Our Principal Chocolatier, Barry Johnson, won the UK Pastry Open in October. Shortly afterwards he was elected team captain for the UK team for the European Pastry Cup, the selection event for the Coupe du Monde de la Pâtisserie in Lyon next year. The European Cup featured teams from six countries competing to become European Champions in a 5 hour competition, and it took place last weekend in Geneva.
We’re delighted to say that the UK team won the cup, and I caught up with Barry back in the Rococo kitchens to find out more about it.
Last time we spoke, Barry, you’d been up until the wee hours most nights preparing for the UK Club Coupe du Monde. Have preparations for the European Cup been just as intense?
Yes, absolutely. We haven’t had long to prepare and the chocolate kitchen’s been really busy with Christmas and a couple of big orders, so sleep’s gone out of the window again. Although we kept my theme of The Lion King musical from the UK competition for our team entry, we couldn’t just sit back and assume we were ready. We’ve put a lot of work into improving the presentation of both elements (sculpture and dessert) and the complexity of the flavours, so for example for my dessert we kept the chocolate, raspberry and rose main flavour but added elements of lemon and yoghurt.
The biggest difference for this leg of the competition was that Nicolas Belorgey (Pâtisserie Teaching Chef at Le Cordon Bleu London) and I were working as a team. It meant that our entries had to blend together perfectly, so Nick, Martin Chiffers (our team president) and I have been meeting at least once a week since the team was announced. It’s been great to have a team to bounce ideas off and to see the dishes and show pieces evolve, and it’s oddly reassuring to know that there’s someone else out there up at 2am stressing out about food sculptures.
How did you feel once you reached Geneva?
It was a combination of nerves and relief. We arrived on Friday to allow for anything that might go wrong before the competition on Sunday, and were met by my parents and girlfriend. My sister and cousin came out to cheer me on as a surprise, which was lovel.. The hotel we stayed in was near the venue just outside Geneva, and the view was just glorious: snow-covered mountains, Lake Geneva and, surprisingly, vineyards. That night we happened across a yurt restaurant that served fondue (of course), so we had a lovely team dinner with my family, Martin, and the drivers who brought all of our equipment over from the UK.
On Saturday morning I realised just how clever our plan of arriving early was, because it meant that I could finally have a proper lie-in! It’s been a really intense preparation period and we were making tweaks right up until Wednesday, so it was bliss to have a morning when we literally couldn’t do anything else except relax and make sure we were well-rested.
On Saturday afternoon we met the other teams and judges for an official briefing before unloading all of the equipment. We met the team captain of the current world champions, France, along with our five sets of competitors and the judges. The judges are really amazing chefs, they’re among the world’s best and are at the peak of their careers so it was a little terrifying, particularly when I had five of them scrutinizing my every move.
Were you more nervous than for the UK competition, or was it easier because you’d had competition experience recently?
Oh, it was worse. Much worse. I thought the UK competition was nerve-wracking until I went to Geneva, which was on another level entirely. I can see that the final in Lyon next year will be another big step out of my comfort zone – there will be more teams and they’ll be filming the whole thing and streaming it live on the internet.
I just had to stay completely focused. During the competition I could hear cheering and people shouting my name, but we had a bit of a problem at the start and I needed all the time I had. I couldn’t afford to look up and break my concentration even for a moment or I knew the nerves would get the better of me.
One of our chocolate tempering machines broke just before the competition started. Fortunately there were technicians from the company there, but we had to change machines and didn’t have any tempered chocolate for the first 45 minutes. And, of course, my very precise plan where all of the elements fitted together like a jigsaw, required using tempered chocolate first for everything else to work, so all of that practise getting everything completely smooth was wasted. We did get 15 minutes extra at the end, but it was a pretty hairy moment!
Well you won, so I’m guessing you managed even with that glitch.
Yes. One of the things the judges look for is to see how you react to obstacles, so we just got on with things and managed to work around it and complete our entries. Nick made a mango, banana, coconut and passion fruit dessert decorated with Zazu’s feathers and claws inspired by the architecture of the Lyceum theatre. Nick’s sculpture was Zazu made from sugar, and my chocolate sculpture showed Simba on Lion Rock. My Circle of Life chocolate dessert balanced raspberry, rose and lemon elements and played with interesting textures, from raspberry gel and yoghurt ice cream to crunchy rose sugar tuilles and a soft lemon sponge.
Once the time was up, we all had to clear our kitchens (believe it or not, there are bonus marks awarded for cleaning), then there was a tense wait for the result. The Danish team were strong contenders last time and we had seen the incredible chocolate Batman and sugar Joker sculptures they made in the morning session, so we knew it would be a close competition. The contestants are all held together in a backstage area while the judges deliberate, so we couldn’t even see friends and family until the decision was announced.
When they finally read out the results we were all ecstatic. It’s just the best feeling and makes all the hard work worth it. I’m enormously proud to have been able to represent my country; these opportunities don’t come along often and it was great to be part of the team.
I bet. Have you been polishing your trophy and demanding that people feed you grapes since you returned?
No chance, it’s been a good sleep and then back to Rococo HQ this week for me. I’m heading to Grenada next week to meet James and mentor some of the chocolate makers at the Grenada Chocolate Company. We’re hoping to be able to help make the next batch of Gru Grococo chocolate right from the tree to the finished bar while we’re there as well. And it happens that I’m landing the night before the Grenadian Independence Day, so we’ll have a day of enforced holiday and party time to look forward to.
Any last comments?
Yes, I’d like to say a huge thank you to the team at Rococo, our sponsors, my family and to all of the UK supporters who came to cheer the team on. We’ll be starting to prepare for the finals almost immediately and we’re determined to do everyone proud, so watch this space!