Interview with Helen Vass

Images by Debbie Pipe

Interview by Bethan Vincent

Interview with Bake Off: Crème de la crème winning teammate Helen Vass

How does it feel to be a Crème de a Crème Winner?

I still can’t believe it because it seems so long ago that we filmed it! This was actually back in September last year and obviously the result wasn’t given out on national TV until May. I still don’t believe it because we had to keep it secret for so long.
However now we are able to speak about it, It’s great to be able to show people all round the country what we can do as pastry chefs!

Do you have any stand out highlights from your time on the show?

The highlight for me was doing all that we did in such a short space of time! Also I really enjoyed the experience of being in a different kitchen environment and working with such a talented team, I especially loved working with Mark and Sam.

Did you learn any new tricks?

I definitely learned a lot from being on the show; it gave me a lot more confidence as a pastry chef.

Was it more stressful than professional work?

Yes, it was very, very stressful!
In your day job there is certainly pressure, I would never deny that. However on Crème de la crème you have lots of different and new factors which really push you to perform. It’s a fantastic experience, but slightly nerve racking.
Firstly you have all of the cameras watching you, and then you have your team members watching, who you want to perform well for. On top of that, you also have the judges, who represent some of THE best pastry chefs in the world!

Who was the scariest judge?

I don’t know if any of them were scary.. I know they make them seem scary on the television but they’re not really at all!
I think you have to remember that during judging, they have to be strict and uncompromising for the cameras, they are there to do an important job after all.
Off camera, everyone is so supportive and encouraging. I think we learned a lot from the advice that the judges gave us. As the show went on we increasingly took on board their advice, which obviously paid off.

What would you say to anyone thinking of pursuing a career in your field?

Basically, I would tell them is that if they really want to do it, they should go for it.
It’s a fantastic job, but you have to be prepared to put in lots of hours, hard work, being on your feet all day.
Some days you’re in the kitchen for 14 or 15 hours without a break and it can be exhausting, but it’s a really worthwhile job!
To get started, try and do some unpaid work experience with the best chefs that you can. That’s how I started and I think it has stood me in really good stead.

Currently the food industry is quite male dominated; do you think it will become more female friendly?

I think so, especially because there is such a shortage of pastry chefs, something really needs to be done to encourage people from all backgrounds to take it up as a profession.
To be honest, there is actually a massive shortage of chefs in general. It can be really hard to find people who want to do the unsociable hours and late finishes. We certainly need to be more innovative in finding ways to accommodate things such as flexible working and family friendly hours.

Do you think there are any trends in baking that will be big in the next year?

I don’t think there are many real “trends”, everything has its place doesn’t it? It’s like fashion really, everything comes back around!
I don’t tend to follow any fashions or trends, I just do what I enjoy and what I think looks nice. That’s the main thing for me.

What do you think of the current trend for rainbow baking, innovative or just style over substance?

I actually use a lot of colour in my baking and love it; I like bright and eye catching things.
However, I think part of the battle is that you eat with your eyes as well, so it has to look good but also taste amazing.
The colour should really, in my opinion, reflect the taste. So if you are making something which uses a bright red, the flavour could be reflected in a fruity centre – raspberry or strawberry.
You are going to be disappointed if something looks great and tastes rubbish, but if the presentation is lacking but it tastes amazing, then you’re always going to leave with a nice happy surprise.
That’s one thing I learned from bake off, flavour is important. Things should obviously look great, but flavour really is the most important thing!

Obviously you spend a lot of time in professional kitchens, do you also like to cook at home?

On my days off I do like to practice things that I don’t get to do in my job and I do like to try new techniques in my own time, but obviously there are days when I do not want to be in a kitchen at all, because that’s where I spend most of my time!

Do you have any other hobbies outside of work?

I mean it’s all to do with food, but I do love eating out!
It’s great to see what other chefs are doing, because I think in the culinary world everyone inspires each other.
I love travelling as well, I go to Spain quite frequently to get some inspiration for the pastry work that I do back here in Scotland.
I lived in Barcelona for 7 years so Mediterranean flavours and styles are a massive influence on my work. I go out there quite often and eat out in different places to get ideas and meet other pastry chefs. I do courses with them, and try and bring some of that practice back to the UK.

Do you think in general we are taking more inspiration from abroad?

Yes! I think people are getting much more adventurous because there is greater access to more exciting ingredients. People are also much more willing to experiment and try something new.

Finally, do you have any exciting future plans?

I’m looking forward to continuing my series of pop up events, which are actually the first of their kind in the UK!
We do a whole menu of desserts, complete with wine pairings.
Find out more on Helen’s Facebook page.

Bethan Vincent

Musings from a York based businesswoman. Sprinkles of business and lashings of opinion.

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