Joanne Todd, the ex- head pastry chef at Brown's

Joanne Todd, Photo: Laura Lajh Prijatelj

Joanne Todd, Photo: Laura Lajh Prijatelj

I was meeting Joanne, the young, talented, passionate and hard-working head pastry chef of the famous Brown’s Hotel at the location of her work. The always-smiling lady has at her young age already collected a wealth of experiences and I am sure that with her drive and passion, she has many more great things in front of her.

When and how did you fall in love with pastry and chocolate to become a pastry chef?

As a child, I always loved to bake with my mum, but it wasn’t something I considered as a vocation directly. When I was about 18 I guess I had the epiphany that I should pursue my passion as a career. I was lucky to be introduced to the celebrity chef Tony Tobin by my sister, he met with me to discuss the industry and my options for training and developing as a chef.

By the end of the informal meeting, he offered me an apprenticeship and my love of pastry was given an outlet. I never looked back!

Where did you learn your art?

Working at Tony’s restaurant full-time and studying part-time at my local college for an NVQ, I quickly found myself running the small pastry section and contributing to the menu. It was a fantastic time, my head Chef Paul Olliver was a great teacher and held a big interest in the pastry and my development.

What was most difficult to master?

There are many techniques in pastry that are complex, however in the beginning it is like painting with numbers and following recipes to the letter. However, with experience, you start to understand the science behind the techniques and can begin to create your own recipes based on this understanding. As a junior chef, the most difficult thing to master in my opinion was working with chocolate and the tempering process; in the beginning, it feels like witchcraft, not understanding why you would get a white bloom on the chocolate or why it would not set with a snap. Studying the science of chocolate and understanding the molecular composition, this became a simple process and now it's hard to understand what I found so difficult!

Who was your greatest teacher?

So many inspirational chefs have contributed to my career, it would be hard to pick just one! Paul Olliver, being my first chef was incredible and supportive, but later my skills were refined and I found a love of precision and perfection working with Marcus Wareing at Gordon Ramsay‘s restaurant Petrus. The team as a whole was inspiring, so much ambition and passion! It was an exciting time, with the London restaurant scene exploding with new restaurants and ideas. Gordon was opening at the Connaught and Claridges, Marcus was moving the restaurant to the Berkeley and we were testing dishes and concepts for the new look. This period of discovery and experimentation was a great learning curve. Now I love to teach and pass on my skills, I have even run small chocolate workshops for kids to get into cooking, and enjoy being a Springboard Ambassador, working to promote the industry and show support and encouragement to those looking to pursue a career in hospitality,

Joanne is at work. Photo: John Clare/Newspics Ltd

Joanne is at work. Photo: John Clare/Newspics Ltd

What was your most valuable experience?

After 15 years in the industry, I would say all of my most treasured experiences have been down to the incredible teams I have worked with. In hospitality, and in kitchens specifically, you create such strong bonds with the chefs you work with. My sous chefs Catalina, Jacobo and Louise, in the past few years, have become my extended family, they are people I would do anything for, they are my rocks. Without my teams, I could not grow, experiment and deliver the quality I dream of. Every kitchen I have ever worked in has given me such irreplaceable experiences, I value everyone; from techniques, quality standards, and creative freedom, to developing as a manager, and working on exciting projects … Every day is a new adventure and experience to gain.

What was your greatest challenge ever?

For four years I worked in Oslo’s most prestigious hotel, The Grand. There I was given my first Head Pastry chef role at a 5-star hotel. Leading and mentoring my team and the apprentices, even coaching one talented chef, Marion, through the young pastry chef of the year competition. Witnessing her achieve a silver medal was a very proud moment. At the Grand we catered annually for the Nobel Peace Prize winner, this in itself was the most important event on the hotel’s calendar; they had been hosting the event for 100 years. Prior to the event we held tastings with the Nobel committee, and every detail was scrutinised and perfected, I recall pulling one mammoth 42-hour shift – I was so driven to create the most perfect dish. I don’t know how I did it, sometimes you do not feel the fatigue when you are immersed in the food. It’s not until you stop you feel the exhaustion overpower you!

More recently I was invited to cook for a VIP wedding in Malaysia, going there with no idea of the equipment, conditions and language and in a few days preparing 450 desserts in a marquee kitchen reaching temperatures over 45 degrees was hard work, but I had my mentor and then executive chef Ben at my side, so we got our heads down and delivered a fantastic menu. There is nothing better than sitting down after a gruelling service on the beach with a beer to celebrate a job well done.

Do you have any special memory related to chocolate?

My first large showpiece was a labour of love, I have spent over 24 hours in total sculpting the chocolate and bringing the form to life. Commuting home each night no matter how much I scrubbed my hands I could still smell the couverture on my skin, I even dreamt about chocolate! The first time it was exhibited I had to remove it from the room when a group of inebriated ladies started breaking pieces off of the sculpture to eat! I was horrified! After that, I ensured there was a barrier to protect my work!

What is inspiring you today?

London is going through a fantastic time for pastry chefs and chocolatiers. We used to be the crazy fanatics hidden in the corner creating masterpieces and playing with chocolate, cloaked in mystery, an air of eccentricity and total obscurity. These days a pastry chef is more revered and acknowledged. Seeing some of my role models and peers gain recognition for their talents, such as the incredible chefs on the UK Pastry Team and their successes in the World Pastry Cup, and the brilliant and amiable Claire Clark launch her cookbooks and own brand. It's inspiring to see so many people I admire getting rewarded for their exceptional talent.

In terms of food, there are always new sources of inspiration, from all over the world. One of the things I love about London is you can find almost every cuisine, and style amongst its thousands of restaurants and outlets. I love trying new things and experimenting with flavour and texture. I can be inspired by anything… Art, design, food, wine, cocktails.

Joanne Todd

Which are your favourite flavours and why?

I love bitter and acidic flavours, I guess it's borne out of many years of cooking with sugar! I adore a sharp lemon tart or a very bitter and earthy dark chocolate. This also makes me experiment with more savoury elements in my dishes – pumpkin, beetroot, black pepper, basil, thyme, and parsnip. All have sweet characteristics so they can marry well with chocolate in a dessert.

You have created your own chocolate … Can you tell us a bit more about your experience?

My chocolate is named “Chocolate” and was created in collaboration with Cacao Barry‘s Or Noir Lab in Paris. I have spent two days with the team of experts tasting approximately 50 different chocolates in their bean, mass and finished state, choosing flavour profiles that would compliment the chocolate and deliver what I was looking for. I had briefed the team I was aiming for a couverture that gave a taste reminiscent of tea. I obviously did not want to add flavours to the chocolate, but to create a blend that boasted the same floral, fruity and bitter flavour notes of black tea.

After tasting many different beans from all over the world and narrowing the selection down to six chocolates, I moved on to a blind tasting and I chose 4 beans, from Ecuador, St Dominique, and Venezuela. We then tried several recipes to find the final product, adjusting ratios to make the perfect flavour. Finally, we tried the finished product in applications, we made chocolate bars, a tart, and a mousse, to see how the flavour would work in desserts. I was so pleased with the finished result, and really love to work with it, especially as it is bespoke to my own design.

Which chocolate desserts are on your menu and which is your favourite and why?

In October we celebrated chocolate week at Brown’s, so we featured chocolate throughout the hotel. In the Donovan Bar, I created moulded chocolates to serve as canapés that were flavoured with spirits to represent classic cocktails such as a Brandy Alexander and the Grasshopper. In the English Tea room, our afternoon tea was given a chocolate makeover; from a lush chocolate-praline tart on the trolley to the petit gateaux on the stand; cocoa macaroons, chocolate battenburg, white chocolate & passion fruit tartlette, Alunga milk chocolate mousse, and a Millesime “Alto el Sol” 65% couverture had pride of place as a chocolate slice with blackberry. In our restaurant “Hix” there was a daily changing chocolate dessert featured on our menu and the rich and indulgent Ronnies chocolate cake on the trolley which is made with Willies Cacao 70% Peruvian Gold chocolate.

My favourite would be the praline tart featured on our tea trolley, we received so many compliments for this, but personally, I adore praline, and it was a personal pleasure to create the dish! (And taste it of course!)

How do you like to enjoy chocolate?

Simply as a bar is good enough for me! I have done many tastings with chocolate and although it can be a little overpowering to try many in one seating, the best way is to choose a base chocolate to taste between each new couverture. I always pick a classic and less complex dark to use as a base flavour, such as a Cacao Barry Excellence. These can be then used to return the palette to neutral before you try something new. You will be surprised how the flavours pop out if you taste in this way.

Joanne’s famous chocolate praline tart from Brown’s. Photo is from her personal archive

Joanne’s famous chocolate praline tart from Brown’s. Photo is from her personal archive

The best chocolate or chocolate dessert you have ever eaten?

Many years ago I travelled to Barcelona and tried pastry chef (previously of El Bulli) Oriol Balaguer‘s chocolates, I ended up spending almost 100 euros on chocolate to bring home for my team. His combinations were exciting and innovative. He was perhaps the first pastry chef to use flavours such as olive oil and saffron, truffle and yuzu with chocolate…

If you could choose any place in the world to go and try the cuisine or pastry or chocolate, where would you go and why?

I’d love to travel to South America and see the plantations where my chocolate is grown, taste the bean straight from the tree and witness the techniques of fermentation first-hand. The process fascinates me and I know how important these early stages in cacao production are to the flavour profile of the final couverture.

However, with chocolate being such a favourite luxury commodity, the strain on the market in the next few years as it becomes ever more popular will be hard on the industry. A cacao tree takes five years to reach maturity and takes a lot of skill in agriculture, and fermentation to bring out the best in the bean, so many farmers prefer to grow simpler more profitable crops. It's great to see many of the large chocolate producers take note of this and help the farmers with smart agricultural initiatives, training, developing fermentation techniques and giving a good price for the bean such as the “Purity from Nature” initiative from Cacao Barry and the preservation and sustainability projects from Valrhona. With this careful approach from chocolate producers, hopefully, we will not see demand overtake supply, and we will benefit from more flavourful and high-quality chocolate.

What is your greatest achievement?

During my time at the Royal Horseguards, I was given the opportunity to create the afternoon tea product from scratch. I was directly involved in all of the decision processes and brainstorming to design every angle of the product and service.

I have built the menu of teas, worked on the food offering with the head chefs and even chose the bespoke designs of the crockery and the paper used in the menu cards.

Over three years we refined the product and service, did extensive campaigns and limited edition menus such as the chocolate afternoon tea and a Mad Hatters tea, and even a specially commissioned Grace of Monaco afternoon tea for the launch of the Warner Bros movie. From these initiatives, we saw the afternoon tea guest numbers go from 600 per year to 17000 per year in just 3 years!

In 2012 and 2013 this hard work was rewarded with two consecutive awards of excellence from the prestigious UK Tea Guild, a very proud moment for the team and a personal goal accomplished!

Sharing her knowledge with the young generation. Photo from Joanne’s personal archive.

Sharing her knowledge with the young generation. Photo from Joanne’s personal archive.

And your ultimate dream?

It’s a simple dream, that I think many chefs hold; To have my own business. However, I am very aware of the difficulty and pressure involved in running your own show and am constantly researching the market trends, and business opportunities so when the time is right I can give it my best shot!

What would be your final message to our readers?

Bake, Eat, Cook, Taste and Experiment. Chocolate is one of the most versatile ingredients in the pastry kitchen, and there are literally hundreds of different beans, origins, and blends to choose from. Don’t worry if everything goes wrong, it will just keep perfecting… “Desserts” is “stressed” spelt backwards after all ;)