When pastry chef Will Torrent was awarded the Acorn Scholarship in 2010, he had little idea how he might realise his dream of opening a boutique pâtisserie in
London. With help from the scholarship's contacts book and mentor Jane Sunley of Learnpurple, Torrent gathered the UK's top pastry and chocolate talent to
discuss how he might achieve his goal. Tom Vaughan went along to the Gherkin to listen in.
Will TorrentMy dream is to set up a trendy, upmarket pâtisserie - with the potential to run cookery lessons, afternoon teas and so on. My grandad was a chef and my great uncle owned a pâtisserie in Paris and I want to carry on that family tradition. The first question I would like to ask is what inspired you to start up your own business and become your own boss?
Claire Clark You have to have the get up and go and drive yourself. It comes from you - your friends, your mentors and your family will support you and drive you forward, but you have to be the person who really wants it.
Paul Young However big your support network is, only one person will get you up in the morning. And when you walk in the door and that place is yours - that's the feeling that keeps you going.
William Curley I will say that all pastry chefs should spend some time on the Continent. It's not only the cooking side of it, but the whole way they appreciate food. My approach was that I thought if I carried on working at good places I would get where I wanted to go.
WT How did you go about finding the right location and premises?
WC For me it took about a year to find a site. There are just so many boxes that you need to tick. I'd recommend you look at five areas that might work for you and monitor them - watch what customers do, their lifestyle, their commuting pattern, how much time they spend there in the week. Location is everything.
PY And don't get swayed by cheap rent. If it's cheap there is a reason why.
Chantal Coady Places change and develop and the trick is picking the next place.
PYCamden Passage was empty when we looked at it - then two boutiques moved in and we saw that change about to happen. We took four years to find that property but it's the right one. If you are offering something no one else is offering, people will come.
WT How did you create your products? Was it from market research?
ClC Everyone has their own style and you will find yours and win followers of that style. Customers like simple things - if you were to ask them for their favourite dessert, a lot of them might say something along the lines of, for example, lemon tart. It is then up to you to take that lemon tart and turn it into your own.
PY You also learn from customer feedback that you need to change things. When something has come up on numerous occasions we have responded by changing the item, with the usual result being that it then flies out the door.
WT Is it about education? Taking customers on a journey?
Eric Lanlard You learn what customers want - we started off not doing chichi pastry but in fact that was what our customers really wanted.
EL Customers need to understand why they are spending so much on your items - it needs to be explained to them the difference between your shop and somewhere else.
WC It comes down to brand and how you create and sell your brand.
WT How was it that you came up with your brand identity?
ChC Some of it evolves, with the look and the packaging. But it goes deeper than that now, it's about where things come from. The whole of the branding is layered like an onion and you are at the centre of that.
PY Will (Curley) and I both named our sites after ourselves, which will make them harder to sell if the time ever comes. However, when people come in and you're behind the counter, it is very powerful. People remember you and when they meet you and talk to you in the shop, they mostly end up spending about 70% more.
ChC Do you aim to be big?
WT Goal number one is to have something small with everything made on site. If it's successful it can grow, but I want to continue having one destination place.
ChC That will inform all your branding decisions. If you come up with a great formula to be rolled out then you have to make a brand that you can protect the intellectual property of.
WC Think whether you can and will roll it out. With a brand name you only get one shot at it so think hard about it.
ChC And don't underestimate your signage - people can walk past your shop for years and not realise it's there.
WT What made you different from your competitors at the time of opening and how do you stay different?
WC You can do something different for the sake of it. I'm lucky because my wife is Japanese and that influences a lot of what we do. But if I'd just chucked lots of Japanese ingredients in for no reason I'd probably have failed. Do what you want to do, but put your own character on it.
PY Even if you don't realise it yet, you will have your own style. Harnessed well, that alone will set you apart.
WC Take a look around at the competition, take the best of what is already out there, and put your own style on it.
ChC But don't over-complicate it. Keep things as simple as possible.
WT What advice can you give me about employing and retaining staff?
WC You have to respect them and they have to respect you.
ClC For example, the staff at the French Laundry all took huge pride in what they did. They all bought into the ideas behind the place, from the guy raking the drive to the guy on the dishwasher. People should be there working for you because they want to work for you, not because they have to. And it's your job to convince them why that is and sell your ideas to them.
WT What things do you know now that you didn't know when opening?
ChC The utter importance of financial control. When I started I did everything, even things like VAT returns. I knew how much we were earning, how much we were losing, where it was all coming from and how much money I had to stock the fridge with to be able to eat. If your business is to be successful you need to know how it works - I suggest you do as much of it as you can manage.
WC It's stuff that might take you away from what you originally dreamt you would be doing but it is vital.
PY But keep the balance of life. I still struggle with it - still think at times that I should always be busy. Remember that your business is part of your life but not your whole life.
ClC And don't be a prima donna. Be humble. It's easy to get swept up in it all.
WC When you see someone on the way up, be careful as you might also meet them on the way down.
WT Finally, what is your favourite dessert?
ClC Mine would be vanilla ice-cream two hours after it's been put in the freezer.
PY Apple pie just warm with vanilla ice-cream or custard tart with lots of nutmeg on top.
ChC It would be fresh apricots from France on brioche, with lots of cream on top.
EL Tarte tatin with pear.
WC I like everything, I have a real sweet tooth - I'll probably die when I reach 40. But probably a rum baba.
ChC And you Will?
WT Before my gran passed away she used to make these delicious Welsh cakes that were really crusty - hand-baked and griddled on this big iron block that I've got now. When I get my first site that will be the first thing on the menu.
Will Torrent Acorn Scholar. Currently a pastry chef at Bachmann's Pâtisserie & Chocolate Creations in Thames Ditton, Surrey. Torrent also picked up the Young Chef of the Year Award from the Craft Guild of Chefs in 2009, and became the first British pastry chef to win the Medallion of Excellence when he competed as a specialised pâtissier and chocolatier at the World Skills competition in Japan in 2007.
Claire Clark Formerly the executive pastry chef at Thomas Keller's three-Michelin-starred French Laundry restaurant in California, Clark is regarded by many as one of the top three pastry chefs in the world today. Her achievements include becoming the only female recipient of the prestigious Meilleur Ouvrier de la Grand-Bretagne (Best Craft Worker of Britain) award. She is currently involved in consultancy work.
Chantal Coady After graduating in textile design in 1981, Coady opened Rococo Chocolates on Chelsea's Kings Road in 1983. The success of the site led her to open a second in Marylebone High Street in 2004. She won a prize in 2008 from the Academy of Chocolate, in recognition of her efforts in changing the way people view chocolate.
William Curley After serving an apprenticeship at Gleneagles Hotel, the Scottish-born pastry chef went on to spend six years at Michelin-starred establishments such as L'Esperance in France, London's La Tante Claire and Marco Pierre White's The Oak Restaurant. He became chef pâtissier at the age of 27 at The Savoy before opening his first shop in Richmond in 2004. A second site followed in Belgravia in late 2009.
Eric Lanlard The French-born pastry chef first came to London in 1989 to work for Albert and Michel Roux, before going on to oversee their pâtisseries business. He set up wholesale pâtisserie business Laboratoire 2000 in 1995, and also opened a celebratory cake business, Savoir Design, in 2000. In 2007, he closed his wholesale operations and opened Cakeboy, a pâtisserie and cookery school in Battersea.
Paul Young After studying hotel catering and management at New College, Durham and Leeds Metropolitan University, Young went on to become pastry chef at Marco Pierre White's The Criterion Brasserie in London's Piccadilly and head of pastry at Quo Vadis in Soho. In 2006, he opened his first eponymous shop in Camden Passage, and added a second in the City of London in 2007.
THE ACORN SCHOLARSHIP
Now on the hunt for its ninth scholar, the Acorn Scholarship is an independent award created by previous winners of Caterer and Hotelkeeper's Acorn Awards. The scholarship's objective is to seek out talented individuals within the catering and hospitality industry and help them realise their ambitions and reward their determination. The Acorn Scholarship is a self-nominated award (although you must have the backing of your employer) and is open to UK residents who are able to work in the UK without restriction. Key supporters include Villeroy & Boch, Unilever, Abode Hotels & Michael Caines and Learnpurple.
To find out more or to enter the scheme, visit: http://www.acornscholarship.org.uk" target="_blank" rel="noreferrer">www.acornscholarship.org.uk