By Annalisa D’Alessio
What ingredient is every chef’s best friend? World Food Tour caught up with Steve Penny, head pastry chef at Royal Lancaster London, and found out about the experimental side of pastry making as well as the technical differences between the most common types of sugar on the market. Steve Penny has had a truly brilliant career—one of his highlights is having cooked for the All Blacks, British Lions and royalty.
Question: Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and how you got into the food business?
Steve Penny: I’m originally from Wellington in New Zealand, but have been living in the UK for around 13 years now. I’ve been at Royal Lancaster London as Head Pastry Chef for just a little under a year. Our team of eight is responsible for creating all the pastries, sweets and desserts for the entire 411 guestroom hotel—it’s two restaurants, afternoon teas and banqueting spaces. I trained in Catering and Hospitality Management at Massey University in Wellington, and completed a degree in Patisserie and Confectionary here in London at Westminster Kingsway College.
Q: What would you be if you hadn’t been a chef?
SP: I probably would have gone into an area of the finance industry. My dad worked in finance back home for over 50 years, and it has always been something that interests me outside of the kitchen.
Q: What is your favourite dish to cook?
SP: I’m quite technical and enjoy the experimental side of pastry, so I love working with different types of sugar and chocolate from around the world. Variations and depths of flavour that come from single origin chocolate are so much fun to play with; they can add a lovely twist on special dishes.
I love playing with different sugars whilst cooking, too. I find white sugar only sweetens, without adding any real flavour. Changing to something like a muscovado or light brown sugar (if the recipe allows of course!) can really change the overall taste of a dish. It’s about playing around, experimenting and seeing what works.
Q: What are the five ingredients you always keep in your fridge?
SP: Cheese—because if all else fails you can stick it on a couple of slices of bread and grill. Pickle—to go with the cheese. Milk—for my coffee, to get through the day ahead. Wine—to get over the day just gone! Butter—every chef’s best friend!
Q: What’s your go-to restaurant in London and why?
SP: We have a lovely new pizza place just around the corner from our home called Taproom, so we try to get there whenever we can. It’s great because it’s independent, so the menu is continually changing and there are lots of craft beers!
Q: Who are your inspirations, both in and out of the kitchen?
SP: My parents are big inspirations. Teaching me the value of respect and allowing me the freedom to follow my dreams, even though it took me 17,000 miles away from home!
Q: Who is your chef idol?
SP: One is William Curley, what he can do with chocolate is amazing! I was also privileged enough recently to go to a presentation by Frédéric Bau from Valrhona and it was incredible. He was truly inspirational and pushing us to ‘be more curious’.
Q: Can you tell us about a particularly memorable moment in your career?
SP: It’s always been amazing working in this industry, from cooking for the All Blacks and British Lions 13 years ago during their tour of New Zealand, then having the privilege of cooking for A-list celebrities at my previous restaurants, and of course having the honour of cooking for royalty here at Royal Lancaster London.
Q: You can only live on one cuisine for the rest of your life. Which one would it be?
SP: I would have to say Chinese. We have two lovely Chinese restaurants near to us so are quite spoilt for choice. It is either that or my wife’s roast chicken.
Q: What is your favourite food fad and why?
SP: I don’t think I have a favourite fad, but I definitely have a least favourite—this apparent obsession at the moment to do everything ‘deconstructed’. If you’re going to do something, do it properly. Deconstructing dishes gives the impression you don’t know how to make it.
Q: What’s your best-kept cooking secret or tip?
SP: I don’t know if I’d call it a secret—and it may sound a bit simplistic—but when roasting larger nuts like macadamia, pecans, hazelnuts, even pistachios, I do them on a low heat in the oven. At roughly 100C for an hour, just to ensure the flavour penetrates to the centre. Then, if they still need colour, put them in a hot oven, at around 170C, for five minutes.
Q: Do you have any future predictions for the food industry?
SP: The food industry is an ever-changing one. You see some big names and big brands having to shut their doors, and in a city as cosmopolitan as London where there is so much choice available, to thrive you either need to be the best at what you do, or be doing something unique. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
I think the UK as a country needs to take the service industry more seriously. It is not seen as a career, just something to pass the time and get some money while you’re studying, or working part-time. Until this attitude changes it will be near impossible for businesses to hire quality staff, and more importantly retain them!
Q: Do you have any exciting plans and projects coming up in the future?
SP: One thing about this industry is the need to be organised and plan ahead. Therefore we are in the midst of getting all our menus and ideas finalised for the 2018 festive season. On top of this, having just finished a hectic Easter, we are busy developing afternoon tea menus for Halloween, and of course showcasing our very own home-harvested honey.
See also: Interview: Laura Petersen, Head Pastry Chef at The Coal Shed London