Ashburton Chefs Academy

Meet the tutor

Pastry Chef Manager: Colin Bennett

How did you get started in cookery?

Like all good chefs, I started baking with my grandmother. She was a traditional Women’s Institute cook and gave me a great grounding in the basics. From there I managed to get my first job as a commis pastry chef at the Park Lane Hilton in London.

How did your career develop from there?

I‘ve worked in leading hotels, including The Grovesnor and Dorchester, Michelin starred restaurants such as Pied a Terre, The Orrery and Viajante and alongside many of todays celebrity chefs including Simon Hopkinson, Nuno Mendez and Tom Aitkin. I also helped Jamie Oliver set-up his Barbecoa restaurant near St Paul’s, but probably the highlight of my professional career was my 4 and a half years as Hilton's specialist patisserie, created as part of a £30m refit.

The popularity of patisserie and bakery seems to have exploded in recent years, why do you think this is?

When I began, very few diners even bothered with dessert but it’s now become the star of the show. Pastry chefs have also started to take over the celebrity limelight with James Martin, Eric Lanlard, William Curley and Pierre Herme (described as "the Picasso of Pastry" by Vogue magazine) all raising the profile. Programmes like the Great British Bake-off have also captured the public imagination, so this is a really great time to be making desserts.

What are the trends to look out for in Patisserie?

The level of sweetness has reduced significantly. In fact, the level of sugar in some of my recipes has reduced by half since I first started. In future, I expect to see a move towards “new naturals” - less synthetic ingredients and cleverer use of natural alternatives.

How would you describe your approach to cooking?

I'm a real believer in the importance of a good classical foundation – with this you can easily incorporate modern techniques, but it is not always easy the other way around. For example, if you understand how sugar reacts at different temperatures you can do some impressive sugar-work, which would otherwise be out of reach. I would really recommend that people learn the classics when they are starting to learn patisserie or baking.

And what attracted you to teaching?

I’ve been lucky enough to learn from some inspirational chefs during my career, so I understand better than most the importance of good teaching. I studied for a BA in patisserie with John Huber, one of the UK's most influential pastry chefs, and served a 3 year apprenticeship under French legend Robert Mey. I've also taught at the Westminster Catering College which was one of the most enjoyable parts of my career.

As well as those with professional aspirations, the value of learning the basics for an enthusiastic home cook shouldn’t be underestimated. If I can pass on the fundamentals of making a laminated dough in an easy to understand way, students will be able to make croissants, danish pastries, puff pastry tarts and pithiviers all in a few hours. I guess what I am saying is that a little education can make cooking a lot more fun.

What attracted you to Ashburton?

This was a chance to contribute to one of the best cookery schools in the UK. I have the opportunity to create some amazing courses, with the highest quality ingredients incorporating the very best of the recipes I‘ve developed over my career. We’ve already introduced new recreational patisserie courses, and there will be plenty more in future, then there will be foundation, intermediate and advanced level professional qualifications. The sky really is the limit and it's an exciting time for myself and our future students alike.

Do you have any top tips for aspiring pastry chefs?

An understanding of process and how ingredients react is really important, probably more so than in other areas of cooking - but this you can learn - the really important ingredient is passion, without which you'll never be a truly great cook. Above all, don’t be afraid to learn – mistakes are just steps along the way to confident cooking.

The really important ingredient is passion!