Recently returned from an instructive tour of Europe on the back of two industry awards, Pei Modern’s head pastry chef Lauren Eldridge spoke with Hospitality about her career so far.
“We did a lot of cooking at home. But I never cooked savoury food. Just never did it. It’s not something that interested me,” said Eldridge.
Despite developing a penchant for making desserts early, Eldridge didn’t originally consider it as a career.
“I was at university, studying psychology. But then I wasn’t excited about it and I would procrastinate by cooking. I made batches and batches of macarons, because they were huge at the time,” she said.
“I finished the semester and didn’t go back. I was a year and a half in. I should have wanted it more than I did. I shouldn’t have been procrastinating over something I plan to spend the rest of my life doing.
“My aunty knew someone who owned a small patisserie in Lane Cove and I started working there. I remember being there, washing up all the dirty dishes one day and I thought, ‘I would rather be here washing up this dirty bowl than at uni.’”
One of Australia’s most respected chefs, Damien Pignolet described Eldridge as assured, and her formative years as a chef suggest that he’s right.
“The patisserie was good because I got to see what it was like. But I wasn’t really feeling it, so when another opportunity came along, I took it. I worked in the pastry section at a catering company for a year. Then the same thing happened, I just felt it was time to try restaurants. And now I would never go back. I love the restaurant environment. I suppose I did the same thing with uni. If it doesn’t feel right I just trust that feeling.”
This confidence seems partly innate – the product of thoughtfulness – and partly the result of other’s guidance. Eldridge is proof that modern kitchens should nurture new talent rather than terrorise it.
“The thing is, everyone I worked with was always very supportive and very encouraging. I was never in a ‘cheffy’ environment where you’re screamed at all day. Everyone wanted me to do well. That’s definitely stayed with me. There’s no point yelling at apprentices,” said Eldridge.
“I worked at a restaurant for three months that had a harsher kitchen, where you were constantly being demeaned. In hindsight I can see that it helped me develop; it made me tougher. But it didn’t help my cooking. I wasn’t actually learning anything that I couldn’t be learning somewhere else.”
The more you read, the more you’ll know
When Eldridge left her academic career she didn’t shed the studious part of her nature. After finding her way to Marque (which closed its doors earlier this year), Eldridge continued her studies – this time through a combination of TAFE and on-site learning, under the tutelage of chef and restaurateur Mark Best.
“The TAFE course was very much directed towards patisserie and bakery work. I think two lessons out of the entire course were on plated, restaurant style desserts. It was good for picking up techniques but for me it was very much about on-site learning. That’s how Mark operates,” said Eldridge.
“Even though pastry is very technical and exact, when I’m creating things, there’s a lot of ‘I’ll put a bit of this in and a bit of that’. But it’s in an educated way; I understand how ingredients will react with each other and why. You need to know the basics.
“So to adjust the recipe for the liquorice cake [which features on Pei Modern’s dessert menu] for example, I needed to know what a normal cake recipe is. Then to be able to take things out or add them in I needed to know why everything works the way it does.”
It’s a telling statement, indicative of her past life as a psychology student.
“When I get an idea I do a lot of research, I read a lot. To make the honeycomb I researched bicarbonate soda. I read science papers to figure out what makes bicarb the way it is, why it works the way it does, and how it works with other ingredients. If I wanted to put more honey in, I had to know how it was going to react. Ingredients are the way they are. You can’t change them; you have to adjust how you work with them,” said Eldridge.
“When we made the parsnip cornetto [for a dinner at Marque] I went through the same process with a chemical called calcium hydroxide. I researched its history and how the Aztecs used it. Then I did the same for the parsnip. If I know the cell structure of a vegetable then I know what’s happening when I cook it a certain way, how the cells are breaking down, what’s changing, and what’s reacting.
“I suppose when I left uni I was like, if I’m leaving this then I can’t just be a chef, I have to be the best. It’s never been about beating everyone else; it’s just about elevating everything I do. We have a chocolate tart on the menu at Pei Modern. You can get chocolate tarts everywhere, so ours has to stand out. You have to research to take it to that level.”
With this attitude, it’s not surprising Eldridge has been the recipient of major awards like the Josephine Pignolet Young Chef of the Year and the Gault & Millau Potentialist of the Year, both in 2015.
The more that you learn, the more places you’ll go
“With the Josephine Pignolet award, Damien is looking at a person’s character and what they represent. I think that’s really important. You can teach someone to cook and how to be a chef, but their personality and how they feel about the industry, what they want and what they strive for – you can’t teach that. Yes it’s Damien’s award but it’s named after his wife, so you’re representing her as well. That’s why it’s important to have the right character,” said Eldridge.
As the recipient, Eldridge spent a month travelling through Europe before spending two months at Osteria Francescana, just as it was anointed the number one restaurant in the world.
“I got along with Massimo; it was unique to have that time with him and it was unreal. I cooked for him a few times and he gave me a lot of feedback on the dishes or certain elements,” said Eldridge.
Before her time at Osteria Francescana, Eldridge approached new recipes with a scientific mindset. Working with Bottura helped her develop a more flexible method.
“Massimo likes to create a story with food, to tell people something. I would take a product and think about how to make that product the best it could be. At Osteria Francescana I had to think about what story I wanted to tell, then come up with the concept and then the dish. I still used that sense of elevating an ingredient but I did that to tell a story rather than to show off the food. It taught me a new sense of creativity.”
“One of the first things I made him was a take on fairy bread. He’d told me to find Australian culture and put it in a dish. I made a yeast ice cream for the bread component and for the hundreds and thousands I used different coloured vegetables to make crisps.
“Explaining what fairy bread is was funny. It’s cheap, bad bread, margarine and coloured sugar. I didn’t like it as a kid, which is kind of telling.”
In saying this, Eldridge is alluding to the fact she doesn’t have a sweet tooth. While this might seem like a conspicuous absence for a pastry chef, Eldridge uses it to her advantage.
“I find sugar pretty boring. It’s just sweet. You can apply all your senses to dessert as well, not just sweetness, but bitter and sourness too. That makes things more complex,” she said.
“If I add sugar to things it’s normally a textural choice or to season. I suppose I use sugar the way some chefs use salt. It brings out flavours in the same way. I put a little bit of sugar in the molasses ice-cream [a component of the liquorice cake dish to play up the flavour without making it sweet.”
Think and wonder, wonder and think.
With the experience of cooking in Europe behind her, Eldridge has returned to Australia with a deeper understanding of what our food scene has to offer.
“We’re very focussed here and determined to prove ourselves. Not just as individual restaurants but also to prove that what Australia has to offer in terms of food and hospitality is up there,” said Eldridge.
Although she readily details the benefits of her time overseas, both in terms of technique and philosophy, Eldridge is also keen to promote the virtues of Australian kitchens. At French restaurants, Guy Savoy and Le Cinq, where she staged as the Gault&Millau Potentialist of the Year, Eldridge was exposed to the rigidity of the brigade system and is now appreciative of our more flexible approach.
“Here I can talk to Joachim [Borenius, Pei Modern’s head chef] for advice. Even as an apprentice I could give him my ideas, and he would help me.”
She also has a renewed sense of what it means to be an Australian chef.
“The fact that I’ve grown up here and lived in Sydney my whole life, no matter what I do it will be mine and therefore Australian,” said Eldridge.
“We shouldn’t feel like we have to go oversees to become better. It was amazing and how I work now is influenced by all that experience, but everything I achieved came from being in Australia. I think we can build something here and we should.
Although her time in Europe exposed Eldridge to new philosophies and techniques, her approach remains as fastidiously systematic as ever.
“I still like to make an ingredient the best it can be by using research and science, but without overcomplicating it. The technique isn’t in your face. I don’t want someone to eat my dessert and think ‘oh look at the technique’. I just want them to enjoy it, even though what I enjoy as a chef is the technique. And I don’t think there should be anything superfluous,” she said.
“I think sometimes people confuse technique with elements on the plate. To me, it’s easier to put more. If I’m looking at a dish and it’s not quite right I don’t think about what else I can add to it. I think about what I can do to make what’s there better. If anything, I’ll take something away. The main advice from Mark is ‘think harder’. When I’m developing a new recipe that’s always in my head. ‘Be better, think harder’.”