King of pastry John Huber dies

22 May 2012 by
King of pastry John Huber dies

Professor John Huber, one of the UK's most influential pastry chefs, has died suddenly at the age of 79.

For more than 30 years at what was then known as Thames Valley University (TVU) in Slough, he transformed the way pastry was taught in this country. Swiss by birth, Huber regarded England as his adopted country and retired from TVU to a country cottage in Somerset in 1998.

Throughout his lengthy career, Huber worked tirelessly at 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, inspired literally thousands of young chefs.

President of the Academy of Culinary Arts Brian Turner described Huber as a professional's professional and a champion of champions. "John worked extremely hard to teach himself as well as encouraging young people to learn more about his sector," he said. "He was widely respected, loved and genuinely a lovely man."

Yolande Stanley, now consultant lecturer at Westminster Kingsway College, is among many of Huber's former students who went on to fill positions of influence. "The passion, love and gratitude I have for John is enormous," she said. "He mentored me as a student and throughout my career. His influence on the way he transformed pastry teaching and the quality of pastry service in this country can not be underestimated and will live on."

Simon Hulstone, chef-proprietor of the Michelin-starred Elephant restaurant in Torquay, said that Huber was a lovely man who was always thinking about other people. "I can remember him looking out for me when I first started taking part in competitions (because he knew my father) and I didn't even know who he was. My dad said: ‘he's one of the best pastry chefs in the world'.

"My mentor for WorldSkills in 1995, Peter Griffiths, arranged for me to spend time with John and he helped me train so that I could compete on a European and international level. I went on to judge many a competition with him and the insight and the way he looked at pastry was fantastic. Even though I never worked for him, I learnt so much from him."

Huber joined what was then Slough College of Higher Education as a lecturer in 1967, at a time when there was no tradition of fine pastry work in this country. 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."

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. With the industry crying out for qualified pastry chefs, 30 colleges in the UK and three in Ireland swiftly took the courses on board.

Never one to rest on his laurels, throughout his career Huber was as eager a student as those he had taught. He 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," he later said. "I was in my 50s and was the oldest stagière they'd ever had!"

The latter part of Huber's career was spent fighting against what he saw as the debasement of catering education. While he recognised that the City & Guilds exams were due for modernisation, he didn't believe that their demise in favour of NVQ qualifications in 1994 was the right step forward. His greatest disappointment was the abolition of practical exams, to be replaced by a series of assessments. "It's a joke," he said. "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 and 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).

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 said at the time. "It proved at last that pastry chefs were no longer second-class citizens."

The following year, another battle Huber had long fought as a member of the Académie Culinaire de France was won, when the distinguished qualification Meilleur Ouvrier de Grande Bretagne (MOGB), held only once every four years, included a hotel pastry section for the first time. Aptly, the first recipient of the MOGB for hotel patisserie was a former Huber student - Claire Clark.

Although he retired from teaching at TVU in 1998, Huber remained actively involved in the industry through his membership of the Academy of Culinary Arts, judging competitions worldwide, mentoring competitors and working as a consultant.

His involvement within the Academy of Culinary Arts included roles as general secretary and chairman of constitutional reform, as well as a member of the management, selection and Annual Awards of Excellence pastry committees.

Much of his retirement was spent preparing students for competitions. In particular, he was involved in WorldSkills, acting as training manager for the confectioner/pastry cook within the UK team, during the event in Canada in 1999 and South Korea in 2001. Since the 2003, Huber continued to be involved during a further five WorldSkills as an advisor to the UK team in the run-up to each competition and was due, next month, to help select select the team due to compete at the next WorldSkills in Leipzig, Germany in 2012.

Yolande Stanley, who took over from Huber as the training manager (confectioner/pastry cook) for WorldSkills said: "He was always pro-active and offered essential and logical support to the competitors on how to up their game."

Huber was also involved in the Academy of Culinary Arts' Awards Annual Awards of Excellence, judging within the kitchen, meticulously checking workmanship, organisation, wastage and health and safety. "He was exceptionally good at this and nothing escaped him," said Stanley.

Between judging at various competitions, Huber worked as a consultant to Town and Country Finefoods and Barry Callebaut, as well as translating at Cocao Barry workshops.

Despite a very active working retirement, Huber did enjoy time at his home in Somerset and had recently returned from a holiday to Tunisia. He died after suffering a heart attack whilst cycling.

Huber leaves a wife, Gillie, son Justin, who is a catering consultant for the National Trust, and grandson, Jack.

By Janet Harmer

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