Lewis Wilson, Head Pastry Chef, The Ritz

The Staff Canteen

Lewis Wilson is head pastry chef at The Ritz, which just achieved its first star in the Michelin Guide UK.

He has been there for the past ten years starting at the bottom and working his way up and he now oversees a team of 18 pastry chefs. Before The Ritz, Lewis worked at Deca with Nico Ladenis and Mirabelle with Marco Pierre White.

We spoke to Lewis about why mise en place is so important when you are serving Afternoon Tea to 400 people a day, why he enjoys making the classics and why he still thinks pastry needs a bigger profile.

The Ritz

Did you always want to be a pastry chef?

I did two weeks work experience in the kitchen at Cannizaro House in Wimbledon Common, and I loved it. I got a weekend job helping them prep and I started to lose interest in school because I’d found something I really enjoyed. I went on to do an apprenticeship there for the next three years, where I got to do a little bit of pastry but not as much as I would have liked.

Next I worked for a year at Durrants Hotel where I did a lot of pastry, and I learned a little bit. It was good fun. For me, the baptism of fire came when I went to Lyon and worked at Auberge de l'Ill, it was insane.

I started there just as the Michelin Guide came out and they were awarded their second star, and I was on pastry on my own.

Thinking back, what I was doing then compared to now was quite basic but at the time I remember thinking to myself ‘what have I let myself in for?’ But it was fun and I wish I’d stayed there longer, it was my first proper experience of pastry and it was full on but that’s what made me realise pastry was what I wanted to do.

You headed back to London and started working for Nico Ladenis at Deca.

I was there for three and a half years. I was in the kitchen as well as on pastry which at the time I enjoyed. The more I learned and the more I saw on pastry, the more it grabbed hold of me. I moved from there to Mirabelle because I went to eat there and knew I wanted to work there. The chef at the time said I couldn’t do both I had to choose. I chose pastry - it wasn’t a hard choice but that’s when the cooking stopped. It was full on pastry; we were changing the du jour menu regularly, we had the à la carte which was set by Marco (Pierre White) so it was a very good grounding. Getting to make puff pastry by hand for the first time, making bread – it was great.

Is there a dessert that you still love now from when you first got into pastry?

Prune and Armagnac ice cream! It’s one of Marco’s classics and it was…so good. We used to put the prunes into a soufflé base and then serve the ice cream on the side.

Hazelnut Semi-Freddo, Chocolate

and Vanilla 

So where would you say you learnt the most about pastry?

I got my grounding at Mirabelle but coming here, this where I learnt pastry. I thought I had a bit of skill and knowledge, then I came to The Ritz and realised I had a way to go.

Was it quite daunting coming in to such a prestigious kitchen?

Coming here really opened my eyes. I started on the night shift and we’d come in and make all the scones, the bread, canapé bases, the different sables and shells for the kitchen plus wrapping the beef wellingtons. People often don’t realise how many things the pastry kitchen actually touches.

I’d heard the stories so I knew it would be hard, it’s a big kitchen, they were going to expect a lot and the job would be very demanding. I was prepared to work hard though and my shift would start at 3.30am. I came into it a little bit cocky, having done pastry before I thought I knew what I was doing then my first job was to make a 1000 scones! We do a minimum of 32 kilos of flour a night just for scones – that was an awakening.

What’s a typical day for a pastry chef at The Ritz?

It depends which section I’m on but generally we start by getting the pastries ready for the Afternoon Tea sittings of the day so we’ll glaze the chocolate and cherry muse, fill the choux and build the tarts. At the moment we have four pastries and two trolley cakes and we have to have everything ready by 10am for the first sitting, which begins at 11.30am in The Palm Court. It’s a big push and the guys come in at 7am. Once 10am comes it’s straight into the mise en place for the rest of the day and the following day. Afternoon Tea is a machine you have to be on top – if you start falling behind it’s a struggle to catch up. Especially as we have 400 people a day coming for tea at The Ritz.

Are the dishes at The Ritz as classic as people may think?

In pastry, we are not too crazy but we try to take something classic and give it a modern spin. At The Ritz we have to have a certain style and I don’t want to be doing crazy food, I don’t want to be doing too many foams, gels or jellies. We cook what we would want to eat and then we make sure it looks pretty too. We do a glazed apple mousse or a classic Mille-Feuille, and it’s just about real flavours and textures.

Talk us though a typical dish.

The glazed apple mousse, we have a Calvados ice cream, apples which we caramelize down and turn them into a mousse with crème fresh – so a little bit of acidity form the apple as well as the crème fresh. It’s about trying to present an apple in as many ways as we can. 

Do you have an input into which desserts are on the menu?

Dessert Menu creation for The Ritz Restaurant is my responsibility. We create something, take it to our executive chef John Williams, and he’ll say yes, no or this is how we are going to change it to make it work. With all the best will in the world he is there to reign us in but it’s also a good opportunity to still learn.

>>> VIDEO: John Williams cooks turbot and langoustine, teal and celeriac recipes

Dish development is important, you have to keep the guys interested but at the same time you have to give them enough time to understand the dish. You can’t keep taking dishes away every couple of days just as they have started to learn it.

Do you have a favourite dish at the moment?

I’d say the tonka choux from the Afternoon Tea. Tonka isn’t something you really see in many places. It’s like a spicy vanilla and it just works so well with chocolate. Having a choux on tea was one of my biggest challenges for a long time. We needed the right equipment and when we finally got it we’ve had choux on the menu ever since. Initially the ovens weren’t big enough to cope with how many we were making, we had 12 trays with 20 pieces on each so we needed a really good oven to hold the heat and get them all to rise evenly. 

Vanilla Mousseline with

Caramelised Apple, Almonds

and Calvados Ice Cream 

When something doesn’t work on pastry does it come down to experience knowing how to fix it?

In the kitchen if your sauce is a bit thin you can just reduce it or if it’s not seasoned you add a bit more salt for example. If you’ve made a mousse and it’s not set there’s always a reason – you may have forgot the gelatine, put too much cream in it – you’ve got to understand the recipe and the method and you can’t deviate. There’s a lot of method to it all which you have to learn, and the best way to learn is by doing it over and over again. You have to make mistakes and you have to understand why it’s gone wrong. You have to be very precise in pastry.

You have to be patient, you can’t rush things – you put your mousse in the freezer and you’ve got to wait. Or when we are building cakes with inserts, if your inserts aren’t frozen then you aren’t going anywhere.

Do you get any unusual requests or do you get asked for desserts which haven’t been on the menu for years?

Yes, we got asked for an Omelette Norvégienne Mount Vesuvius not too long ago. It’s like a Neapolitan, we put it in a terrine, covered it with a sponge and froze it. Then covered it in piped meringue and baked it in the oven, with a ramekin on top also covered in meringue. Once it’s out of the oven we filled the ramekin with alcohol, lit it and presented it to the guest with its own volcano on top.

If you had to pick a dessert to eat what would it be?

The last time I went out it was sticky toffee pudding but, this sounds really bad, I love a cheap Tiramisu!

Have you noticed an increase in interest in pastry, or is it still a struggle to get chefs?

Over the last year we’ve been getting students from Westminster Kingsway who do two years in the kitchen and then a final year on pastry. They do five week stages with us and they are enthusiastic. I still think pastry chefs need a bigger profile – I don’t think many people at school would think ‘yeah I want to be a pastry chef’. It’s not like France where they are whipped out of school at 15 and put in a pastry kitchen.

Lewis Wilson

Do you make many desserts which are finished at the table by front of house?

We do things like the ice bombe glacée which is hazelnut ice cream, hazelnut mousse and chocolate ice cream – we put it in a dome and glaze it with chocolate, loads of meringue and add chocolate decoration and nuts. It’s a big spectacular piece which is presented on the guéridon trolley and the front of house flambé cherries from a sauce we make while another waiter cuts the bomb and serves it with the cherries. It’s so much fun and it adds a great theatrical element to dining in The Ritz Restaurant.

It’s not long until Christmas, what does that time of year mean to the pastry team at The Ritz?

We’ve already made the Christmas Puddings – we make 600 small ones for Christmas Day and private dining at the hotel plus 200 large ones which we sell in the shop. We put them in pots and they are kept in the celler where the alcohol keeps fermenting. The recipe is our Executive Chef’s.

So what’s next for you?

Well where do you go after The Ritz? There was a time when I wanted my own place but genuinely I’ve always said I will leave here when I feel I can’t take it any further. Every day there is someone else to teach, something new to create or something to improve. I’m very lucky, as a pastry chef you want equipment, space and menu freedom – we are given all of that here.

*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 their meal even more memorable?

The pastry team can create special celebration cakes which can be individually personalised for guests.



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Editor 18th October 2016

Lewis Wilson, Head Pastry Chef, The Ritz