Josh Spero's Day as a Pastry Chef at Scott's - Spear's Magazine

Josh Spero’s Day as a Pastry Chef at Scott’s

Josh Spero was the first non-chef allowed to cook in the kitchen at Scott’s, the legendary Mount Street restaurant, and 34, Richard Caring’s new steakhouse. He whisked, he baked, he piped – but was he any good?

Josh Spero was the first non-chef allowed to cook in the kitchen at Scott’s, the legendary Mount Street restaurant, and 34, Richard Caring’s new steakhouse. He whisked, he baked, he piped – but was he any good?
  
  
I LIKE TO practise before a test. I revised thoroughly for my GCSEs, AS-Levels, A2s, Mods and Finals. I had been learning to drive for a year before I passed (second time). But yesterday I was caught out: I hadn’t practised my piping skills, so when it came to icing gingerbread skeletons in the kitchen of Richard Caring’s 34, to be sold at his Mount Street Deli, I got found out. I’d give myself a U, for Untidy.

Alice, the head pastry chef at 34, which sits on South Audley Street despite its Grosvenor Square address, showed me how to pipe white royal icing onto the Hallowe’en gingerbread men which I had rolled out, cut out and baked. (Alice had made the dough, heavy with black treacle.)
   
Her bones were shapely – neatly curved epiphyseis at either end, a straight and plump diaphysis connecting. Hers had a humerus, a femur, ribs and a spinal column, with a pale skull given delicate chocolate ocular and nasal cavities and a bony smile. He would have scared the hell out of his gingerbread friends.

Mine had all of those parts, but with the slippage, drippage, uneven pacing of the piping and odd curves, the skeletons looked like they hadn’t drunk enough milk in life. Away they went to set.
   
   
34 WAS MY second stop on my afternoon as a pastry chef at Le Caprice Group. No-one else has yet been accorded this opportunity at any of the group’s restaurants, so I wasn’t sure how well the chefs would deal with an enthusiastic if imperfect baker-interloper. Phil Usher, group head pastry chef, was terrifically welcoming at Scott’s as he grabbed chefs’ whites out of a locker for me: white button-up jacket, black shapeless trousers, a blue and white striped apron and a towel to go over the apron’s strings, once I had worked out to knot them round the front.

Pictured left: Josh Spero’s finished Bakewell pudding at Scott’s

Compared to Scott’s grand room on Mount Street, its kitchen is low, tight and busy, weaving a narrow maze around Rational ovens, lobster-preparation stations and the pastry desk. The first task Phil set me was to make the filling for Scott’s Bakewell pudding, following the recipe in the black plastic folder which contains all the current à la carte dishes and — my new favourite thing — a sorbet chart, specifying quantities of sugar for particular fruits.

I mixed together eggs, egg yolks (out of a carton), sugar (from a large bin under the work surface) and ground almonds, then added a kilo of melted butter. Even these vast quantities wouldn’t produce enough filling for the number of Bakewell puddings Scott’s sells during the day. (And speaking of vast quantities, Phil and his team expect to make 14,000 mince pies before Christmas.)

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As I worked, I asked Catherine, head of pastry at Scott’s, about the Great British Bake-Off, the TV competition for amateur bakers which has been a ratings smash, drawing in five million people each week to see who would produce a croquembouche worthy of Carême and whose tart would have, in Mary Berry’s catchphrase, a soggy bottom. It gave people a new respect for pastry chefs, she said; people could now see the creative labour that went into it. 
  
  
THE ELECTRONIC SCALES proved intemperate, sometimes refusing to tare, other times taring then counting forwards or backwards, before settling on some number which would form the basis for my mental arithmetic: if the scales say 18 grammes and I have to add x grammes of egg yolks and y grammes of sugar, what should I end up with? Helpfully the liquids were recorded by weight, not volume.

Pictured left: Josh Spero straining panna cotta mix in the kitchen at Scott’s
 
Some of the filling was heated over a bain marie then poured over raspberry jam dabbed into a pastry case which Catherine had made. Being enthusiastic, I poured the filling in until it ran level with the rim of the pastry, meaning it would probably overflow when it was cooked. Taken unawares by the blast of the oven – much hotter than its 180C gauge suggested – I shoved the puddings in and turned to two other recipes, a passionfruit panna cotta and a chocolate/passionfruit meringue/sponge, Phil observing and helping at each step.

Judging by some of the sign language going on behind me, a couple of the pastry chefs (quite rightly) felt I shouldn’t fill too many Bakewell puddings. I’m not sure I’d be too happy as a Scott’s customer if one of my lopsided (but testifiably delicious) puddings came upstairs.

While I prepared some mixture, Phil told me about the weekly tastings they have at all the restaurants in the group. To keep their menus fresh, as well as seasonal, each restaurant prepares new dishes to be reviewed by Tim Hughes, chef director of the group whom Spear’s recently interviewed, the restaurant manager and others. They may pass muster and be added directly to the menu, or have to be changed a little, or suffer complete rejection. What’s it like when a dish you’ve imagined, practised and prepared is turned down? ‘Crushing,’ said Phil. The criticism was always constructive, he added, but it must leave one crestfallen.
 
The puddings came out of the oven and Phil said patrons ‘like a little theatre’, so he transferred the pudding-tart into a two-handled copper dish, sprinkled some icing sugar over and added a scoop of ice-cream. In my eager attack, I burnt my mouth.
   
   
‘IF YOU HAVE shouting,’ said Alice at 34, ‘that means it’s not organised.’ As Tim Hughes evokes in his interview, life under Marco Pierre White – ‘the Third Reich’ – could be chaotic, and no doubt MPW went hoarse a fair few times. At Scott’s and 34, by contrast, the loudest noise I heard was some bad rock music on a radio.

Emily quietly chopped carrots into strips so thin they verged on invisible, to be put into sugar syrup then used to dress the carrot cake. Someone gently sawed a fillet into steaks before weighing them and trimming off some fat. A motor-driven hiss came from beside me as Phil used a fence-sprayer from Argos to coat Alice’s teacakes in chocolate. (After Alice had heated up the water, sugar and glucose in a large pan for the teacakes’ marshmallow, she added gelatine, whose foul odour betrayed its origin: ‘Hooves!’ she said in despair, wrinkling her nose.)


 
Pictured above: Phil Usher, group head pastry chef, spraying teacakes with chocolate, in the kitchen at 34

  
You need quiet in such a kitchen, it is clear, because of the intense precision of the work. The chemical, biological and artistic processes which occur may be habitual by now (although there is plenty of turnover of recipes), but they are never neglected. Emily may have made a thousand toffee apple bombes before – and they are one of 34’s most popular desserts – but each one requires a delicate manufacture and assembly.

First, the shell is made, chocolate sprayed into an apple mould then coated with green flecks to suggest an apple’s skin. (Heston Blumenthal’s Meat Fruit at Dinner, chicken liver parfait in the shape of an orange, seems an inspiration or at least progenitor.) Once this has cooled and hardened, Emily puts in apple purée, then a square inch of chocolate sponge, scatters chocolate popping candy over the purée and cake and crowns it with sorbet, which she has to compress so it avoids the dimple in the top half of the apple-shell.

To get the top half to adhere to the bottom, she attaches it to the side of the oven for a few seconds until it is only just melting; a shallow chocolate circle appears on the oven for each bombe she prepares. Finally, a dab of chocolate is put into the dimple so a mandarin leaf and piece of candied vanilla, to represent the stalk, don’t fall out. And all of this work is undone in seconds when the warm toffee sauce is poured over:
  

  
Video above: The toffee apple bombe at 34, melting
  
Alice dropped the bombe-shell, and she weekly devises new recipes. This week going up for approval was a pumpkin pie with a creme fraiche sorbet and a sauce made from camel-coat-coloured caramel chocolate. (Think Caramac.) Even if a recipe passes the tasting session, there’s no guarantee it will sell. Alice pointed to the chocolate lemon mousse with bramble compote, soon coming off the menu: diners at 34, she said, don’t want those more adventurous dishes with locally-picked produce, like you might find at L’Enclume in the Lake District; they want traditional, more comforting food.

As a matter of fact, some of Alice’s most daring recipes seem the most traditional, because they are intelligent versions of classic biscuits. There are Jaffa Cakes, one filled with orange, one with raspberry (variously – perhaps vulgarly – gilded to show which is which). I have seen teacakes in the making. And Alice has been preparing Jammy Dodgers: an empty circle of a biscuit atop another biscuit, with raspberry jam (which I stirred, I might add) poured into the well. The contrast between the mass production of the original and the care and duty of the 34 version could send you mad.
  
  
AT 3PM, IT is quiet upstairs and humming downstairs. There may be an absence of diners, but that only makes it the perfect time for the shifts to switch. New faces arrive and pick up their whites, familiar ones go to take off theirs, those doing their weekly double-shift do not change clothes at all but probably sigh with relief that their day is half-done. Alice was doing her second double-shift of the week, so she was going nowhere.

As for me, I was off. And the gingerbread skeletons? Too messy for sale, I got to bring them home.

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