Paul Kelly, and the stories from The Merrion hotel in Dublin

Paul Kelly, the Executive Pastry Chef and Cacao Barry Ambassador who is this month celebrating his 20th year at The Marrion hotel in Dublin where initially he planned to stay just for a short period, is sharing with us his passion for pastry, love for chocolate and gratitude for the great support he always had from the hotel team.

So Paul,  there has been some news in your pastry kitchen since our last interview. What’s new?

Yes, lots  has happened in the Pastry Section of The Merrion hotel. Three years ago the hotel started a massive project which included a brand new purpose built pastry section. It’s almost like a dream come true for me and my team,we now have a place where we can create and allow our imagination to run wild. I have worked very closely with the designers to make sure that human factors and ergonomics were a priority. I got these mood lights put in over the bread section set on a separate switch so at the end of a shift we can turn off all the main lights, leaving on only the gentle mood lights and  have our debriefs or brainstorming sessions…. it has a wonderful calming effect, it really works! I have also developed our very own bakery in house which means that I now have a full time baker within our team and so we are making all baked products ourselves - this includes all Danish pastry, croissants, muffins, sourdough, seeded baguettes, pecan and raisin sour, soda bread, treacle bread, burger buns and of course scones. We have been dreaming of this for years as we all knew that at this level of service and quality you would have to make all products in the house and the guests absolutely love the selection and the flavours. Getting to this stage took a lot of investment from the hotel and I myself travelled to New York, London, Paris and most importantly Galway (Ireland) to learn how to bake breads and Viennoiserie. I say Galway most importantly because it was there with a good friend and world class baker Jimmy Griffin that I made my first proper Croissant and Pain au Chocolate.

Other news is a new restaurant at the hotel. What kind of desserts are you serving there?

Our new restaurant is called The Garden Room and we have an all-day menu which is available from 12:30 till 10. My desserts are simple in presentation but strong in flavour. You can choose between Salted Caramel chocolate tart with popcorn ice cream, Raspberry Souffle, Fondant, Pear cake,  Lemon Posset and Lavender. We also added small little sweet bites which you can order if you don't feel like having a full dessert - Coconut Rochè, Macaroons, Rice Puffs, Nougat and Madeleines.

Which is your personal favourite and why?

For me it’s always going to be the Soufflé. I think a Soufflé done properly shows a real skill and deserves an admirational nod to the Pastry team. In my early days as a pastry chef I was terrified of the Soufflé, I had seen so many Pastry Chefs break down in desperation when it wouldn’t rise or if it just collapsed for no reason. It wasn't until a few years ago that I decided to add it to our menu and make sure that we got it right. We always use the same basic recipe but change our flavours regularly matching the seasons.
 

You are also working on a project of new concepts of plated desserts. Can you tell us more about it?

I am an Ambassador for Cacao Barry and as part of my role I try and come up with new flavour combinations, so recently we were sent some homework. A beautiful box arrived with the label saying “Unbox your creativity”. Inside were a number of cards, each one described a particular Cacao Barry chocolate and a break down of each with a list of matching flavours. My challenge is plated desserts and I will go into my Pastry kitchen tonight, turn on the mood lights and let my imagination run wild to create a story and a dessert.

 

What would be an ideal dessert for you?

My ideal dessert is one which is not too complicated, true to its menu description, seasonal, has one main flavour - all other flavours complement this one - and I always like to have an ice cream element on the plate.

You are creating desserts for afternoon tea as well as desserts for restaurants. How do you approach the differences and which are for you the greatest differences between the two?

We have a very unique and themed Art Afternoon Tea at the Merrion Hotel. We have the largest privately owned art collection in Europe so a number of years ago “Art Tea” was born…. Basically, I have taken 12 paintings and designed 12 pastries related to them, in some cases my interpretation is clear but in others you need to use your imagination go to see what I have done. Its’ a two course service where you enjoy your delicious sandwiches, scones and tea cakes first and then we serve you a selection of three works of edible art.

When I am designing a dessert menu I always have some clear guidelines, there should be something chocolatey, some fruit, a tart, a hot part, a parfait, a mousse and an ice cream. This for me covers nearly all the bases. With our Art Tea you can see similar fundamentals but the presentation is much more detailed and specific to a subject.  The Art Tea pastries are also smaller and more intricate compared to menu desserts.

Which of two do you prefer? The boutique pastry or the restaurant desserts? Why?

For me they both mean the same; the only real difference may be portion size and presentation. To have a good boutique pastry you need to have the best ingredients and high skill for production. You might present a boutique pastry on a golden card and its size may differ but it is still carefully produced work which has to look good and taste amazing. For a plated dessert you would need to increase the size, in some cases serve a sauce and for sure put a nice scoop of ice cream on the plate. For me I love to visit boutique pastry shops to get inspiration for both my Art Tea and my dessert menu.

This year’s WCM is all about the future. How do you see the future? What do you see as greatest challenges we will have to confront and how will this influence desserts?

The future for me is all about sustainability and choosing your products and producers carefully and working closely with your suppliers.
The future needs to be addressed and we need to encourage more people to become professional pastry chefs. We can do this by making our industry more inviting to potential employees.

For me one of the greatest challenges is recruitment, here at The Merrion Hotel we have some great
opportunities and the sky is the limit for professional development.

How do you see the new generation of pastry chefs?

The new generation of Pastry Chefs are mad, but in a good way!! Some of the techniques and combinations are just out of this world.  Most days just before lights go out, I will go to Instagram just to get some inspiration and every time without fail I will see something that will give me a drive which will push me to try something new. I can’t imagine a world without these gifted, fearless and super creative new generation of Pastry Chefs.

You are also a Cacao Barry Ambassador. How do you see your role and what is for you best about being an Ambassador?

My role as an Ambassador is to promote and advise fellow professionals on the endless possibilities of Cacao Barry chocolate products.
The best thing about being an Ambassador is that I have access to 150 fellow Ambassadors all over the world that I can contact at any time to learn from them or even get solutions and support. There are not many of us across the world but their talent is unbelievable. We also meet yearly to do training and learn from each other and this can be extremely helpful.

Talking of Cacao Barry - which of their chocolates is/are your favourite at the moment?

I have to say my favourite flavour is our own Merrion Signature Chocolate created at Cacao Barry’s Or Noir lab in Paris. Let me explain, 8 years ago I heard about the OrNoir project and I was blown away by the possibilities. OrNoir allowed us to create our own Chocolate, giving a free range to adjust the fluidity, cocoa % and best of all the final flavour of the chocolate. To date we are the only Hotel in the world having three types of Or Noir chocolate. Our dark Chocolate is 67% with a note of raspberry, our milk chocolate is 40.2% with a caramel flavour and our white chocolate is less sweet, with more milk. I use our chocolate for all desserts, hot chocolates etc but we also use the signature chocolate to make bars of chocolate and turndown chocolates for the rooms. This project also allows us to have a greater control over the quality and it gives us freedom to change flavours to suit different occasions.

You are celebrating 20 years at the same hotel. A great loyalty! Congratulations! When looking back - what was most challenging and what you enjoyed most?

Thank you! Yes a great loyalty, but that loyalty works both ways. The General Manager Peter MacCann and the Executive Chef Ed Cooney, both of whom also have 20 years of service at The Merrion have been loyal and supportive to me; especially when I get itchy feet and feel that pull to go to discover and learn new techniques or visit unique properties to see how they work their Pastry Sections. The drive never stops both from my peers and from myself.

My most challenging time has been most recently while we where undergoing our transformation. The project started about three years ago and consisted of building 11 luxury apartments, relocating walk ways, planning and building our brand new pastry and bakery kitchen and fabulous new Garden Restaurant - all this while the hotel was fully functioning. There were weeks you would come to work and the walk way you were using for years was suddenly gone. One of the great qualities of the Merrion Hotel staff is that no matter how crazy the building work became, it never affected the Guest. Another very special Merrion touch while under construction was, that all Front of House team wore a silver Butterfly on their uniforms. When a guest asked the question “Why are you wearing a butterfly?” they explained that we were undergoing a transformation project which could be compared to a caterpillar but in time we are going to turn into a beautiful butterfly and that’s exactly what has happened…. some days I just walk around the gardens and admire the end result, it is truly a work of Art. You will have to come to visit us!

What I have enjoyed most is waking up in the morning and working at a job I love - the job that gives me so much in return. Some days are really hard, but those days make you stronger. People say to me that, as I am getting older, I should be slowing down. They may be right but for the moment I continue to get excited about baking the perfect scone or feeling elevated when a guest says that my soufflé was the best they have ever tasted…

Any golden dreams for the future?

I have many dreams, One would be to publish my own book, fill it with recipes, travel stories and stories of life as a Pastry Chef working in the 5* Merrion Hotel. I would also like to educate myself and continue to teach my Pastry team as much as I can. My final and possibly biggest promise to myself is to try to reach that famous work life balance I have heard so much about.