The Great British Bake Off has done wonders for baking. More people are now interested in learning to cook and bake from scratch than ever before. A new generation of bakers has risen and they are dedicated more and more time to the joys of home-made pastries and cakes.
Sarah Barber, executive pastry chef at Papillon, Hotel Café Royal’s European-style café, couldn’t agree more: “Lots of people, when they get to a certain stage in their career, seem to want to get into baking. I get so many emails asking me for work experience… I ask them ‘What did you do before?’ and they’re like ‘Oh, I did banking’,” Sarah says smiling.
But this comes with its own challenges as home baking is quite different from doing it professionaly. When it opened in March 2016, Papillon added new dimension to London’s culinary scene; a sweet one. Though there are other restaurants in the capital specialising in desserts, Papillon’s setting and heritage make it unique. Anyone who has ever walked down Regent Street will have noticed Hotel Café Royal: it’s an elegant, iconic institution in the area, and has been ever since it opened its doors in 1865.
If the hotel itself has an impressive history, then so does Sarah. Over the years, she has worked in five star hotels and Michelin starred restaurants, including the Corinthia, Yauatcha, which is part of the Hakkasan group, and Dinner by Heston. Surprisingly though, it wasn’t chef Blumenthal who initially inspired Sarah into the kitchen: “My grandfather was a professional chef and I used to go to his house and bake with him as a kid. He was a kitchen chef but he had quite a lot of experience around pastry,” Sarah remembers. “We used to make profiteroles and custard tarts together.”
It was these memories that steered Sarah into the pastry kitchen. “When I was around 15 I realised that I actually really liked cooking and baking, so I enrolled into a professional catering school. That year my grandfather passed away, and since then I’ve always said I cook for him… And that was 18 years ago!” Sarah’s grandfather continues to be the inspiration for her work today: It all relates to him. I take the British classics he showed me and give them a contemporary twist. For instance, we took Jaffa cakes and turned them into a dessert set in a woodland forest. We basically created Alice in wonderland… But it was Sarah in Wonderland!”
The Papillon menu can be challenging, but you’d expect no less from a pastry chef with Sarah’s experience, and a restaurant housed in one of most iconic establishments on Regent Street: Hotel Café Royal. That’s why there are areas within the restaurant that are dedicated solely to innovation. “I don’t do anything behind closed doors. I like to work as though we are a family; some of my guys have been with me for as long as seven years now, following me from my previous hotels. I enjoy working on innovation, but I also want them to feel involved in the process, it’s really important to inspire them and for us to develop ideas together.”
Sarah sees her role at the head of the pastry kitchen as more than just ‘Chef’. She often finds herself playing parent, councillor and even teacher to her team of 16, as well. “My kitchen is very scientific. If you miss two grams from something you have to start again. It’s not like a main kitchen where you can add a bit of salt or add a little bit of sugar to rebalance a recipe. It’s an exact science.” Sarah has worked in main kitchens as well, if nothing else because her education required her to try both: “In training, you spend time between kitchen and pastry, and then you get to choose if you want do the savoury stuff permanently, or work with chocolate and sugar, like I do..”
What about Sarah’s own sweet tooth, is it a must have in this business? “I do have a sweet tooth, yes, but I try to keep balance in my day. My job requires me to taste sweet treats very often, so I am probably extra health-conscious as a result.” The most popular dessert at Papillon is a particularly extravagant one – a Ferrero Roche bomb with hazelnut mousse and popping candy, coated in a chocolate praline with an almond biscuit in the middle – but Sarah’s go-to at home is rather more humble: “I love a good old apple and rhubarb crumble with ice cream!”
You can indulge in Sarah’s incredible sweet delights by visiting the Hotel Café Royal Papillon café at 68 Regent Street, W1B 4DY.