entitlement’ from receiving a piece of paper from a college, however I appreciate what the colleges do in terms of producing numbers to filter through the various outlets and sides of the catering industry. The cream always reaches the surface as they say, so where they come from or from which lane makes no difference.

Looking back, do you think you would go to culinary school knowing what you know today?

No. I don’t feel that knowing what I know now I would be accelerated in my career by attending either a full time or ‘day release’ course. I am primarily self-taught in pastry, and I 100% believe that is the best way. Most recipes in patisserie only tell half the story, it’s all about the touch, feel, temperature etc, and that, like finesse, can’t be taught, it has to be experienced hands on in person. I taught myself how to temper chocolate by watching videos online, same with macarons.

Along the way, I must have wasted around £150 worth of produce trying to master macarons, and I apologise to the chef whose GP would have taken a beating, but in order to succeed you need to fail, right? A lot of chefs wouldn’t give me the time of day, and for that I am grateful as it makes me want to succeed more. I thrive on the criticism and negative comments made. You have to have a thick skin in this industry.

Head of pastry at Beechfield House Hotel

What is it like being head pastry chef at the Beechfield House Hotel?

Mainly rewarding. The closest I get to having anything dictated to me is when the head chef, Mikey Bain, throws a vague idea at me for a future dessert which I then have a play around with and see if there’s anything that jumps out at me as being a potential new plated dessert for one of the taster menus. I have full control, trust and backing from both Mikey and Chris, the owner, to realise my vision and put my signature on the plate so to speak.

Info Bar

Signature dishes

Toffee Apple

Black Forest

Desert island desserts

Macarons! Love them, any flavour. The most beautiful and perfect creation that can be made in pastry.

Salt caramel tart. I have a recipe that has been adapted from the Phil Howard ‘Square’ recipe. It has the texture and a taste like crème caramel.

Triple chocolate brownie. I have several nicknames for this, all of them revolve around diabetes. So good but so rich and gooey! The tiniest piece is enough, my most popular recipe I’m not too proud to admit.

If it wouldn’t melt in the heat, a large tub of milk sorbet. So refreshing and smooth. Bound to stop the dehydration for a while!

Classic flapjack! Hearty, no fuss, no thrills. Simple food

What are your biggest challenges in your role?

Self-control. There are so many other intricate details, garnishes, components I would love to do for various items on the menu, but working as part of a small team I have to reign myself in and hold myself back a bit. No one wants to do that, my worst nightmare is putting a dish ‘out there’ knowing there is a specific garnish missing through practicality reasons, an isomalt sugar spiral for example, and someone commenting something along the lines ‘nice dish, but would look better with….’such and such garnish I know I have missed off because I physically can’t accommodate having that on my prep list along with my other day to day jobs.

I am happy with everything that goes out, it wouldn’t be on the menu otherwise, but I do dream and wonder what it would be like to have a team of five or six pastry chefs within my brigade. What could be achieved then?

Beechfield House Hotel exterior
Beechfield House Hotel

Your Instagram bio says you are the Edible Art founder, could you tell me a bit more about that?

Edible Art is my future. I secured financial backing last year to open my own patisserie back in Cornwall, but situations and life changes, and I took the decision to move to Bath to be with my girlfriend instead of spending a fortune on fuel every week driving up and down the M5, I swear I could do the whole trip with my eyes closed. Financial backing will come time and time again if you’re good enough, but I highly doubt I would find another girlfriend like the one I have, nor would I want to. She supports everything I do, including my end goal/dream of opening my high-end patisserie, under the Edible Art name and logo, within the next five years.

Food style and dish creation

How do you come up with a new recipe/ new dessert?

Honestly? Nine times out of ten, when I’m driving. Don’t know why, just tends to be when I can think clearer and away from the kitchen environment where your opinion can be influenced. The only way I can describe my thought process is when you’re listening to a song and trying to remember another song’s lyrics, its near on impossible; In the kitchen, I have ideas, but it’s usually just where I put the ideas I have had in the car, in my sleep or simply lounging around the house into practise. I am lucky that my hobbies revolve around my work, so I take solitude and relaxation from thinking about work, and thinking of dishes/recipes that could change the U.K. pastry scene.

How would you describe your cooking style?

Flamboyant. I like everything lineal, but that’s just my OCD. If it’s not perfect in my eyes then I can, and in the past, have shed a tear. I will beat myself up mentally if something doesn’t work in theory like it does in my head or how I scribbled it down in one of my note books. I judge myself not against my peers working in similar establishments, but against the likes of Antonio Bachour & Cedric Grolet. If they can achieve what they can, then without diminishing what they have done, why can’t I achieve it? My answer always returns to the same conclusion, that I am not working hard enough.

Powder coated mint and dark chocolate tart
Toffee apple

How did you become a Luscious Morsels Pastry Lab ambassador and what does this entail?

Luscious Morsels is a U.K. official distributor of Pavoni and Martaletto, as well as many others, based in Cheshire. Over the coming months we have a few classes both hands on and demonstration style showcasing all the amazing products they stock and how they can be used, as a lot of chefs both pastry and hot side, are unaware of some of the products widely available to the modern chef.

I struck a relationship with them after placing a couple of orders early this year, and we began negotiating how a ‘collaboration’ could benefit both parties after seeing some of my ‘creations’ via Instagram. I admire the support and trust they are showing me as their logo and reputation is sort of passed onto me when in the public spotlight and especially during the classes, that requires a lot of mutual respect.

How Damien got into the industry and pastry

When did you decide to focus on pastry and why?

Around two years ago. I have always been interested in pastry, but never had anyone to show me the ropes so to speak. I had/have always worked with head chefs who fit the stereotype that they can ‘get by’ when writing their dessert menus, but they’re not trying to get noticed for them, more the fact the starters and mains were stunning, so hopefully the customer won’t mind a generic dessert. I have always had a sweet tooth, so I would always be the chef who volunteered or wanted to run the pastry section in places where there wasn’t a full-time pastry chef. My good friend, Simon George who is head chef at the Alverton hotel, Truro, gave me my first head pastry chef position when he was head chef at another hotel and it was then that I knew I would become a pastry chef full time, I just needed to learn a bit more, and being self-taught, I needed to work my way up the ranks within the hot side of the kitchen in order to gain the opportunity and chance to experiment with patisserie.

Have you also covered other areas of the kitchen?

Yes. I worked my way up from potwash right through the ranks. I held a sous position in a 2-rosette restaurant at the age of 22, and was head chef of a 4 star 1 Rosette hotel, famous for its wedding venue, when I was 24. It was here that I got the chance to experiment a bit more with patisserie before taking the lunge into full time patisserie.

Beechfield House Hotel
Beechfield House Hotel 

Would you advise young chefs to choose a specialist area early?

Definitely. I regret the way I found my path. I feel I wasted four years from the age of 16 to 20 by attending college and university to become a P.E. teacher only to fall in love with this industry, so to then take another 4/5 years to realise I wanted to 100% be a pastry chef, it is a bit annoying. But everything happens for a reason, right?

*A question from our sponsors Callebaut:

With special occasion dining being so popular, do you add special pastry dishes to your menu to allow your guests to celebrate, making the meal even more memorable?

All the time. We have a variety of functions each and every week. Funerals, weddings, birthdays you name it. It’s an emotional rollercoaster all the time! I have produced a number of personalised entremets for guests. We also offer the opportunity for brides and grooms to speak personally to a chef and try and build a custom menu based on their favourite dishes etc. One of the guaranteed ways of having the guests leave happy is to produce their favourite dishes, but with a professional twist and visual wow factor that they have never seen before.

The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 18th July 2017

Damien Wager, Head of Pastry, Beechfield House Hotel