Whether you're creating bespoke chocolates or simply adding finesse to a prepared dessert, suppliers are swooning over this year's Valentine treats. John Porter reports
Desserts are a year-round upselling opportunity in the hospitality sector, but also a perennial challenge, particularly in the early months of the year as customers try to stick to resolutions to eat more healthily. Valentine's Day, as well as being the first big occasion of the year in terms of generating bookings, is the perfect opportunity to freshen up the dessert menu.
However, operators should be leveraging the appeal of desserts beyond the brief Valentine's Day uptick, believes Ashley McCarthy, chef and co-owner of Ye Old Sun Inn in Colton, North Yorkshire. McCarthy, who has displayed his skills as a chocolatier on TV programmes such as Extreme Chocolate Makers and Kitchen Wars, says: "The dessert and pastry section can generate good gross profit and add more customer spend per head, but is overlooked by many operators due to lack of expertise and time."
The danger of operators moving to ready-made or reduced-skill desserts is that "it brings the expectation of customers down to a level where they believe they could do better or very similar at home, and so they skip the dessert course altogether", he suggests.
McCarthy, a former college chef lecturer, adds: "Colleges and training providers need to cover the foundation basics for this section, as well as advanced skills for garnish and plating. Pastry in other European countries has so much more prestige and acknowledgment."
Aiming to bridge this training gap, professional association the Master Chefs of Great Britain (MCGB) has an ongoing series of chocolate masterclasses targeting chef students, held at colleges around the UK. The programme is spearheaded by MCGB board member Shona Sutherland, who has won multiple awards for her cake and chocolate work, competed in the Scottish team at the Culinary Olympics, and runs chocolate and pâtisserie business Taystful, based in Blairgowrie, Scotland.
"I believe it's important for chefs to have the opportunity to develop pâtisserie and chocolate skills, regardless of whether they see themselves involved with this side of production in the future or not," says Sutherland.
"With the current pressures on mainstream chef training, I can see why it is difficult for pâtisserie and chocolate skills to be focused upon, although this of course will vary from college to college. With the huge need for skilled pastry chefs in the industry, ideally, we'd love to see more emphasis on it, and this highlights the importance of events like the MCGB masterclasses, hands-on workshops, training sessions and scholarships."
Sutherland is also working with HIT Scotland as part of the training body's chef scholarship for hospitality employees.
Alyson Gray, HIT Scotland scholarship manager, says: "With pâtisserie being more specialised, we often get chefs looking to improve their skills in this area, and this year chocolate was high on the list, so we asked Shona to create a two-day programme for our group of chefs from different venues around Scotland.
"With a mix of experience in the group, it's great to have an expert trainer who is able to tailor this to suit, ensuring that they all leave with skills they can take back and use in the workplace."
Chef Jack Coghill of Jack ‘O' Bryan's Bar & Kitchen in Dunfermline, Scotland, is already a sweet specialist. The restaurant's made-from-scratch chocolates and desserts are a strong part of its appeal, and Coghill recently extended his skills with a three-day training session at the Callebaut Chocolate Academy and factory in Banbury, Oxfordshire.
"I spent three very enjoyable days a few months ago with Julie Sharp, Clare England and Mark Tilling, all of whom are chocolate experts at Callebaut," says Coghill. "Their knowledge and skillset of everything to do with chocolate is absolutely mind-blowing. It's such an honour and a pleasure to learn from the best in the industry.
"I started learning pastry because I wanted to push myself further. My dad Bryan is a chef of 40 years' experience and he trained me on all sections of the kitchen, but the pastry and chocolate skills are extra strings to my bow and set Jack ‘O' Bryan's apart."
The handmade chocolates can be ordered as a choice of four or six combined with a hot drink after a meal, or bought, beautifully boxed, to take home. Each new variety takes about five months to develop and has a maximum three-month shelf life, "so we are guaranteeing quality, flavour and freshness to the product. This is what we feel makes our chocolates stand out from the crowd", adds Coghill.
For Valentine's Day, he has added a new ‘porn star martini' chocolate, inspired by the popular cocktail, as well as reinventing sticky toffee pudding with a sticky toffee choux bun combined with date and treacle cream, Scottish tablet, clotted cream ice-cream, candied pecans and toffee sauce.
Realistically, not every operator will have the skill or time to produce pâtisserie from scratch, which is where specialist suppliers can fill the breach. The latest launch from Symphonie Pasquier is a collaboration with the Rémy Cointreau Group, fusing the French macaron with Cointreau and Mount Gay Rum. Matthew Grenter, sales manager at supplier Brioche Pasquier, says: "The versatility of pâtisserie is unmatched, from éclairs and macarons to filled tartelettes and delicious entremets. Keeping up to date with the latest trends is a sure-fire way to keep menus interesting and entice customers through the doors.
However, in pâtisserie, this is often difficult to achieve due to the skill level required to make the product. Buying in frozen also helps chefs manage stocks and minimise preparation time."
French pâtissier Tipiak supplies heart-shaped macarons as part of its ‘thaw and serve' range. Marie-Emmanuelle Chessé, international development project manager, says: "Macarons are perfect for Valentine's Day but are also ideal for weddings, afternoon teas, as accompaniments to tea and coffee, and for birthdays. They can also be used to decorate cakes or as toppings for shakes and smoothies, bringing a romantic touch to sweet treats."
For those looking for last-minute inspiration for Valentine's Day itself, Samantha Rain, development chef at ingredients supplier Henley Bridge, says: "Diners in search of a romantic meal will usually gravitate towards the traditional Valentine's dessert favourites featuring chocolate, raspberries or strawberries, and sharing desserts are a fantastic option for added romance.
"My ‘nuts for you' recipe (pictured top) uses a dark chocolate éclair cup filled with pecan mousse, dark chocolate and whisky ganache and vanilla salted caramel, finished with heart-shaped chocolate décor. For something a bit lighter, my ‘swooning over vanilla' tart uses a Pidy sweet butter pastry shell filled with vanilla panna cotta and topped with vanilla mousse hearts and fresh raspberries."
George Tatlow, head of new product development at Compleat Foodservice, supplier of Wrights sweet pastries ranges, says: "It's important for operators to consider quick and easy solutions that can offer a seasonal twist on well-loved favourites. In pâtisserie, that could be as simple as swapping out a topping on a regular cupcake or brownie with a new Valentine's-themed topping using edible chocolate or fondant icing decorations, or introducing a special for the week, such as a classic red velvet sponge, or a white chocolate and strawberry buttercream.
"Part-finished bakes are a great way for operators to inject some of this creativity into the pâtisserie offering in a cost-effective way that doesn't lead to excess waste. At Wrights, we're seeing customers buying in our part-finished cakes frozen from wholesale and baking them off subject to their requirements. The cakes are a great quality base for adding creative twists such as fruit, ganache, jams, and a wide range of toppings, making them a perfect solution for seasonal specials."
The correct kit is vital for creating enticing sweet treats too. Benoit Blin, executive pastry chef at Belmond Le Manoir aux Quat'Saisons, has brought a passion for using seasonal ingredients into play to create a range of desserts and pâtisserie using a Carpigiani Maestro dessert machine.
He says: "Catering for hotel residents and restaurant diners as well as for weddings, private functions and occasional large events means that we need equipment that is multifunctional and versatile, yet still able to provide the quality we desire. We've have been able to make good use of the Maestro in the kitchen, producing custards, creams, sauces, crème anglaise and even piña colada, with a fantastic smooth texture and beautiful finish."
Michael Eyre, product director at equipment supplier Jestic, recommends the Multifresh Next blast chiller from Irinox for kitchens seeking the temperature control and precision needed for perfect pâtisserie.
He says: "Spring represents a strong seasonal opportunity for operators to boost dessert sales, with Valentine's Day, Mother's Day and Easter all falling within a few short weeks. This traditional peak of indulgent opportunity, aligned with the continued growth of online culture and desirable desserts being shared across the likes of TikTok and Instagram means that many operators want to maximise the opportunity but often aren't sure where to begin.
"Pâtisserie and chocolate have fearsome reputations for the level of skill required, but with the right equipment in place, kitchen teams can produce excellent results time and time again."
Brioche Pasquier/Symphonie Pasquierwww.pasquier.fr/en_uk
Jestic Foodservice Solutionswww.jestic.co.uk