Interview with an Innovator

Graham Hornigold: ‘Vegetable-based desserts, that’s where we can have massive exploration’

The former mastermind of Hakkasan’s sweet treats on reducing sugar, paleo cakes and re-imagining classics – especially the trifle.

16 March 2018
dessertsugarvegetables

Hornigold on Paper – CV

  • Got his big break at the Lanesborough Hotel, becoming executive pastry chef, before taking on the role of chef patissier at the Mandarin Oriental, Hyde Park
  • Joined Hakkasan in 2011 as group executive pastry chef, opening restaurants in New York, London, Doha, Mumbai, Dubai and Shanghai
  • Began 2018 by founding his own pastry consultation company, Smart Patisserie

It’s hard to imagine that a Chinese restaurant group could be the place to make your name as a pastry chef. But that’s exactly how Graham Hornigold came to global fame.

“Everyone thought I was crackers,” says Hornigold of his decision to join Hakkasan in 2011. But the unusual move turned out to be a piece of cake, profiting both pastry chef and restaurant.

Hornigold is now seen as something of a guru within food circles, his talent requested by businesses throughout the world. In fact, he’s currently in Kuwait, helping a local casual dining restaurant group perfect their dessert concept. It’s the first project he’s worked on since forming his own company, Smart Patisserie, in January 2018.

“Essentially, the idea is to have a one-stop shop for all pastry needs,” explains Hornigold. “I’ll look at your venues, I’ll look at your kitchen design, I’ll look at the flow of it, some of the equipment that goes into those areas as well… Cooking technique, mouthfeel, understanding local palates, the technical side from all of the guys and whether or not you need to get more bodies in or look at your training plans.”

Taking a break from his Middle Eastern duties, he talks to Food Spark about understanding your audience, cutting down on sugar and how to get consumers interested in desserts again.

 

It’s not just about putting your food out there and making sure that people eat your food; it’s matching your food to local taste, otherwise you’ll have an empty restaurant. It’s one of the biggest challenges that chefs need to understand these days.

You see restaurants come and go very, very quickly. Sometimes I think it’s not just because the restaurant isn’t very good, the restaurant doesn’t work or the concept doesn’t work. It’s because of the flexibility within the kitchen setup. Chefs want to cook the food that makes them happy, but it doesn’t necessarily match their environment, which makes for an unsuccessful restaurant.

When we opened the Yauatcha in Houston, nobody had ever seen that type of place before. And every chef that we were getting was basically somebody who had come from Cheesecake Factory. But within six months of opening Yauatcha Houston, it had been named the best place in Houston for dessert. The same for Waikiki. It’s going in, having a look at your concept, breaking down everybody else’s cake, understanding where they get all their ingredients from, what kind of ingredients you can’t get [and] talking to your suppliers about what’s available in that region.

Every job I’ve ever had, I sit in the dining room, then just approach tables, have a conversation, saying, ‘I’m looking at new menus, what would you like to see?’ ‘What’s your favourite childhood dish?’ ‘What’s required for the region?’

People see Instagram, look at TV, and some people [become a chef] for the wrong reasons, which is why you have a shortage, because people don’t explain the hardships of being a chef. So some people think it’s a glamorous thing to do – which it is in a sense now, the industry’s changed – but it’s still a very hard job if you really want to be successful.

I think the most inspirational thing you can do is to make Instagram posts that are real. So if you put on a picture of a finished cake, that’s great, but make sure that cake is made for the kitchen, not for a photo shoot.

You should always taste the desserts versus the best-selling main courses so that you know they actually work with them. Rather than be too astringent or be too creamy or whatever it is, the mouthfeel that you have from the main course has to match the mouthfeel that you’re trying to generate with the dessert. And the petit fours.

All too many times, you find a pastry chef who wants to have a better dish than the main course, because they want to be recognised in their own right. Because certain countries, say for example the UK, the pastry chef isn’t necessarily recognised in the same way that the head chef is. Whereas in France or the US, your name is on the menu.

There’s nothing really new, it’s just people forget, and then it just comes back because somebody makes it trendy again.

I mean, a raw cake is like a date bar you used to get when you were a kiddy. It’s like Wagon Wheels, or a Tunnock’s tea cake, you had the biscuit coated with marshmallow and chocolate, and yet 25, 30 years later, you see people in Shoreditch selling you marshmallows which are coated in chocolate on a biscuit.

Talking about more classic desserts, ones I’d like to see come back , trifle’s one, because I think it’s something as a nation we’ve forgotten. Some people may or may not like it, but you can do them in different ways.

No disrespect to Dominique Ansel, but if you eat a cronut, it tastes the same as a yum yum, it’s just round.

Obviously, there’s the sugar issue, which is just less processed sugars and more raw sugars, so honey … there’s natural sweetness from fruit.

If you’re going to have a poached peach or poached pear, some people say, okay, you poach it in sugar syrup, which is what we’ve historically done… Now, we can use fruit puree, so it tastes of a pear rather than tasting of sugar.

If you make a lemon meringue pie, you take sweet pastry, you take lemon mix and you take the meringue. All of those are set recipes and all of those work individually well, because you know you’ve got a balance of sugar in each. As soon as you put those three together, you have imbalance of sugar, because there’s too much sugar when you eat three as a whole, rather than when you eat them individually. I know I need the sugar in the tart case because it gives it caramelisation and structure, but I don’t necessarily need it all in the lemon curd, because it’s lemon mix; because I’ve got meringue above it and I’ve got sweet pastry below it.

Vegetable-based desserts, that’s something where we can have a massive exploration, but it has to be done sensitively. There’s too much pressure on chefs to perform for Instagram.

Vegetable-based desserts need to be done empathetically, so that they stay true to the flavour that they are trying to obtain and they work, first and foremost, as a dessert which is flavoured as what it is, rather than having too much fluff, too much technique, losing flavour and not necessarily being able to be done to an operation.

A beetroot cake is a good vegetable dessert. You take a beetroot chocolate cake and you put it with a nice chocolate beetroot sorbet and some candied beetroot. When you start playing with it, you make beetroot foam, beetroot this, that and the other, you’re putting too many processes in; you’re putting too much sugar in, because each process requires a certain amount of sugar.

The more paleo diet you can get into a pastry, the better, which is why I’m working on raw cake now. I’m learning as much as I can now about paleo, and I’m going to try and experiment in my quiet time to develop dishes that work towards that. There are too many people that are still dependent on cream… It’s about education through smaller elements. Instead of changing the whole cake to paleo, just change the cream, so that people then became familiar with those tastes, rather than just forcing the change.

Dessert sales are on the decline across the world because no-one wants the sugar or fat content… We need, as an industry, to make sure we’re being more sellable, e.g. respond to what the customers want.

We have to be more sustainable, have a story around the dishes, use more plant-based material and reduce sugar, fat, etc. Make desserts more accessible and fun, but at the same time more healthy.

One of the most interesting foods I’ve eaten in the last year or two is dulce de leche (or caramelised milk) with a matcha spread. It was incredible.

If you asked me what I feel most proud of, honestly, it’s taking a Chinese restaurant group and making it globally famous for pastry.

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