Pom Bear May 19
We Grill - Helen Vass

Helen Vass

Pastry Chef at Number 16, a 2 AA Rosette in Glasgow. Having previously worked in administration, Helen followed her dream and retrained as a pastry chef. After being crowned one of the winners of BBC2’s Bake Off: Crème de la Crème, her profile has soared.

What made you become a pastry chef?
I lived in Barcelona for seven years and worked in administration. Baking was my hobby; I even ran a British baking class in the Spanish city. I soon realised I wasn’t that bad at it, and after much deliberation I knew that if I didn’t take the plunge now, I never would. I moved back to Scotland and in September 2013 started my training at the City of Glasgow College. It all took off from there. Alongside my baking, I hold motivational talks to encourage people to follow their dreams. I’m a big believer that you can do what you want. It’s never too late to become a chef – I have the most fantastic job in the world and I love it.

Does your baking have a Spanish influence?
Yes, definitely. In the restaurant I’m the only pastry chef so I don’t have anyone to learn from. I go out to Barcelona as often as I can to gain inspiration from some of the top chefs. I visit the Barry Callebaut Chocolate Academy, just outside the city, as often as I can and I have done courses with the pastry chefs Ferran and Albert Adrià, world champion pastry chef Jordi Bordas, and world chocolate masters Hans Ovando and Antonio Bachour. The Spanish think outside the box – they don’t take themselves too seriously and just have fun with the desserts and that’s the route I follow with my baking. I’m never going to be a Michelin-starred pastry chef – I don’t want to be. I just want to have fun with my job and I’m lucky that I get to do that.

Tell us about Bake Off: Crème de la Crème…
When I finished college, Mark Tilling, resident tutor at Squires Kitchen Cookery School in Surrey, approached me to be in his team for the BBC2 show. I had done two courses with Mark; chocolate making and a chocolate showpiece one. He liked the Spanish influences I use in my pastry, so together with Samantha Rain, a chocolatier at Paul Wayne Gregory Chocolates in East Sussex, we made a team and won. Our final showpiece was an all chocolate show-stopper that would feed 100 people and incorporated copper bowls, chopping boards, spoons, spatulas, lemons and a steaming pot on top.

How has winning helped you?
It’s given me a platform to showcase – and develop – my baking. I now work with some of the best in the industry, have a great position at Number 16 Restaurant and I was able to debut the first dessert pop-up event in Glasgow, which I now run in Edinburgh and London too.

What are your dessert pop-up events?
In Barcelona, they have dessert restaurants so I thought why not do it here? It’s something totally different and has never been done before. I offer a five-course dessert menu with wine pairing. It’s fun and something different to afternoon tea. For my first one, I did amuse-bouche, three desserts – including a raspberry, mascarpone and pistachio entremet as seen on Bake Off – with paired wines, coffee with macarons for 30 people. I did a five-course event at Corinthia London for Valentine’s, where guests received a pre-dessert course, a sharing dessert platter for couples and a signature heart to take away. It was a great success and amazing to be in collaboration with the executive chef Adriano Cavagnini and pastry chef Loic Carbonne.

What place does a dessert have on the menu?
For me, it’s the most important part of the meal because it’s the last moment you have to impress the customer, and tends to be the thing customers always remember. I like to surprise customers with a dessert. At the moment at Number 16, I have ‘The Lemon’ on the dessert menu. It is a lemon made of chocolate and has all the elements of a lemon meringue pie – so the customer thinks, what is this? It’s simple and a surprise for guests!

What is your number one dessert?
My choice is an entremet which has different elements all in the one bite! They are individual little gateaux. A sponge with a crunch all inside one dessert – you get everything at once without playing about with food on the plate. At the moment, it is a white chocolate cremeux with raspberry coulis and forest fruits – it was one that I did in Bake Off and the judge Cherish Finden said she loved it.

Where did your love of baking come from?
My mum and my grandmother were always baking in the house and they’d let me get involved. As I got older, I loved baking and trying out new things, so it turned into a hobby. For me, baking is not just about the making of it, it is about making other people happy – I get a lot of satisfaction from watching family, friends and customers enjoying what I’ve made.

Are you conscious that sugar is deemed ‘the enemy’ these days?
Very much so! When I make desserts and pastries at Number 16, I make sure it is not too sweet – if it’s going to taste of lemon then I want it to taste of lemon rather than sugar. I sometimes use cocoa butter instead of butter because you don’t have to use as much. And I don’t use double cream in my baking – only whipping cream as it has less fat and is lighter.

What chefs inspire you?
A lot of the Catalonia Spanish, especially Jordi Bordas who won the 2011 Pastry World Cup. I’ve done a course with him and I’m a great admirer of his work. I also like Melissa Coppel who is a chocolatier who I’ve also done a course with in Barcelona.

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