When I arrived in London over a year ago, it took a couple months to get settled, but I quickly found a job as a pastry chef at a semi-famous company, O*. My employment lasted only three months which is the shortest job I’ve ever had; in retrospect I can safely say it was also the worst job I’ve ever suffered through. That was Phase I of my pastry career in London.
Phase II began when I started freelancing and getting jobs through staffing agencies. This employment situation has been much more compatible with my lifestyle here in London, and I’ve gotten the opportunity to meet some really great people and work on some pretty cool projects.
Next, of course, is Phase III, which caught me completely by surprise, just last week. I was originally planning that my second year in London would see me reaching out and expanding my professional network to The Mainland as I looked for part-time temporary work all over France, Italy, Spain, Belgium, etc. I figured that it would be a shame to live so close to all these world-class food (and pastry) meccas and not try to get some experience working there. Having line items like working in some tiny patisserie in Austria, or a family-run bistro in France on my resume would be fantastic for when I return home. This was my plan for Phase III. I was all geared up to put out the feelers and see if any places needed an American pastry chef for a few weeks at a time.
But the best laid plans and all that…
What Phase III actually turned out be is the opportunity to be the Head Pastry Chef at a local café, designing the menus, creating the recipes, and training the staff. On a part-time basis. With flexible hours and tons of creative control. These sorts of jobs don’t come along often (ever!), so I figured I better pounce on this one and see what I could make of it.
This opportunity came about through a buddy of mine that I originally met at O* (See, ONE good thing came of all that suffering!). He had recently been bouncing from one job to the next which is pretty common for our industry here in London, when he found a small café that needed a Head Chef (Note #1). He interviewed there, got the job, and then called me that very day to let me know that his new employer also wanted a Head Pastry Chef.
So of course I immediately scheduled an interview and a tasting!
I met with the café owners, found out what they were looking for, and I instantly knew this was something I could really dig into and do some great work. At my work-trial and tasting a couple days later I made four desserts: Red Velvet cake, chocolate-hazelnut macarons, Orange-polenta cake, and Carrot cake. They loved it.
Red Velvet cake, chocolate-hazelnut macarons, Orange-polenta cake, and Carrot cake
The café itself is The Green Room Café in Hackney, on Stoke Newington Church Street. It originally started as a floral shop in the mid-90’s before the owners decided to add a café to the space. Over the span of about 10 years they dug out a kitchen, extended the retail space, and built a garden (patio/deck) out back. The neighborhood is a cool little street in Hackney, with several other small cafes and restaurants; it’s an up-and-coming area with lots of potential and I’m excited to make my mark.
This past Thursday was my first official day on the job, before a big long holiday weekend, Easter. Here in London, that’s a four-day weekend akin to our Thanksgiving weekend. Since I wasn’t planning on working over the holiday weekend (Note #2) it meant I had a lot to do: about 12 cakes and two trays of brownies. It was a good amount of work, manageable, but what made it more challenging was working in a new kitchen, making conversions between American recipes and British ingredients, and the typically mismatched equipment. I got it all done well enough, but I’m looking forward to a more normal week so I can refine everything.
This morning when I arrived, they had sold everything, and then some. So that’s a good sign!
Going forward, I have a lot of ideas about what I want to try. I’m planning on creating a few core items which are always on the menu, a few weekly specials, and also rotating the menu on a seasonal basis. The British clientele is much more open to a varied range of desserts than I’m used to with the American consumer, so I’m really looking forward to trying both British classics and some newer more innovative ideas, too. I expect to become very proficient at the Victoria sponge (which is exactly the same thing as the American pound cake), but I’m also excited about testing out my own pastry ideas and recipes.
Here in London, titles are a little different than I’m used to at home. In most places that I’ve worked (that doesn’t have a huge number of employees) the Head Chef is the top kitchen employee. If there are multiple locations to the business, or if there are many employees, then the title of Executive Chef makes an appearance. But otherwise, it’s Head Chef to Sous Chef to Chef de Partie to Kitchen Porter. Of course back in the US, we seem to use Executive Chef a little more broadly and if the team is big enough, we’ll put Chef de Cuisine in between Exec and Sous.
I find it weird (and shocking) that so many places close their kitchen for extended bank holidays. I was in a place recently that wouldn’t serve food because it was a Monday bank holiday. As an employee, I love it, it’s great to know that in most circumstances I’ll get the day off with the rest of the normal world. But as a former business owner and as a red-blooded American, I’m shocked that Britishers would willingly lose out on such a potential high revenue days when so many other people are looking to dine out!