Table Talk: An interview with Eric Lanlard, Master Pâtissier

Eric you've been a master pâtissier for many years now, tell us how you discovered your passion.


I was quite young actually. I started making cakes when I was five. I don't know where it came from because my family weren't chefs, they didn't run a bakery or restaurant but I always wanted to do it. I remember when I was six trying to make chocolate éclairs, it was a bit too ambitious really… it was a disaster!


Could you describe for us some of the challenges of running a successful pâtisserie business and how you've overcome them?


First of all it's a huge difference running a pâtisserie in France and running one in the UK. Working for the Rouxs for example, I could see what the customers wanted, I could see it was a completely different market - i.e. if you go to Paris it is completely over the top and very sophisticated, almost like going to a jewellery shop, like Cartier to buy a diamond ring. I knew with this business I would have to do something different, I would have to be open minded and it had to sit with our customers. I think that's why it was a success because people were not scared to walk into our shop.


You mentioned Michel and Albert Roux in your last answer, could you tell us a bit about how working for them influenced your future career.


My plan was to come for only one year, as I just wanted to improve my English and carry on travelling. I didn't know what to expect but it was really amazing. The main thing with Albert and Michel was they were pushing young people from all over the world to come and work for them and to share their secrets, and they really wanted them to leave with something better. I got promoted almost straight away as they could see how hard I was working - not like France where you have to show your age or grey hair in order to get promoted! I was 22 as Head Chef of a Pâtisserie with 15 people under me - that would have never happened in France. I was a bit star-struck at first, but they were such nice people and I have such respect for them for what they did.


In the last few years you moved into television.  How did that come about?


We did some slots on morning TV and a show for BBC - Girls on Top with Charlie Dimmock and Anna Richardson. They were visiting a business and spending the day with them. I think at the time we did something for the royal family - a cake for the Queen Mother perhaps. They contacted us and asked if they could film with us. At that time the first food channel, Good Food UK, had started a live show and they needed a pastry chef so I started to go on live shows. I started talking to producers about doing a TV show about baking because every time I did a six minute slot on Good Food or This Morning, people were just raving about it. Paul Hollywood from The Great British Bake-Off - Paul and I were working together on the Good Food Channel and he said exactly the same thing, nobody cared about baking then, people wanted to make main courses and starters but were too scared to make cakes or bake. Now here we are, baking is ruling the world at the moment.


You've also branched out into cookery books as well, could you tell us a bit about the journey from conception to publication?


I am very lucky to be with Octopus Publishers, they are very good. My first book was more of a celebration cake because that's what we were known for at that time, so that's what we did, but in the last three books (there's also one going to print in July), we went more for the baking market. I say to people there are two Erics - Eric the cake boy who makes sophisticated wedding cakes and fine pâtisseries, then I bake cheesecake and muffins. If I have guests coming in and they expect a Michelin style dessert they are surprised because I cook differently at home. I've also just moved on to doing a bit of savoury, sweet and savoury tarts, pies, etc. You learn to do savoury when you are a pastry chef anyway so I thought it would be a great thing. I'm getting very excited about that. We have something up our sleeve for the next book already.


You've also created some wedding cakes for some quite high profile clients.  Do you ever feel the pressure when you're making a cake for such an auspicious occasion?


When you do wedding cakes you are always under pressure because there is a lot that can go wrong. Any wedding, doesn't matter if it's an A list celebrity and it's going to be on a magazine, the explanation if something went wrong on the day... It's actually very stressful preparing the cake, and it's always one of the last bits to be organised. I am always worried when I get a phone call, the bride from last week, but in the end she's calling to say she is really happy, the cake was amazing! It's really rewarding, that's what I love about baking - you can make a cake when someone is coming to visit you or it's a birthday - a happy occasion link, there is nothing better than seeing a bride happy and she gets to look at those pictures for the rest of her life.


What's your best piece of advice for someone starting out in the profession that might hope to reach the heights that you've reached?


Training is quite different in the UK - pastry chefs in France would do a two-year apprenticeship learning the craft, which would give you some good knowledge of what the basics are and you would have to carry on learning and travelling a bit. In this country it's quite difficult, it's not like in France where you can find a Pâtisserie in any village, here it is quite difficult to find someone who can afford to train and spend the time to look after somebody for a period of two years. Even I found it difficult with so much going on, writing the books, etc, to make sure that you help them become the best. My advice would be to go for the apprenticeship - it's changing a little bit, there are college courses etc. The main thing is to learn your basics, we have students who come in for a week with us and they already know how to make wedding cakes but they can't bake a Victoria sponge. You can create sugar flowers but if the cake is not good it is not worth it. When I first started my apprenticeship I thought I would do these big wedding cakes, etc, but for the first six months I only did pastry day in, day out. Now I understand why because I can make good pastry!


What's next for you - do you have any ambitions you still would like to achieve?


The best thing about doing television and then books is that it makes your brain work, which is great. There are always some new ingredients to find - I am lucky enough to travel a lot and I get inspiration from the places I go to. There is always a challenge ahead, that's why I still love it as much as I did the first day I walked into my apprenticeship because there is always something going on and you can always challenge yourself to do something new. Our classes as well are full and I hope that carries on - a baking revolution, so I can teach the world!


Speaking of teaching - it must be quite challenging but rewarding as well?


Yes it is - eight people max in the day classes from eighteen year olds to eighty year olds - now we're getting people from abroad! Most of them are amateurs but we do get some chefs coming in as well. People say others won't believe they made it, particularly when decorating the cakes, and to me that is very rewarding. Someone in the class last week submitted a review and she said it was ‘accessible,' and she wasn't a keen baker or pastry chef but she went back home with confidence and said I can do this, I can do more recipes! That makes me happy.


Baking Mad (sponsored by www.bakingmad.com) with Eric Lanlard returns to Channel 4 in March - 20 brand new episodes.


31 January 2012

2013