From serving up a supermarket sticky toffee pudding to being crowned UK World Chocolate Master, Ruth Hinks talks to Katey Pigden
Adding salt instead of sugar to my doughnut mix in my home economics class was an early lesson in more haste, less speed. I was 14 at the time. Failing a school subject you're passionate about, particularly one you think you're good at, is always a bit of a shock. But I suppose my teacher knew what she was doing, as I developed a focus which has lasted to this day.
Simple food, well prepared, usually wins every time. An example would be my entremet at the World Chocolate Masters. The layers were chocolate mousse, prune sponge, plum jelly, plum crèmeux and a crumble layer biscuit base. The presentation was very clean with a simple decoration, but the flavours were considered to be perfectly balanced.
I once served up a supermarket sticky toffee pudding for dessert. About a year ago, Martin Chiffers [UK pastry team president] and I put on a chocolate showpiece course at the Cocoa Black Chocolate & Pastry School in Peebles. Attending the course was Graham Hornigold [executive pastry chef, Hakkasan Group], Hideko Kawa [ formerly head pastry chef, the Fat Duck] and Joachim Pratt [head pastry chef, Maitre Choux]. On the Sunday evening before the course started, everyone came to my house for dinner. They were a bit surprised by dessert, but we'd all had a few glasses of wine so I think I got away with it!
Success in the World Chocolate Masters in 2013 was undoubtedly the pinnacle of my competitive culinary career. I didn't realise it at the time, but looking back now it was life-changing in terms of the opportunities that followed. The effort involved in training for the finals in Paris was immense - 25 hours a week for a year - at a time when we were working hard to get our business off the ground, and with two young kids. I've always thrived under pressure, but the year leading up to the finals pushed me to my absolute limit. The result was undoubtedly worth the effort. Beating the French at their own game in Paris is something which will make me smile for years to come.
The biggest challenge has been the transition from the kitchen to the boardroom. In launching Cocoa Black and the Chocolate & Pastry School, we knew from experience that we had a very long and difficult journey ahead of us. As any chef who has started a business will tell you, the skills required to grow a business are very different from the day-to-day workings of a kitchen. We recognised very early on the value of creating the right team and developing strong business relationships with proactive, ambitious third-party brands.
The Chocolate & Pastry School is performing well and we have classes booked up a month or two in advance. It was very hard and costly work for the first five years, developing the course materials and equipping the facility. Our professional courses have been very well received and chefs are now regularly flying in from across the UK and overseas. At the moment, we're gearing up for an April launch of our new school, which will be a state-of-theart chocolate and pastry kitchen in a beautiful listed building on the banks of the River Tweed.
I think that the UK now, for the first time, has a handful of pastry chefs that can be considered world class. These are chefs who have dedicated their life to their profession and in doing so are slowly building up the UK's international culinary reputation.
The key to a balanced life is understanding what can realistically be achieved. It's very easy to set yourself ambitious goals without thinking through the level of effort required to achieve them. Over the past few years, I've learned the importance of prioritising my workload and empowering others rather than trying to do everything myself.
Last year, I was commissioned to create a chocolate showpiece to celebrate the launch of the new Borders Railway by the Queen. We were keen to choose something iconic which would resonate with the general public - the Flying Scotsman was a natural choice. We set about creating a 1:17 scale model using over 80kg of chocolate. It was such an ambitious build for such a high-profile event that I called in the Big Gun [Martin Chiffers] for support. Within 24 hours of releasing a video about the build, we were being contacted by rail enthusiasts worldwide - it seems that we'd struck a chord with fans. The showpiece itself was eventually positioned at Waverley Station in Edinburgh for the Queen's arrival. A congratulatory message by the Scottish Parliament topped off what was a pretty good week.
2000 Pastry chef for the Australian Culinary Olympic Team
2004 Australian Pastry Chef of the Year
2007 Head pastry chef, Sheraton Grand Hotel
2008 Launched Cocoa Black
2009 Launched the Chocolate & Pastry School
2011 UK Confectioner of the Year
2012 UK World Chocolate Master
2013 World Top-Five Chocolatier
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