Spanish pâtissier and chocolatier Oriol Balaguer is one of the superstars of the field. After seven years at El Bulli, he now has shops in Barcelona, Madrid and Japan, with another due to open in Saudi Arabia next year. Joanna Wood reports.
Oriol Balaguer is very apologetic about his imperfect English, but the fact he can conduct an interview in the language at all speaks volumes for the character of this 37-year-old pastry chef. Two years ago he couldn't speak a word of the world's most used language, but sheer determination and a desire to broaden his horizons mean he can now communicate comfortably enough to hold court with the English-speaking press.
Those same attributes undoubtedly took him, a pastry chef trained in the classic tradition at Barcelona's Confectionary School, to the groundbreaking El Bulli restaurant in the mid-1990s. "Before El Bulli I worked always in pastry or chocolate shops, but then in 1994 I said, ‘OK, I want to try and work in a restaurant for a year, to open my mind'," he explains, adding with a rueful grin: "In the end, I stayed seven years, but now I think like a chef, broader than a pâtissier."
We're sitting in the gardens of the Al Raha Beach hotel in Abu Dhabi during the city's first gourmet festival, an all-singing, all-dancing affair held earlier this year that boasted a glut of culinary demos and dinners from some of the world's most renowned chefs. There's quite a breeze whipping up off the seafront, but unlike our current batch of storms in the UK, it's innocuous and the night is balmy.
Balaguer hasn't much time to spare. He's off to cook a course at the evening's gala dinner, an obliquely titled little number called "Substance". The dish is an object lesson in the craft of a modern pâtissier and a tribute to Balaguer's judgement. It is pin-precise in execution and though it has modern touches, such as a toffee jelly and a sprinkling of mouth-popping spacedust, it is completely accessible to the slightly conservative audience of western expats and local royals - not necessarily what you'd expect from an El Bulli alumni. "You can take a risk for 50 people but not for 300 people, you need to be safer," he points out.
Balaguer saves his more adventurous pâtisserie work for his three shops - in Barcelona, Madrid and Japan. It's in their boutique surroundings that he gives full rein to his creativity - a creativity that produces chocolate golf balls, a suitably dimpled white chocolate casing filled with, as he puts it, "mandarin hazelnut and crunch", moulded chocolates in the shape of cocoa pods and chocolate fillings that encompass the savoury as well as the sweet flavour world. Wasabi, olive oil, arugula (rocket), salted corn - these base flavours are used to push the boundaries in Balaguer's chocolate world.
It's not only in his chocolates that Balaguer experiments with the savoury world. He also showcases a monthly "concept cake" at his Barcelona shop, which also houses his pâtisserie studio-lab, where his creations are born and developed - and these can be anything from cakes with a clear classical heritage, to a "pizza" cake. Yes, a cake inspired by pizza.
"It has all the things you get in a pizza. It has crunchy Parmesan with dry powdered tomato, cream cheese with oregano and little confited tomatoes and arugula, mozzarella and pepper," Balaguer explains gently, smiling at my disbelief, before adding: "Every weekend we get a lot of orders for this cold pizza cake, it's very popular."
The idea, he continues, with monthly concept cakes, is to challenge pâtisserie preconceptions, to create a "crazy cake". His team is encouraged to contribute ideas - he employs about 30 people in total - and they take the best ones, play around with them and then try out the cakes on the staff and customers. "It's important to get opinions from customers," he emphasises, displaying a healthy respect for business, despite his obvious desire to expand the horizons of haute pâtisserie and chocolate. If a concept cake sells commercially, then it goes into one of his twice-yearly "collections".
The collections are structured, incidentally, like their counterparts in the fashion world and presented in spring-summer and autumn-winter contexts. This desire to look beyond the traditional world of cuisine and pâtisserie for his business marketing and structure is a hallmark of Balaguer's work, which probably has links back to the fact that he briefly studied fine arts. He clearly has an eye for design detail, a fact apparent not only in his pâtisserie and chocolate crafting, but also in how he packages and presents his creations. The shops are in every sense boutique - they are designed like a classy jeweller's, with bespoke cabinets displaying chocolates and cakes discreetly illuminated by spotlights.
Slick, minimalist design and pushing pâtisserie boundaries, particularly by experimenting with savoury and sweet matches, are not, of course, exclusive to Balaguer. But he has been - and is - one of the trailblazers in the pâtisserie world and one of its few superstars. As a result, he is a chef who is much watched by his counterparts around the world, as Damian Allsop, one of the UK's leading chocolatier-pâtissiers, attests. "When his book http://www.gourmetabudhabi.ae" target="_blank" rel="noreferrer">La Cocina de los Postres, ISBN 84-7212-082-1; English translation, Dessert Cuisine ISBN 84-7212-088-4; published by Montagud Editoreas] came out it in 2001 it was the one to have. It was very inspirational," he confirms.
Another of our home-grown pâtissier-chocolatier stars, William Curley, agrees: "Pâtisserie has been transformed over the past decade and the Spanish and Oriol have been at the forefront of that. He's definitely one of the key players and the book's tremendously inspiring."
Both UK pâtissiers stress two salient points about Balaguer's chocolates and cakes: that he knows when to rein in experimentation and that the foundation of his skills are rock solid. "You have to have a good base to kick off from and he has that; lesser chefs can try the edgy stuff, but don't understand it and ultimately fail," Curley says. "His chocolates are very neat, very simple," Allsop continues. "He deals with complexity in his textures and flavours, but never gets lost trying to show off. There's always something for his customers to connect to, to relate to. He's one of the best technicians in the world and he has the pâtisserie history behind him, coming from a family of pastry chefs - and he has the El Bulli dynamism. He's the whole package as a pâtissier."
For many chefs, admiration bestowed on them by their colleagues from all corners of the world can be a corrosive force that inflates ego at the expense of creativity. But this doesn't seem to be the case with Balaguer, who remains modest, even diffident in conversation. Maybe that's because pâtissier-chocolatiers - even superstar ones - rarely get the same media exposure as their chef-restaurateur counterparts. Whatever the reason, when you talk to Balaguer, you are always aware that what drives his craft forwards is a desire to be creative rather than a desire for fame.
He is measured in his responses to questions flung at him in a foreign language, polite to a T and patient when those queries are less-than-original probes into his creative process. For the record, he garners culinary inspiration from anywhere and everywhere. He understands the science behind his craft, of course, and this informs any cake or chocolate he develops, but the technicalities of his profession are seldom what spark his imagination. Kernels of ideas come from knowing ingredients, from brainstorming sessions with members of his team, from his travels - even from a song.
"We have a fantastic singer in Spain called Joan Manuel Serrat and from one of his songs I created a cake," he tells me. "The song is called Pare and in it he talks about honey and nuts and his childhood." If you've never heard of him, Serrat is one of the most important figures in post-war popular music in Spain, closely identified with the Catalan identity and the song is a plaintive ballad oozing with nostalgic reminisces. It's very emotive and this, as well as the ingredient references, is what ignited Balaguer's inventiveness. "For me," he explains, "the most important thing is to surprise, to amuse the customer. To get emotion from people with my work is the most important thing."
If all this sounds a bit arty farty - frankly, a bit Continental - then bear in mind that Balaguer has a successful business, which in addition to his shops and development studio includes consultancies across the industry sectors - in hotels, catering and confectionery. Remember, too, that he has successfully exported his brand of pâtisserie and chocolates to areas as culturally diverse as the Far East, North America and the Middle East. In fact, reputedly, about 40% of his business turnover is centred on exports.
Most of those exports are done through distributors, but in Japan, of course, he has another shop. It's a state of affairs he hopes to replicate in the Middle East next year, where he is set to open premises in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia - earlier plans for opening in Dubai this year fell through. The fact is, behind his calm manner and his undoubted boundary-pushing creativity, Balaguer is a chef completely grounded in the real world. That's something that aspiring entrepreneurial pâtissiers should strive to emulate, alongside cultivating the very necessary ingredient of culinary curiosity.
And talking of ingredients, you may wonder if there is any flavour that is a no-go for Balaguer when it comes to pairing with chocolate. Apparently, so far, only one. "I put charcoal with cream for a chocolate filling and…" - he tails off with a rueful shake of the head. Even geniuses have bad days.
"SUBSTANCE" - VANILLA MOUSSE, TOFFEE JELLY, COCOA SPONGE CRUNCHY, GRAN CRU CHOCOLATE CREAM
Oriol Balaguer reproduced this dish for a gala dinner of 200 guests at Gourmet Abu Dhabi 2009. He often varies its garnishes and ingredients - adding a scoop of lemon sorbet or cube of lime jelly on the plate, frequently giving the sponge a sprinkling of mouth-popping space dust, regularly finishing with a chocolate sugar tuile and a single raspberry and/or strawberry.
For the vanilla mousse (The quantity given here is for a large batch size sufficient for about 200 servings. For a single cake, you will need about a tenth of the recipe)
- 1600ml double cream
- 800g caster sugar
- 100g vanilla pods
- 64g gelatine (soaked in cold water)
- 6 litres whipping cream
For the feuilletine (For one cake you'll need 375g of the batch below)
- 150g hazelnut praline
- 300g milk chocolate "feuilletine" ["crunch"]
For the chocolate sponge (Allow 300g per sheet of sponge mixture)
- 120g unsalted butter, softened
- 400g icing sugar, sifted
- 500g Grand Cru chocolate (64% cocoa solids), melted
- 200g egg yolks
- 150g flour (Type 55)
- 8g ground almonds
- 1tsp baking powder, heaped
- 350g egg whites
- 2tbs caster sugar
- Thin sheet of tempered chocolate couverture, for garnish
For the toffee "jelly" (For one cake you'll need 500g of the batch below)
- 700g granulated sugar
- 200ml double cream
- 10g cocoa paste
- 3-4 leaves gelatine (soaked in cold water)
For the chocolate cream (You'll need 500g of the custard per batch)
- 200g caster sugar
- 500g egg yolks
- 100ml unskimmed milk
- 400g Grand Cru chocolate, 64% cocoa solids (eg, Valrhona Manjari), melted
- 500ml whipping cream
For the vanilla mousse: Heat the double cream to simmering point. Add sugar and stir until dissolved. Add vanilla, remove from the heat, cool and infuse 24 hours. Remove vanilla pods. Reheat the cream and add gelatine, stirring to dissolve. Whisk the whipping cream until firm and fold it into the vanilla cream at 28°C. Reserve.
For the feuilletine: Combine the praline and milk chocolate feuilletine and roughly crush to obtain a crisp crumble.
For the chocolate sponge: Cream the butter and icing sugar. Beat in the melted chocolate and egg yolks. Add in and combine the flour, ground almonds and baking powder. Whisk the egg whites and caster sugar until peaked and firm. Combine with the chocolate base. Spread a thin layer (about 300g) on a prepared baking sheet and bake for eight minutes at 180°C.
For the toffee "jelly": Put the sugar in a pan and moisten with very little water. Boil to a mid-amber caramel. Off the heat, whisk in the double cream and cocoa paste until smooth. Dissolve the gelatine in the hot mixture, allow to cool until you get a loose jelly-like texture, then roughly break this up before plating.
For the chocolate cream: Whisk the sugar yolks and milk over a bain-marie to form a sabayon. Add the melted chocolate, then the whipped cream. Put into a Pacojet and process.
For serving: Coat the sponge with a layer of mousse and leave to set. Spread a thin layer of feuilletine mixture on top. Cover with another layer of mousse, then spread a fine layer of tempered couverture on top of the mousse and leave to set. Plate and garnish as per picture - with a scoop of Gran Cru cream, chocolate sugar tuile and toffee jelly - and serve.
Oriol Balaguer was born on 7 December 1971 in Calafell, near Barcelona, the son of a pastry chef. His formal training was done over a period of five years at the Confectionery School of the Barcelona Confectionery Guild and his early professional years were spent working in some of the city's top pâtisseries. He also, briefly, studied fine arts, but the pull of his genes was too strong and the pâtisserie world won him back.
The turning point in his career came when he joined Ferran Adrià's now legendary El Bulli restaurant in 1994. He stayed there for seven years, helping to forge the restaurant's international reputation for groundbreaking innovative cuisine, only leaving to set up his own business in 2002.
He opened a shop and cutting-edge confectionery studio in Barcelona in 2002 and proceeded to win numerous plaudits for his work with chocolate and pâtisserie. A second shop in Madrid in 2008 is proving just as successful. He also has a foothold in the Far East through a shop in Tokyo, opened in 2004, and is due to launch a third outlet in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, in 2010.
GOURMET ABU DHABI
Oriol Balaguer is a pâtisserie crusader and astute businessman who is well aware of the benefits of marketing and educating through regular appearances at international food festivals. Caterer met and talked to him, initially, earlier this year at the inaugural Gourmet Abu Dhabi festival.
The second Gourmet Abu Dhabi festival will take place from 5 to 19 February 2010 and, like its predecessor, will be made up of a series of culinary masterclasses, discussions and gourmet dinners. Among those scheduled to take part is London-based Claude Bosi, one of the UK's few two-Michelin star holders at his renowned Hibiscus restaurant. Another London favourite, Vineet Bhatia, of the capital's Rasoi Vineet Bhatia, is also taking part in the event. They line up alongside German supremo Heinz Winkler, France's Alain Passard and Regis Marcon and Italy's Alfonso Iaccarino.
For further information, visit [www.gourmetabudhabi.ae