Sarah Hartnett, Pastry Chef, Sheraton Park Lane

The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 25th January 2011
Sarah, thank you very much for meeting with us today.  Can you start by giving us a brief outline of your role at the Sheraton. A normal day for me starts at 8am.I arrive to see the breakfast person and check any morning  functions are running on time. Next I'll check my emails to see if any birthday cakes or celebration cakes have been ordered, check the information from our events department to note any changes. Then we will go through the event orders for the rest of the day.  Next I visit the outlets - check over the breakfast buffet; see that they have everything they need; check the coffee shop; find out the numbers for the afternoon tea bookings, then return to the pastry kitchen. We have a morning briefing at 9.30am with representatives from the outlets and the other sous chefs on duty, and after that start on mis en place for the day. Sarah, how many are in your Pastry team, here? There is seven, now.  We have hired two more chefs recently, so we are up to full numbers for the first time in a very long time. Sarah, how difficult is it attracting staff 1) for pastry and 2) in a hotel?  I mean, we see in a lot of London hotels Gordon Ramsay above the door; Heston Blumenthal above the door; Marcus Wareing - the list goes on.  Now, they are all very attractive names and they all do a fantastic job but does that make it more difficult for hotels to attract chefs? Because they are seen to be less sexy, for want of a better word? I think the biggest problem is attracting any chefs at all to any part of the industry because there is a real shortage.  We have gone through a real phase, over the past couple of years, where there are no CVs coming through from anywhere, whether it is agencies, colleges we have links with, other contacts. Just recently there has been a turnaround and  we have been very lucky to receive some very strong CVs, which is quite unusual.  It can be challenging to attract people into a hotel and they need to see the benefits of working for a large company. Starwood has 1,000 worldwide hotels. They treat staff very well and provide a great working environment.  . We are fortunate to have great conditions- uniforms are supplied, staff food is great, there is a real interest in staff training- whether it is a skills course in chocolate or afternoon teas, fish and butchery, and also practical trainer courses, first aid etc.  Working conditions are well monitored and controlled- with an average of 40 hours a week, and lieu time is accrued. Wow, that is very good. In busy times lieu time is accrued so there is always a chance in quieter times that you will get an extra few days off.  At  Christmas time everybody gets a fair break - a week for Christmas or week for New Year and it's a good working environment.  We have the equipment that we need to do the job.  We are always trying to keep up with new trends as everybody else, we can't always use them in the same ways but we can find things that work for us.  Our Afternoon Tea is an area that we can really try different things - if it doesn't work how we need it to, then we try something else. Afternoon Tea has really gone BOOM in London over the last seven or eight years, hasn't it? Yes, the Afternoon Tea market has really grown. It's kind of like those without their own restaurants, they are almost using Afternoon Tea as their showcase and shop window. Yes. I mean, it was The Ritz and now you have Browns - Best Afternoon Tea.  There are some really chintzy things going on with Afternoon Tea. Yes, Afternoon Teas are a very strong area for us, especially for Pastry.  We make all of our pastries, our scones, we make our jams and curds as well, which is a little bit unusual and a bit of a selling point as well because when the fruits are in season you can use them.  The Tea Guild give Awards of Excellence for Afternoon Tea and we have done well in them the last couple of years and achieved the award again this year. Well done, that's a great achievement. Being in the top 12 for Afternoon Tea in London means a lot to us. Fantastic. I think a lot Afternoon Tea is about the entire experience and it depends on what the customer chooses to experience that will make it unique for them. The Park Lane Hotel has a lot to offer, the Palm Court lounge is cosy; the staff are very friendly, the harpist plays all afternoon; it is very easy to relax and let the hours flow by as you enjoy great food, great service, and if you're with the right people, great company! The great thing about Afternoon Tea is that you don't have to be a certain person to be able to afford it.  It's doesn't have to be very expensive and mostly people can find somewhere that will suit their price range. So you might have the people that save for a special occasion - a birthday; a hen party. At the Park Lane Hotel you can hire out a separate room, almost adjacent to Palm Court and you can host 40 people.  Two weeks ago we have a party of 100 people for Afternoon Tea as their anniversary dinner - it's a popular thing to do. Sarah, did you start your career as a Pastry Chef? My very first job was at Ballymaloe House in Cork, working for Myrtle Allen. I started a part time job in the pastry kitchen before I went to college where I trained in Cork, in CIT in Cork doing a two year basic cookery course.  There is an Irish qualification called the NTCB which I did for year 1 and 2, at the same time I did the City & Guilds 1 and 2.  Then I was looking to do a pastry course. My mum was really great at all home cooking and baking, and my dad is a retired butcher, so we were lucky to always have really great food at home. I grew up licking the bowl out, like most chefs will tell you, and if I wasn't doing that my dad was timing me to see how long it would take me to bone out a chicken! I wanted to do a pastry course in CIT but at the time, to be able to do the Advanced Pastry course you had to be 24 years old - they wanted people with experience to come back and do it, and I was only 18. Luckily for me, my finishing college coincided with my parents being at a dinner. They got talking to someone else at this dinner and their daughter was working in Claridges. She was home on holiday at the time, and she came in the next day and showed me her pictures and I said "Right that is what I am going to do." So I rang up John Hubert, who was in TVU (Thames Valley University) in Slough at the time; went on a day trip; met him and Pat Williams and signed up for the course... the rest is history.  I moved to London and started working in a hotel, shortly after which Iwent to Claridges to work with Tina Twohig (the person who had come in to show me her folder!) And who was the Executive Chef when you were at Claridges? John Williams.  He was my boss for six and a half years and then Martyn Nail took over and then I moved here to The Park Lane Hotel where I have been for nearly six years. Sarah, what advice would you give to somebody who is embarking on a career and that wants to be a Pastry Chef?  Would it be specialise in Pastry from day one? I think it is very good to have a base knowledge of the kitchen - how to make a béchamel; a Soufflé; how to make batters etc.  I know it sounds simple but I think that if you know enough about the kitchen then there are times when you can help them.   When we have tastings in the kitchen the Sous Chefs will say "Come and have a taste of this and see what you think" and we will do the same. You might not always take their advice but you can listen to them and decide on what you want to use.  It also helps when you want to balance a menu. If you know how a menu is being developed, then it is easier to decide whether they should have a hot or cold dessert, whether it can be a lighter option to finish off. Is there still that healthy banter between kitchen and pastry? Well, I have heard "Stove top ballerina" from a couple of people, but it makes me laugh. "Sponge monkey" and all those kind of things? Oh, we can shout "Cabbage mechanic" back at them! (Laughter).  But there is a very healthy working relationship, really, there is no aggression in our kitchen. But also, the chefs don't really understand pastry, do they?  So you are always at an advantage, aren't you? Well, you see I would always say to anybody who wants to be a Head Chef, anywhere, no matter what age you are, if you haven't trained in a Pastry kitchen and you don't know basic knowledge then your Pastry Chef can really pull the wool over your eyes. There are occasions when you should know the difference and how things can work.  You don't need to know the ins and outs of everything but I think it is a helpful thing to do. Where are all the Pastry Chefs?  Why are we so short of them? It's very hard to know why and Pastry Chefs spend a lot of time wondering that ourselves.  The APC (Association of Pastry Chefs), they do their bit to try and get the Pastry network together, as do a group of London based pastry chefs who organise outings and demonstrations on a monthly basis. Are we doing enough at grassroots to attract people?  I Mean, I know we are short of Chefs all over but we are massively short of Pastry Chefs. Well, the thing that a lot of us find hard to understand is that there is a healthy number of students in the classes in the colleges.  There isn't a huge gap where you have no Pastry students.  Westminster College; TVU in Ealing any of these colleges have a good number of Pastry Chefs on their intake. Are there more opportunities now, then? Cruise liners, going abroad, the Middle East? I think going aboard is a big thing and travelling.  But just in the last four or five years it seems harder to find people with decent enough knowledge and culinary skills. A lot of people will get to the point where they hire for personality. - hire for the personality that you feel will fit into your team and then you teach them the skills they need. Provided they have the enthusiasm and willingness to learn, it can be easier to teach them from the basics to more advanced techniques. Lots of students might come out of College with a Diploma but they can't temper chocolate, they can't make pastry cream - very simple, basic jobs which causes a lot of problems. Maybe they've only had time to do these tasks once or twice at college and don't have the hang of it. When I started as a commis I had to accept that even with training I didn't know everything, and knew that it was better to start at the bottom of the ladder and work my way up. You feel more confident knowing the basics and developing what you know. Do you think, to a degree, it has been a bit of a vicious circle in that  there is a shortage of Pastry Chefs so the Chefs have looked to out source and then because Chef's are out sourcing they have reduced the size of their Pastry because you can't have 10 Pastry Chefs and out source? To a degree, I would agree with that but I think the flip side is a lot of kitchens have been designed and the Pastry is the last thing they think about . Most kitchens are the last thing hotels think about when they are designing! (Laughter).  You have this beautiful hotel and then they think "Where are we going to put the kitchen, then?" It's true and often because they can't find the people to fill the gaps they are left with no other option but to outsource.  But employers should pick up from having an enthusiastic student, who wants to make something from scratch. In one work placement from college I tried out making some breads and cakes in a hotel that predominantly bought in most pastry items. By the end of my work placement, not only had we stopped buying in the cakes and mousses, we were also selling the brown bread to customers who had enjoyed it with their soup. Young talent needs to be supported and encouraged to go to College. The value of competitions which encourage training and discipline like The Awards of Excellence; The Craft Guild Graduate Awards; The Pastry Chef of the Year Competition - you need something to keep the drive going and recognition when Chefs succeed. A few weeks ago we went to Birmingham and talked to 32 kids in a school  - I think there is a lot of potential Pastry Chefs or even Chefs out there but it is not necessarily promoted well in schools.  But when you see kids with products, whether it's pastry or a savoury item, they are so, so excited by making something themselves from start to finish, it's a real shame it is not driven as a career, apart from when we see it being sensationalised on TV. In countries like Switzerland it's very, very different.  I think it would be very hard to name five very well known Pastry Chefs - male or female. Yes.  Umm ...Tony Hoyle, Michael Nadel, Claire Clark...  But I think Claire's profile has really been raised since she went over to The French Laundry. She's got her pop-up tea shop at Harvey Nicks now, I worked with her in Claridges. Yes, of course you did.  The shortage of Pastry Chefs, does that then give you an opportunity to increase your value, in terms of salary, because Pastry Chefs are so much more difficult to find? I think that's a reasonable way to look at it, bearing in mind, that the pastry kitchen is normally the largest area in any hotel, servicing all the outlets. I think a lot of Head Chef will say that a good Pastry Chef is worth their weight in gold. Sarah,  thank you very much for your time today.
The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 25th January 2011

Sarah Hartnett, Pastry Chef, Sheraton Park Lane