I always had a sweet tooth from a very early age, especially as I always made chocolate fudge cakes with my nan in her kitchen, “trying” to help, probably being more of a hindrance — although they always tasted amazing.
My first-ever week in a professional kitchen was at the world-renowned restaurant the Fat Duck, in Bray, shadowing the chef Heston Blumenthal. It was here that I realised the kitchen was for me: the challenge to always think outside the box. Once I knew that I wanted to become a chef, I enrolled on a culinary-arts management degree course at the University of West London, where I am now a patron. This was where I fell in love with the sweet side of the kitchen, and began to specialise as a pastry chef, learning all manner of techniques, including working with chocolate — my next love affair.
For the past eight years, I have been a consultant pastry chef for Waitrose, where I work with a team of fantastic chefs and product developers to create mouth-watering desserts, chocolates, and other sweet delights. I also get to work once again with Heston and his team at the Fat Duck. Chocolate is one of my huge passions in life; so helping to create chocolate bars, truffles, and more, for customers up and down the country, really does hit the spot.
I sit on the board of the Academy of Chocolate, and we describe fine-flavoured chocolate as containing no vegetable fat other than cocoa butter, with a minimum cocoa content of, dark, 60 per cent, or milk, 30 per cent; and where the quality, provenance, and treatment of the cocoa beans and the farmers have been considered. From a personal perspective, it’s got to make you feel good — much like a glass of good wine that you are prepared to spend money on.
Historically, French, Belgians, Swiss, and Italians have generations of chocolate makers; but chocolatiers in Britain are challenging this norm, creating some of the world’s finest chocolates and bars. There are now more craft bean-to-bar chocolate producers in the UK than ever before. The sad fact is that [mass-produced] chocolate — or confectionery, as it should be referred to in the UK — has become sweeter and sweeter over time, giving it its bad reputation. But, when it comes to chocolate, we are now at the forefront of the industry.
I get asked about sugar-free cooking. The fact is that, when it comes to baking cakes, you can’t just take the sugar out completely. From a scientific and molecular level, the sugar has to be in there for a cake to work, reacting with the other ingredients. Reducing sugar is a good thing, but taking it out all together is not such a good thing — it’d be like not having salt in something savoury.
Anything with dark chocolate, above 70 per cent, is always going to be better for people on a low-sugar diet.
I’ve been lucky enough to write three cookery books: Pâtisserie at Home, Chocolate at Home, and Afternoon Tea at Home. I love all of them for different reasons, but Chocolate at Home was delightful to put together — especially when testing the recipes.
I was struck by the commitment and desire that Tearfund has, to follow Jesus wherever the need is greatest, besides seeing how, during the past 50 years, they have worked to lift people out of poverty while also ensuring holistic life transformation, through the local church, from a place of love.
They have taken me to Ethiopia and the Ivory Coast, and then up and down the UK with our “Cakes, Bakes, and Faith” tour [alongside fellow baker and Tearfund ambassador Martha Collison].
I have learnt that there’s so much good news out there. I’ve met people who have transformed their own lives, and this has come about through agencies like Tearfund. I suppose what is upsetting is that, in mainstream media, we hear only about things that don’t go so well.
I’ve been surprised that, once people have seen the benefit of things like self-help groups and agricultural training, they go 100 per cent all out to improve their lives. In Ivory Coast, we saw the results of agricultural training with cocoa farmers. One man, Koffi, said that, before the training, “We didn’t understand the gold we were sitting on.”
I was disturbed by seeing poverty first-hand, particularly because my day job is working with some of the world’s finest ingredients, and enjoying good food, when other people have so little. It’s hard to grasp, but I was amazed by the wonderful hospitality that was shown to us as guests.
Prayer is a good starting-point for people who want to help. Over the past year, Tearfund has focused on asking supporters to join in prayer to end poverty. Martha and I always came home from a trip with pleas from people to tell their stories, so that more people can join with them in transformation. And, having met cocoa farmers, one of the easiest things for us to do is to buy good-quality Fairtrade chocolate.
I grew up in a Christian home. We went to Sunday school. Mum played the organ at church. Christian values were very important to us as a family; but, as a teenager, football, cars, and girls came along. It was not until I went through a difficult relationship break-up — with my now-wife, Fran, as it happens — that the lights were turned on and I started to realise what love really was, and what forgiveness was all about. God moves extremely mysteriously sometimes: both Fran and I came to faith separately, and then we were brought back together.
Faith has changed my perspective on what it means to be in the hospitality sector; we are here to feed people and love people through food rather than gaining stars and plaudits.
When I’m not working, I help lead a local theatre group. They perform three shows a year. It’s amazing what entertainment can do to bring communities together. That takes up quite a lot of time.
I’m happiest when I see people come together. We did a feast at our church on Christmas Day for 40 to 50 people, some of whom would have been on their own otherwise, or who had had a tough year. It was amazing to see the incredible reaction from people when they realised you’d given up your day for their benefit, and their reaction when they walked into the dining room, seeing the presents and the fully laid-up table.
Stepping out of your comfort zone always takes courage, and there are many times when I’ve done this. On day three of the international WorldSkills competition in Japan, I hit a wall, and things were starting to go badly. My instant reaction was to throw in the towel, but, thanks to some techniques learnt during that training, I was able to come back and beat France, Germany, and Switzerland, and become the first British pastry chef to be awarded a coveted Medallion of Excellence.
My industry is all about the next book deal, TV show, or award; but, in the past couple of years, my mindset has shifted, and it’s about what I can do next that makes me and my wife and family happy, and about building his Kingdom where we live and beyond.
Happiness gives me hope, especially in a world like the hospitality industry, where mental health is being discussed more openly. Often, people hide behind closed doors, and their lives might be quite dark — we’ve seen that within our own church where we’ve just come alongside people, and it makes such a huge difference to them.
I always pray for my family and extended family; for church — our little church that is growing; and that we will be doing Christ’s work, not what we think is right.
I’m often described as a person who wears his heart on his sleeve, and I feel that St Peter was one of those, too. Knowing what he went through, doubting and denying at times and coming out on the other side with boldness, courage, and belief is so inspiring. I think to sit with him for a few hours in a locked church would help my sometimes doubting nature, and keep me on the right path.
Will Torrent was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.
Mr Torrent is a Tearfund ambassador. www.tearfund.org