BBC2’s Bake Off: Crème de la Crème has been an exposé on the world of professional pastry chefs. Lisa Jenkins talks to the winning team – Helen Vass, Mark Tilling and Samantha Rain – about their experience.
When rumours of a Bake Off show for professional pastry chefs emerged back in 2015, most chefs were cynical – would this help the industry? Well, BBC2’s Bake Off: Crème de la Crème certainly hasn’t done it any harm.
Winning team captain Mark Tilling says all his team benefited from being on the show: “We were really disappointed to be knocked out in our first heat, but as the highest scoring runnersup, we got another chance as the wild card team. We knew we had to focus on the textures and flavours,” he adds.
It was a challenge for the chocolatier-turned-tutor to manage his team at times. Previously he only entered solo competitions, and rather successfully too, having won chocolate manufacturer Cacao Barry’s Chocolate Masters Competition in 2006 and then came seventh in the World Chocolate Masters in 2009. This time, he says: “I had to delegate and let go, and I didn’t want to let anyone down.”
He needn’t have worried. Helen Vass and Samantha Rain had been students of Tilling’s at Squires Cookery School in Farnham, Surrey and there was a strong bond between them. He talks of capitalising on Vass’s pastry experience from her time in Barcelona, one of the leading pastry capitals of the world (see panel), her understanding of pastry technique and her Mediterranean mindset.
The youngest member of the team, Rain, won the UK Junior Chocolate Masters in 2014 (see panel) and was praised by her teammates for having superb chocolate skills with a strong pastry knowledge.
‘Team Mark’ profited from Tilling’s competition experience and his leadership skills were evident. “I hope my organisational skills and competition experience was helpful – if only the knowledge of how much preparation is required,” he says.
Vass and Rain were reluctant to take part at first. “Neither of them thought they were good enough,” says Tilling “I’d never done a competition before,” confirms Vass. “Mark persuaded me.”
“I called my mum after Mark approached me,” explains Rain. “I was in shock, but mum was sure I could do it, and after my initial nerves and encouragement from my family, I was very excited about it. I wanted to test myself and I wanted to work with Mark and Helen.”
Their captain’s practical advice was: “It doesn’t matter how good you are as a pastry chef; it’s about how well you perform under pressure, because some of the best chefs in the world can fall apart under pressure. I was confident my competition experience would help us and I knew we would work well together as a team.”
There were moments during the programme where you could tell the three were thinking, “What the hell have we done?” But they had a motto of ‘just go for it’. “We had a lot of fun off-camera,” says Vass. “I hope that came across in the show. But once the camera is on you and you’ve got the judges watching, you need to be serious.”
“We’re all professional chefs so we knew when service was on,” adds Tilling. “We had to be at the top of our game and act as we would in any professional kitchen – to very exacting standards.”
As these underdogs progressed through the final two episodes of the show, their unique skills shone through. Vass is tenacious and determined, having only become a pastry chef in 2013. “You need the right attitude,” she says. As for their opinion on the programme – all three of them enjoyed the process, but would they do it again? “No!” is the unanimous reply.
“The programme provides you with additional skills to take back to your own kitchens. And as we were all happy in our day jobs prior to the show, the bonus is that now we’ve all got more skills to share,” says Tilling.
“It was a huge eye-opener for me” says Rain. “We all learned so many new skills and learned from each other on every challenge we competed in. We are probably all better at taking risks now – we’ve got that ‘what’s the worst that can happen?’ attitude.”
There were 45 pastry chefs on the show who benefited from the tutelage of judges Benoit Blin, Claire Clarke and Cherish Finden, not to mention Tom Kerridge, the show’s host. “Tom definitely understands us better now,” reveals Tilling. The team agrees that there are a lot of head chefs who find pastry chefs to be a different breed. “There are some common misconceptions of pastry chefs because we’re so particular about everything,” says Vass.
“Hot kitchen chefs have to work faster than us, and pastry is more about preparation and detail,” adds Rain.
The team’s main drive was to portray the role of pastry chefs in an inspirational way. Crème de la Crème was a big step up from The Great British Bake Off, but it needed to be. “It was about drawing in future industry professionals and demonstrating the level of skill that we’ve trained at and how intricate it is,” says Tilling.
If their ambition was to convey the level of skill required to be a successful pastry chef in the UK, they definitely achieved it. And perhaps there will be a greater uptake of afternoon teas across the country too.
Who are the winners?
Samantha Rain, 25, studied for an NVQ level 2 Hospitality and Catering course at South Essex College and gained a PME Masters Diploma in cake decorating. She has since worked as a commis chef and demi chef de partie at the Michelin-starred Auberge du Lac in Hertfordshire, with short stages at La Bécasse, Ludlow, Shropshire and L’Ortolan in Reading.
Rain went over to pâtisserie full-time in 2013 when she joined Rococo Chocolates as an apprentice chocolatier, before becoming a chocolatier at Paul Wayne Gregory Chocolates in Lewes, East Sussex. More recently she has joined forces with HB Ingredients as a development chef where she demos and trains on the Sosa brand.
Mark Tilling started his career as a pastry chef at Botleigh Grange Hotel in Southampton while studying at Southampton City College for a BTech National Diploma in Catering and an NVQ Level 3 in pastry. After leaving college, Tilling worked with chef Paul Gayler at the Lanesborough in London before moving to head pastry chef roles with Hotel du Vin in Winchester and Bristol and Lainston House in Winchester. In 2006, while at Lainston House, Tilling won the UK Chocolate Masters and went on to come 12th and subsequently seventh in the World Chocolate Masters competitions held in Paris in 2007 and 2009.
In May 2009 he took on the role of resident tutor at Squires Kitchen in Farnham, Surrey, and teaches chocolate, pâtisserie and bakery classes at all levels.
Up until June 2013, 33-year-old Helen Vass worked full-time as an office manager for a real estate company in Barcelona, having achieved a postgraduate diploma in business administration from the University of Wales.
In her spare time she freelanced as a baking instructor at various businesses in Barcelona before coming back to the UK in 2013 to study for a Higher National Certificate in pâtisserie at the City of Glasgow College, followed by a year as a astry chef at the Blythswood Square hotel before returning to Barcelona as pastry chef to Christian Escribà at Pasteleria Escribà and stages in other pâtisseries. Vass was also sent to Singapore for a month to work for the world’s first theatrical pâtisserie event, Fantasia by Escribà, at the Marina Bay Sands Convention Centre, where there were life-size edible masterpieces.
Vass returned in 2015 for the pastry chef role at Number 16 Restaurant, Glasgow, where as the sole pastry chef she is responsible for designing the dessert menu and making all the bread and desserts for the restaurant.
● Benoit Blin is the executive pastry chef at Raymond Blanc’s Belmond Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons
● Cherish Finden is the executive pastry chef at the Langham, London
● Claire Clarke is regarded as one of the finest pastry chefs in the world and was made an MBE in July 2011