Keith Marley, chef owner, La Potiniere

The Staff Canteen

After overcoming some initial self-doubts, Keith Marley is now established as one of Britain's finest pastry chefs - his recent Patisserie Chef of the Year award is testament to his decades of hard work and artistry. He currently runs the successful East Lothian-based restaurant La Potiniere with his wife Mary Runciman, who is also a chef. We caught up with him to discuss his early influences, the importance of competitions and why he thinks culinary 'soils' are a waste of time.

Le Pontiniere KM low resWhat was it that led you into pastry in the first place?

When I left school I didn't really know what I was going to do. And I saw a documentary on a 'day in the life of' – it was six trades and one of them was being a chef. That really took my fancy.

And your career went from there?

I found out there was a position going in a local bakery; went down there and got a position as an apprentice. At the time there was a guy called Cyril Brown – he was the top cake decorator in the country – and I was fascinated watching him work.

I used to sit after hours watching him work. I did three and a half years there working around the bakery. He knew a guy, executive chef Brian Cotterill at Lloyd's of London, they were looking for a young chap to come in and train on the pastry. I tried to talk myself out of it - didn't think I was any good. He didn't listen to me: he said 'I'll tell Brian you're coming up'. So I went up, met Ron Sherman the pastry chef and basically talked myself out of it. Two days later I got a phone call saying I'd got the job! I ended up there seven and half years.

I moved to The Savoy Grill under Pete Stanley for about six months then I went to the RAC club in Pall Mall. From there I went into UBS in the city, seven and a half years there. During that time I'd heard of Bruce Sangster, our veg supplier at the time also dealt with Bruce and he used to come over talking about him.blackcurrant & apple syllabub low res

So I went over and met him, said perhaps one day if a position comes up I'll come and join you. Lo and behold a few months later, a position cropped up. So I had to leave Lehman Brothers and did five and a half years with Bruce.

And Mary?

In 1997, when I was with the Scottish Culinary Team I'd met Mary, and she was doing Female Chef of the Year. And then Mary's Dad informed her that La Potiniere was up for sale. She had a look at it and said to me what do you think? I said yeah let's give it a crack and thirteen years later we're still going strong.

It sounds like you've had some great mentors. Do you try and mentor young pastry chefs?

Well there's only two of us (at La Potiniere) but four or five World Skills candidates come up to me to do a couple of weeks here. They've gone on to do great things as well. It's good to know that I've been part of their career and helped them.

But it's highly important to do that. I love trying to pass on to the younger generation, the apprentices and others, because it doesn't matter what age you are you're going to learn from someone, somewhere all the time. I think if you close that door that you're not going to learn anymore – you're finished. The food nowadays round the world is evolving so much and so quick that you're not going to keep up with everything, but you're going to learn from anyone and everyone.

How has pastry changed since you started out, in terms of what the public expect?

I think, through travelling, people expect quite a bit now. Public perception is hard because people go to France and they'll eat all the French pastries and patisserie and everything. Come back here and they seem to change back to the 'British way'.

Chocolate Moulleux 3 low resSo it's quite hard to get people to carry that on. You don't hear much of it unless you're within the pastry world. The public aren't aware, which is a shame because there are a lot of very, very good pastry chefs around now.

You have competed in a number of competitions, I'm thinking especially of the Culinary Olympics. What did that experience involve?

I'd done it with Bruce in 1996, I started off as a back-up working with Willie Pike, Willie Curley, Dan Brown, Scott Lyle – that was the pastry section which was very, very strong. Dan Brown with the marzipan work and finesse; Scotty was a great all-rounder; Curley was chocolate and desserts and other desserts were myself and Willie Pike; one of the great all-rounders in the country. So you had a right hub of talent there that I could feed off and the idea was you did four years there, then went up and did another four years, worked the cycle and gradually went into the team.

How important are competitions for pastry chefs to get their name out there and showcase their creations?

I think it's highly important. You take Ruth Hinks doing the World Chocolate Masters – she came fifth in the world – she's now got the name out, especially up here.

La Potiniere is known for its pastry, but how hard is it to keep your eye on the pastry when you've got to manage the restaurant as well?

It is hard. I wouldn't say the restaurant is known for the pastry - the restaurant is known for the (savoury) food as well - but we do get a lot of comments about the pastry. Because we use part-time staff out the front, if during the week we are by ourselves we have to gear it so Mary can put it up quite easily. The technique is in the production, the plating is quite easy.

So you've got to work around the fact that there's only going to be two of you in the kitchen sometimes?

Yeah. There is a certain amount of restriction so we've got to be clever about how we do things.

And how would you describe your own style?Coconut & mango mousse low res

Oh, hell!

Is it changing constantly or do you go back to certain flavours and combinations?

There's developments all the time. We've done certain desserts that you can't change, but you change how you put it together – the structure is there. Basically I try and work on flavours that I know go together, as in tropical things.

I try to work seasonal. Like this year the strawberries – I didn't really touch the strawberries because I didn't think they were that good; they weren't lasting, there wasn't the flavour there so I didn't touch them.

And do you pay close attention to trends within pastry?

I do. I try and scan everything. I've got a lot of pastry books here. I get the Journal de Patissier every month as well.

There are certain things I'm not sure about. These 'soils' – I'm not exactly overly impressed with that and they look quite dry on the plate. That's my feeling – and it doesn't mean it's right by any means.

But I do try to keep up with the trends as such. And trend in inverted commas!

And when you are developing a new dish who is it that you go to for feedback? Is it your wife, does she tell you if she doesn't think it is up to scratch?

Oh she'll tell me that! Generally speaking, she's got a very acute palate, for tasting combinations and intensity. But I also, I mean, if I know a certain person is coming to the restaurant I will try it out and say, 'right, this is the first time I am doing this, give me your honest opinion of what you think'.

coffee Parfait low resWhat did it feel like to win Patisserie Chef of the Year?

It took quite a while to sink in to be honest with you. I really didn't fancy my chances at all, so I got a huge shock when they read my name out. What was really nice about that was that Brian Cotterill was there that night as well and that made it extra special for me – it'd been extra special if Ron had been there as well. Brian came up and said: 'You old bastard, well done!'

And I suppose nights like that make the long hours and lonely life as a pastry chef worthwhile?

It certainly does. But it's a job that you've either got a passion for and enjoy, or there's no point in doing it.

The top 5 desserts:

1.) Apple Charlotte with creme chantilly

2.) Apricot & almond tart with Amaretto ice cream

3.) A good creamy warm rice pudding with a good seasonal fruit compote & ice cream

4.) Any dessert with Passion fruit

5.) A really good delicate Panna Cotta, delicate crisp tuile& fresh seasonal fruit

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The Staff Canteen

Editor 17th November 2015

Keith Marley, chef owner, La Potiniere