Professor pastry

01 January 2000
Professor pastry

The country cottage in Somerset beckons. After more than 30 years at the helm of a revolution in the teaching of pastry in this country, Professor John Huber has retired from his post as course director, advanced courses, at Thames Valley University in Slough.

For many, his departure is regarded as an enormous loss to the cause that he has championed for so long - creating a credible and widely recognised means of pastry education in the UK, where nothing previously existed. His unique teaching style, combining a passion for his craft with a wicked sense of humour, has inspired literally thousands of young chefs.

As a direct result of Huber's determined endeavours and enthusiasm, many of the top pastry positions throughout the country are now held by British chefs. Among the Huber graduates now working in London are Claire Clark at Claridge's, Mark Mitson at the Mayfair Inter-Continental and Andrew Bourne at the Churchill Inter-Continental. In the words of Michel Roux, chef-proprietor of the Waterside Inn at Bray in Berkshire: "John brought pastry to this country. He is unique."

It is with great disappointment, then, that Huber, despite all his efforts, is finding that today he is still having to battle to raise the profile of the pastry chef. A couple of days before we met, he learned that there are plans to amalgamate the NVQ kitchen and larder and NVQ pastry and confectionery courses to create one generic qualification - an NVQ in food preparation and cooking.

"Where is the motivation for a young chef who wishes to specialise in pastry?" he says. "The talent is out there, but these latest proposals from the Hospitality Training Foundation [HTF] to lump everything together will do nothing to encourage and bring it out."

It concerns Huber that the continual watering-down of pastry qualifications will take us back to the situation that existed prior to his entry into education in the late 1960s - when all the top pastry jobs in the UK, particularly in five-star hotels, were held by chefs from France, Switzerland or Germany.

Joining what was then Slough College of Higher Education as a lecturer in 1967, with no tradition of fine pastry work in this country, Huber was only too aware of the gaps in the teaching of the subject.

Although initially put off by the salary offer at Slough, he was eventually lured by the opportunity of not having to work at weekends for the first time, as well as the chance of supplementing his income by providing the desserts for race meetings at Ascot Racecourse. "I also wanted to lecture," he says, "and knew that here was the chance to establish a proper training course in pastry."

Role model

But Huber had a battle ahead of him. The department he joined at Slough was then known as the department of domestic science, art, hairdressing, pottery and catering, with catering regarded as very much the poor relation. Using as a role model the Swiss National Diploma for pâtissiers, confiseurs, glaciers - which he himself had studied over a period of three years - Huber determinedly put together the first two-year day-release advanced pastry course, culminating in a six-hour practical examination. After the running of various pilot schemes, the first group of 12 students joined the course, backed by City & Guilds, in 1972.

Two years later, the 706/3 pastry and 706/3 advanced pastry courses were born, and for the next 20 years remained the mainstay of pastry education in this country. Victor Ceserani, who at the time was the head of the school of hotelkeeping and catering at Ealing College of Further and Higher Education, explains that the need for a specialised pastry course was very real. "There was a danger of many pêtissiere skills being lost to this country forever," he says. "In John, we had not only a master craftsman, but also a gifted teacher, who was able to co-ordinate training always geared towards the needs of the trade."

With the industry crying out for qualified pastry chefs, 30 colleges in the UK and three in Ireland swiftly took the courses on board. Huber and Robert Mey, then chef-pâtissier of the Hyatt Carlton Tower, London, were appointed co-chief examiners by City & Guilds.

As young and not-so-young chefs graduated with the new qualifications, so the results gradually began to filter through to the industry. Anton Mosimann says he has no doubt that the improvements he has seen in pastry work in UK hotels and restaurants since he arrived in this country in 1975 are directly linked to Huber. "Good teaching is eventually repaid in the end product," he asserts.

As standards improved, so the scope and variety of dishes on dessert menus grew - with the introduction of modern influences from the Continent and the resurgence of traditional British puddings.


It was not only chefs who intended to specialise in pastry work who took the courses. Executive chefs such as David Nicholls at the Mandarin Oriental Hyde Park Hotel, Paul Gayler at The Lanesborough and Michael Coaker at the May Fair Inter-Continental, all in London, are all former Huber graduates. "I was not particularly interested in getting the piece of paper at the end," says Coaker, 16 years after completing the two-year advanced course. "What was important was the experience of being taught by John. The knowledge I gleaned has proved invaluable in my role today as a head chef and in my dealings with my pastry chefs."

Never one to rest on his laurels, throughout his career Huber has been as eager a student as those he has taught. He has used many a summer vacation to take himself off to the Continent to expand his knowledge with more courses and stages, including stints at Le Nôtre Production Unit in Paris, the Richemont School in Lucerne, and with Georges Pralus, the founder of sous-vide. In 1983, he did a two-week stage with the Troisgros brothers at Roanne in France. "You are never too old to learn," says Huber. "I was in my 50s and was the oldest stagière they'd ever had!"

The latter part of Huber's career has been spent fighting against what he sees as the debasement of catering education. While he recognises that the City & Guilds exams were due for modernisation, he doesn't believe that their demise in favour of NVQ qualifications in 1994 has been the right step forward. His greatest disappointment has been the abolition of practical exams, to be replaced by a series of assessments. "It's a joke," he says. "We are the only country in Europe where students can obtain a qualification in a manual trade without passing a practical exam."

Typical of Huber's tenacity, he was not prepared to accept the institution of the new qualifications as a fait accompli. He spent two years researching exactly what the industry wanted, gaining support from the likes of Michel Bourdin, Michael Aldridge, Richard Shepherd and Michel Roux. "It was important to them to have a qualification that was assessed by an exam," he says. As a result, Huber and Malcolm Gee, head of operations studies at Thames Valley, assisted by Professor David Foskett, the university's associate dean of the School of Tourism, Hospitality & Leisure, pushed through the college's own Advanced Diploma in Culinary Arts (pastry) and Advanced Diploma in Culinary Arts (kitchen/larder).

As well as updating the best elements of the City & Guilds exams, the diplomas are granted on successful completion of a two-and-a-half-hour theory paper and a six-hour practical examination, using chefs in industry as examiners. Students are still able to attain the relevant NVQ catering qualifications, up to level 4, alongside the diploma. Interest from other colleges has been great, resulting in Thames Valley franchising the courses to establishments in Portsmouth, Armagh and Newry.

Huber's unparalleled achievements in catering education were duly recognised in 1995 when he was installed as a professor, becoming the first pastry cook to be awarded the honour. "It was a very proud moment," he says. "It proved at last that pastry chefs were no longer second-class citizens."

Huber has ensured that his legacy will live on at Thames Valley in the courses, but he will not be disappearing permanently down to his Somerset cottage. He will still teach the second-year students in Slough on the advanced pastry diploma course one day a week, and has trips planned to Buenos Aires in September, to do workshops and masterclasses, and to The Netherlands in October, as an observer of the pastry competition at Euroskills 1998.

"I'm certainly not going to disappear and take a back seat," he says, with a twinkle in his eye. "I shall continue to speak my mind." The industry will be mightily relieved to hear that.

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