It was a grey, wet morning as I arrived at The Shard, Western Europe’s tallest building and designed by the architect Renzo Piano. It’s visible from way across London and is simply magnificent in its design and the way it draws your eye from literally miles away. As I emerged from London Bridge station it seemed a shame the weather was so bad as I was about to head to the 32nd floor to interview Oblix’s executive pastry chef, Jurgen Willems. However, despite the cloud, the views were still stunning and you definitely don’t have to wait for a sunny day to head up to this new restaurant for what must be the best views across London – and of course some wonderful food.
I was particularly looking forward to this interview with Jurgen as I haven’t interviewed a pastry chef before and so I was sure he’d come up with some books that were new to me and exciting. It was an expectation fully realised. In fact, I was so inspired I came home and baked a cake! Turning some over-ripe bananas into a banana cake! Not quite of Jurgen’s standard, maybe, but still excited by my look into the world of a pastry chef. Baking and pastry-making are on the up and in the restaurant world pastry chefs are at last being given the respect they deserve. Fine pastry making is not only an art but requires great skills and technical ability. It’s not an area of cooking where you can mess around with a recipe and do your own thing: you have to follow practised methods and really understand the science behind why certain things work and others don’t, especially before you start to experiment. Jurgen showed me around the restaurant – which only opened on 6 May – before we talked about his books, beginning with the pastry station in the open kitchen.
There was an open oven for bread and pizza and jars of cookies on the counter. Later, Jurgen told me that he’d introduced the idea of offering a cookie jar at the end of the meal with coffee for people who don’t want a full dessert.
There’s a charge for it but when Jurgen told me about some of the things that are included, I thought it sounded brilliant. It’s also increased the percentage of diners choosing to have a dessert.
The views out from this glass building are great wherever you are. There is a restaurant and also a lounge area with a less formal menu. We went to sit in the lounge area and Jurgen told me that you could come here for lunch for a £25 fixed menu, which includes a selection of salads to begin (you help yourself to whatever you want), then a main course and then finally a selection of desserts (again, help yourself). By the time we’d finished our talk, the counter was being filled with the dishes for today and it all looked fantastic.
What a great deal. I’m going back! At weekends the menu costs more but there’s live music, which sounds a wonderful way to spend a weekend lunchtime.
Jurgen and I talked first about how he came to be a pastry chef. A Belgian, his father has a patisserie in Leuven, and while it wasn’t expected that he’d follow in the family business, working with pastries became part of his being. Later, he told me: ‘Pastry … is more than a passion … it’s my life.’ After school, Jurgen did an internship at Del Rey chocolatier in Antwerp before returning to work in the family patisserie for two years. He became a member of the Dutch Pastry Team (despite being Belgian), won a competition and this was something that ‘changed everything for me’. The prize was a pastry master class of choice and Jurgen headed to the south of France to study with Oriol Balaguer. He worked in a team with Vincent Zanardi from L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon in London and this led to him being offered a job there. He was at this 2-Michelin star restaurant for over a year, moved from there to Hibiscus and then to The Dorchester as Pastry Demi-Chef de Partie for a year. After a short stint working as Head Pastry Chef on the famous M/Y Christina O yacht, once owned by Aristotle Onassis, and now rented out to the rich and famous, Jurgen was offered the job of Senior Pastry Sous Chef at The Arts Club under his old boss from The Dorchester, Claude Lamarche. He was there for a year and a half before joining Oblix in January 2013 as Executive Pastry Chef and working with the team for the opening on 6 May.
Oblix is a new restaurant for chef Rainer Becker and restaurateur Arjun Wany, of Zuma, Roka, La Petit Maison and The Arts Club fame. Oblix though is more New York inspired, bringing a vibrant mix of different cultures and cuisines into a sophisticated but informal space to eat a full meal, or share some plates with a drink. Jurgen was asked to create some classic dishes – New York cheesecake, pavlova – in a rustic style that also offered something special.
Moving on to talk about Jurgen’s book choice, we began with:
1. Stephane Leroux: Matiere Chocolat – Jurgen had two Leroux books – they stand together, but one is more technical. The first he showed me had the most stunning chocolate sculptures. Looking through the book, it was incredible to think these sculptures were made of chocolate and I could see myself sitting looking through this for a whole evening, given a chance to do so. The more technical book made it possible for Jurgen to learn all the amazing techniques he saw in the book, to create beautiful sculptures himself. Jurgen’s chocolate teacher, Pol de Schepper, won the world chocolate masters title in 2005 and Jurgen told me what a wonderful teacher he was, who inspired his own passion for chocolate. At the moment, in his current job, he doesn’t get much opportunity to put these skills into practice, but when he was at The Arts Club, sometimes he’d do a sculpture for a special occasion.
2. So good … the magazine of haute patisserie: this bi-annual magazine – that is so big it’s really a book – is bought and used by pastry chefs around the world, Jurgen told me. There are interviews, recipes, techniques, and to have something published in it was a highly respected prize.
3. Bouchon Bakery: Sebastien Rouxel – Rouxel is the Executive Pastry Chef for the Thomas Keller (The French Laundry) group. Jurgen said he loved this book because it’s one of the best for explaining basics, as well as more advanced dishes, and because it is written with lots of passion. Although it’s a book for the professional pastry chef, Jurgen said that it would help an amateur too as everything is so well explained. The book was a leaving present from staff at The Arts Club. Jurgen told me he met Rouxel in Paris once and has enormous respect for him.
4. Perfection in Imperfection: Janice Wong – Wong has a pastry-dessert bar in Singapore: the 2 am Dessert Bar. Jurgen hasn’t met her personally but their paths keep crossing. He showed me the book and its fabulous photographs. Wong has created a unique style and desire to combine art with pastry-making and this results in visually wonderful dishes. She’s currently, Jurgen told me, creating an edible wall art. Apart from the stunning creations contained within the book, it also has some great techniques.
5. Dessert Cuisine: Oriol Balaguer – Jurgen did a course with Balaguer, one of the great pastry chefs in Spain and famous as one of a new generation of chefs. This was the first book Jurgen bought that was about cooking in restaurants and got him interested in restaurant desserts, moving away from the kind sold in patisseries like his father’s. ‘It’s a very important book to me,’ he said. Balaguer has a shop in Barcelona: design is very important to him and thus it’s not laid out like a conventional patisserie but with a minimalist approach and a few show, concept cakes and a line of chocolates that all have the same design – a cocoa bean – but taste different.
6. Desserts: Roger van Damme – Van Damme is a Dutchman living in Belgium. After winning the Dutch Pastry award in 2008, Jurgen met him and the two became good colleagues and friends. Since then Van Damme has become famous with a TV show and was the first person to receive a Michelin star for a tearoom, based in a house in the middle of the botanical gardens in Antwerp. Van Damme’s aim has been to bring fine dining desserts into the home. His TV shows and his books are about showing the home cook how to prepare simple but elegant desserts that you might expect in a Michelin starred restaurant. The book is beautifully illustrated and divided into ingredients: lemons, mascarpone, pears etc.
7. Natura: Albert Adria – from the famous elBulli, this book from its pastry chef is full only of photos. This is book about the visual impact of desserts. It’s good for idea, Jurgen told me. These are dishes that have a lot of thought behind them but a good dessert doesn’t have to look like something from elBulli, Jurgen adds.
8. Momofuku Milk Bar: Christina Tosi – Momofuku is a dessert-milk bar in New York. Jurgen likes it because it’s a very playful book with cakes, cookies, sundaes. But what he particularly likes is its story. Tosi is pastry chef at the Momofuku restaurant chain. She talks about what happens on a daily basis and the book contains things that would fit the deli area of Oblix. The book is about fun, homely cooking and the freedom to create.
9. PH 10: Pierre Herme – Herme is one of the most famous pastry chefs in France; indeed the world. He is especially famous for macarons and, if you live in London, you can sample these delights as he has a shop in Lowndes Street, Knightsbridge – Pierre Herme Paris Boutique (I can see Knightsbridge will be on my list of places to go over the coming bank holiday weekend!). PH10 is divided into different areas of pastry making: cakes, ice creams, plated desserts, etc. But in every section a theme from a previous one returns – a bit like a piece of music, I suggested. Thus one combination as a cake will come again as an ice cream or plated dessert.
10. Fine Chocolates: Jean Pierre Wybauw – This Belgian chocolatier has been technical adviser to Barry-Callebaut – the biggest chocolate manufacturer in the world – for over 30 years. He travels the world teaching, giving lectures, and has even taught at Harvard. Jurgen told me he was an amazing teacher that led to him developing his own passion for working with chocolate. When he finished training, his father was so excited and proud of him that he bought Jurgen all the equipment for chocolate making – a chocolate-tempering machine, moulds, books, etc. – to help him follow his passion. Jurgen practised and his father introduced chocolate into his shop, and he still sometimes makes chocolates for the shop when he goes home. He can’t imagine anyone being more proud than his dad. And as he talks, a strong bond between father and son is obvious.
Then it was time for Jurgen to give me his overall No.1 book. But that didn’t present him with too big a decision to make as he opted pretty instantly for No.1 – the Stephane Leroux book(s). All the books have a special meaning, he told me; many are presents or represent a huge learning curve in his development as a pastry chef. He likes books that teach him something, he told me. His dream for the future is opening a dessert bar in London but meantime, he’s enjoying the new challenge at Oblix. He works a long day – sometimes 7.30 am till 1 or 2 in the morning. He manages the pastry team of 7 chefs and apart from the development of pastries and desserts for the menu, teaches those working under him. But he loves it, he tells me; he loves coming to work. And how wonderful to see someone bringing their passion into their work. I really enjoyed meeting and talking to Jurgen and I was treated with a sample of the gorgeous desserts coming out for lunch. I chose a beetroot cake that looked a bit like a carrot cake ..
and Jurgen suggested I try to sweet potato pie, so I did.
I was a bit worried it might be too sweet for me but it wasn’t at all: spiced with cinnamon, the sweet potato filling was so light and delicious – a fabulous dessert. And a wonderful way to finish our talk.
Postscript: Nov 2014: Not long after I interviewed Jurgen, I was shocked to learn that he had been diagnosed with brain cancer. I’ve followed some of his story through his blog and heard about the chemotherapy and his hopes for recovery. However, I’ve just learnt that Jurgen has recently died. He was such a lovely, vibrant young man and a hugely talented pastry chef and his loss at such a young age is a terrible tragedy for his family and friends and sad for all who met him.