Q&A with judges Benoit and Cherish from Bake Off: The Professionals
It’s a brand new series for you both. Why is the dynamic between you two so good, and what makes it work?
Cherish: We are now on our third series working together, so we are very good friends. Benoit is so charming, he is like James Bond to me. Sometimes we do disagree with each other on look or taste, but we always end up agreeing on which team should go, and who should stay, even though that can be a hard process to get through. We do it together.
Benoit: We both have very different styles but we respect each other. Cherish can give quite a fierce look if she is not getting what she wants from the chef, as she knows what she wants. I like technical execution and a really lovely flavour profile. I want a pastry to inspire me, I can get quite emotional about the whole process, and the connection when you taste the perfect pastry.
How does it work with the two new presenters, Tom & Liam – are there a lot of laughs on set – and do you socialise with each other outside of filming:
Benoit: They are good fun, such great guys both of them, they are a younger generation but both bring something new to the series. Tom brings humour and fun, and Liam brings youth and a whole new vocabulary! We had a really good time together.
Cherish: They are so funny whether on set or not, they bring a great, younger vibe to the show. They make me feel younger! The four of us always have dinner together after filming, I introduced them to ‘Cha La La’ which is a Cherish/Singapore expression for ‘not very good’, now they say it quite a lot!
Did you ever think you would be a TV Judge on a baking show!?
Benoit: Never. I always take my job seriously as a patisserie chef, and I do it for the love of it, even though it can be tough sometimes. To be able to spotlight that now is great because I can help bring the world of patisserie to more people and a wider audience.
Cherish: Not at all, it was an honour to be invited! I am very passionate about what I do and hopefully I can impart my knowledge to the chefs and viewers at home.
What do you most enjoy about working on Bake Off: The Professionals?
Cherish: I enjoyed giving feedback to the chefs and love it when they take on board what we say. As the weeks go through they become stronger and that makes me very happy. When they haven’t done so well I feel for them. I also love working with Benoit, the presenters and the crew of course.
Benoit: I really enjoy meeting new teams of pastry chefs each series. So to meet a whole new group of people that have the same passions as you is exciting. Every morning I would give the teams a power hug and say we are in this together and we are going on the same journey with you. Let’s work hard, but enjoy it at the same time.
At what age did you start baking and where?
Cherish: I started cooking at 8 when my father was sick, so my mum had to work. I took over the cooking for the family, and then at about 12 I started to make kueh [Malaysian for cake], you make a sponge and put it in the steamer. I got a lot of compliments from my siblings so I decided to enrol myself into a catering school called Shatec, and it all started from there.
Benoit: I started baking at home about 10, some little pastries in my mum’s kitchen. My parents were my guinea pigs, so they had to suffer my first very hard shortbread with a heavy chocolate sauce. I improved fairly quickly and progressed to apple turnovers with my attempts at puff pastry, so they did eventually get something decent to eat.
Benoit, who inspired you to begin your career and any reason why?
Benoit: In truth a few people have and for different reasons I wanted to be a chef to begin with and my mum was running a busy shop. At home we often had 12 people for lunch, and I was given the job of cutting up chickens, which I didn’t like much!
I decided I wanted to be a patisserie chef and after having tasted a financier at an afternoon tea with an aunt, which I loved and I thought yes, this is what I want to do. Also, on either end of the street that I grew up in France, there were two patisseries and I was good friends with the baker’s sons of each kitchens. I liked to hang out at 5pm in case there were any leftovers. I loved the smell of the bakeries and that has stayed with me. In the holidays, my father would drive me at 4am to the bakery to work. Both my parents have supported me in my love for baking.
How strict are you both?
Cherish: I am very strict at work, I have to be because we are always aiming for the best. I am very competitive and I am still striving to search for perfection. There is no short cut, using the right technique and method is crucial, that’s always my culinary goal. Out of work I am actually quite good fun and I like to relax with friends with a glass of wine and a lovely meal.
Benoit: I can be picky at work and I expect a lot from myself and from my team. Because I always consider that our guests deserve only our best and nothing less. My rule is don’t let your mistakes leave the kitchen! So I can be a bit demanding in the kitchen and expect high standards, commitment and passion.
And the ruler?
Cherish: I bought my ruler from Singapore, and it’s in this series again. I am known for my precision and accuracy and I am proud of that, it’s what makes me who I am.
Benoit: Of course every pastry chef in my kitchen works with one or more but for the show I don’t have a ruler but I am very aware of the precision, it has to be elegant and professional, and technically correct.
Is there a family recipe that you still use?
Cherish: My mum’s chicken curry – I always use her recipe - it’s a Singapore chicken curry served with steamed rice.
Benoit: Well my mum’s rice pudding is something I am still trying to perfect. My mum is the Queen of the buckwheat pancakes so I try to emulate those, but mine are never as good as my mum’s.
What would you say would be your perfect pastry, and why?
Benoit: I would say my team is working hard every day to create the perfect croissant for our guest. It’s the first thing I look at and taste in the morning in our kitchen. It is also the bench mark in any pastry kitchen in France. It is the beginning of my day and I go from there.
Cherish: The basics in baking are crucial to me, so it’s important for example to get a ganache very smooth with a glossy texture. Or, if you do a basic pastry make sure you get it right, don’t over mix the dough or overcook it or under bake it! My rule is back to basics before you try the big stuff.
Is there a recipe that you feel always is your favourite?
Cherish: Sesame Umami is one of my favourite. A unique petit gateau with an Asian twist it incorporates soya sauce and sesame oil and sesame nougatin. When I was a commis chef I loved making coconut and pandan chiffon cake. It’s light and fluffy and I still like making it, and it’s lovely with a cup of tea.
Benoit: My favourite recipe would be for a financier or a Coffee Religieuse – a choux pastry filled with coffee crème patissiere and a coffee sugar fondant glaze. Both remind me of my childhood as they have an emotional resonance for me.
Your favourite pastry – and which one is it?
Benoit: It has to be chouquettes – they are little choux buns coated with nibbed sugar that have caramelised whilst baking in the oven. You buy them in bags of 12 and they remind me of growing up in France when I would be sent to buy bread on a Sunday morning, and with the spare money left over I would buy the chouquettes but eat most of them on the way home. I did save some for my mum of course.
Cherish: My favourite pastry is Kueh Lapis – it is an Indonesian cake , a rich indulgent layer cake with a bit of spice. I eat it very slowly, layer by layer. It takes a long time to bake so I make sure I enjoy and appreciate each layer.
Why do the teams efforts have to be so precise?
Cherish: It’s very important as we are judging professionals, so being precise is crucial in both their daily work and the series whether you are cooking for 10 or 200, consistency and quality are paramount. The chefs want to deliver their best to the judges, the same as they would in their day jobs.
Benoit: We are testing the teams on quantities and repetitions, and as they are professional chefs we want them to do their most consistent bakes. The team has to work effectively within that precision and timescale.
Tell us about the different challenges [the Miniatures and the Showpiece] do they represent the high standard professional pastry chefs have to achieve.
Benoit: We ask the chefs to show us the core of their basic skills, to rediscover the forgotten classics and bring them back to life. And of course they have to be of the highest standard, and with some other more conventional classics, to be creative with them. They have to use their inspiration, intuition and imagination to make it work perfectly.
Cherish: We have some classics in this series and the Showpiece not only demonstrates their artistic flair, but also how they manage their time. As judges we want to see how knowledgeable the chefs are. One of my favourites in this series is the ‘secret challenge’, I just loved it when you saw the chefs faces drop as the challenge is revealed!
When you give feedback to the teams after judging, how do they take the advice or criticism on board?
Benoit: Usually they take it pretty well considering sometimes it can be tough. But we have to judge what we see, and we have to give them the right message, which helps motivate them. We want to see what advice they take back to the kitchen, even though emotions can sometimes run high.
Cherish: They take it very positively and when they learn from it, that is satisfying for me. All the chefs worked so hard on this series, I got very emotional and really felt their pain when they don’t do well.
Do you ever want to help any of the teams, and how do you stop yourself?
Cherish: Definitely all the time, I have to pull back. I want to roll up my sleeves and start helping them, but of course I can’t - I am a Judge!
Benoit: You can’t help them, and that can be hard and frustrating. It can be nail biting watching it go wrong in front of you, without being able to do anything about it. It’s always hard when a team leaves, and we try and encourage those who are staying.
Can you give a little about the expertise on this year’s series without revealing too much?
Benoit: It’s a different dynamic this series, it’s teams of two, so they really are relying on each other to make it work, it is team work, and there is no hiding place. I saw a lot more sugar work being delivered this year and also seeing the standards getting higher is great.
Cherish: I think some of the Showpieces are the best of all of the series so far. I was totally blown away by some of them, and of course the creativity is out of this world. There was a lot of cheering and clapping when the teams delivered exactly what we asked for.
What is your criteria when judging the different challenges
Cherish: I critique each layer of the cake and then the whole cake. The taste is more important than the look. It can look fantastic but it must also taste the best.
Benoit: For me it is technical execution, flavour combination and potentially the emotional connection I get when looking at it as well as eating it. It can’t be boring and it has to have the wow factor.
What is your personal worst patisserie disaster?
Cherish: When I first came to England I offered to bake a cake for friends, but I hadn’t used a gas oven before. Let me tell you I cried, I had to bake it three times before I got it right, it was nerve wracking for me. I have got an electric oven now!
Benoit: When I was doing the MCA [Master of Culinary Art] in the 8 hour semi-final I was asked to do an Apple Tarte Alsacienne, and I dropped the tart – disaster! I had to start from scratch and put my head under a cold tap of water to calm down, but I finished with two seconds to spare and voila!
And your best triumph?
Benoit: The triumph was to win the MCA title in June 2005 after a very intense 10 hour final.
Cherish: I have a few, but my favourite was when I was in Singapore we were representing the country in a Culinary Olympic competition, and the President of Singapore invited us for a cup of tea.
Do you get recognised at work or in the supermarket a lot now?
Benoit: It happens. It’s not overwhelming and it’s quite fun. Sometimes I get surprised but it’s always very pleasant. Some come into the kitchen and say hello if they are eating at the restaurant.
Cherish: I do get quite a lot of recognition, when I am in a restaurant or sitting on a train. People smile at me and ask if they can take a picture. I get tweets from some people saying that they have seen me, but they are too shy to approach me. Perhaps they are too scared! A lot of young people write to me asking for career advice.
Bake Off: The Professionals starts Sunday 6th May at 8pm on Channel 4