Having been sent away to boarding school from the age of seven, my birthday was always during the summer term and I was never at home. Fortunately, a family friend was a great cake-maker – Pat Potts. Chocolate was always my request. Every birthday, a member of staff would present me with her annual creation and these were magical experiences. So, cake has always held special significance for me with birthdays.
During the school holidays, I loved baking cakes, biscuits and millionaire’s shortbread. It is still my favourite to this day – I can’t resist shortbread with caramel and chocolate. I preferred, and still prefer, eating cake mix to the finished cake, but usually enough batter made it into the pan for something edible to emerge, only waiting for it to cool down enough to be able to apply some buttercream icing before eating it.
The food at my secondary boarding school was not great, but we had small kitchenettes at the end of each row of bedrooms, so I started experimenting with cooking dinner for myself and a few friends. By the time I was 18, this has developed into a passion for cooking that I wanted to explore professionally.
I deferred my place at university for a year and became a trainee chef at the Carved Angel restaurant in Dartmouth, South Devon. This Michelin-starred restaurant was one of the top ten in the country, led by one of the most inspirational people I have ever met, the head chef, Joyce Molyneux. 15 months working six days a week, often for eleven hours a day, was a magical experience that gave some professionalism (and speed) to my enthusiasm for food and cooking. Her signature book was written and published whilst I was there, so it captures this era for me perfectly
I highly recommend this excellent cook book by Joyce Molyneux
I have been cooking ever since. My wife – a very good cook herself – reminded me recently that, when we were still dating and well before we were engaged, I announced that I was going to be making all our children’s birthday cakes! This was inspired by my brother-in-law, Marty, who decorated the cakes for his three children every year – such a lovely memory for them…
My wife, Dara, wanted first birthday cakes for each of our daughters, Anna and Stella, that were covered in buttercream so that the birthday girl could grab a handful and shove it approximately into her mouth! I made cakes accordingly. But then, a client’s wife who is a pastry chef at a top London hotel, told me about the person who had trained her to decorate cakes – Debbie Brown. I bought a few of her books and then went for a day with her to learn the basics of cake decorating. She has been guiding me ever since and has turned into a good friend. We always have a great time when we are together and her advice has proved consistently invaluable. I think I am her only male client!