Ireland’s Own Willy Wonka – Pastry Chef Paul Kelly of The Merrion
Not quite a marquee in the wilds of Wicklow and without a camera in sight, I anxiously ascended the steps to The Merrion for a chat with Executive Pastry Chef Paul Kelly. When last I saw him, I was leaving the Great Irish Bake Off tent, where as a judge he had proved a very tough cookie to please. But a year on, I was excited to get a glimpse into the mind of the man who has put many a wide eyed amateur baker, myself included, and aspirant pastry chef through their paces.
Few could question Paul’s expertise in the pastry kitchen, with over twenty years experience under his apron and a collection of breath-taking culinary masterpieces to his name – most notably featured in the iconic Merrion Art Afternoon Tea. Far from the splendour of The Merrion lobby, a quick trip downstairs sees us settle in to Paul’s make-shift workshop at the back of the pastry kitchen, lined with trolleys overflowing with every mould, pastry prop and confectionary tool a baking junkie could dream of – a cave of wonders.
Before our chat, a quick tour of his operating theatre-clean pastry kitchen revealed the lengths Paul will go to in order to achieve the precision and perfection his edible artworks are renowned for. I peruse the kitchen, spotting intricately piped biscuits in the fashion of iconic pink Chanel coats, sitting below detailed instruction sheets just as complex. “Each biscuit alone takes ten minutes to decorate” Paul tells me, before picking up a plate of perfect Simone Rocha inspired Salted Caramel Eclairs for us to share over coffee and a catch up.
Paul’s love of all things pastry, he tells me, was a latent one despite his creative tendencies throughout his school years, when unsurprisingly he excelled at technical drawing and art. A flair for pastry lay undiscovered until Paul’s fourth season in the five star Park Hotel, Kenmare. Convinced by Chef Bruno Schmidt to leave behind the hot kitchen for a change of scenery, what is now Paul’s natural habitat was not immediately welcoming.
“It was the toughest and the worst season I had! Oh my god it was horrible, I’ll never forget it. Nothing worked, I couldn’t make pastry cream, couldn’t figure out how to set mousse, couldn’t make Anglaise, it was a NIGHTMARE!”
It would seem Paul relishes a challenge and has risen, like the cream served alongside his perfect scones, to the top in the world of pastry. Paul’s skills have taken him all over Europe, and in recent years on many trips to the Parisian Patisserie capital as Ireland’s Ambassador for purveyors of chocolate excellence Cacao Barry. Of his trips to learn more about the intricate chocolate making process, he describes “two days of hard chocolate eating”, noting that “afterwards you’re exhausted – every minute you’re tasting!” – a tough life I sigh!
Picture-perfect patisserie and an abundance of chocolate aside, the pursuit of perfection surely requires some degree of sacrifice. “When you really get into it it becomes a passion, actually an obsession”, he admits. Refreshingly honest, Paul confesses that in the pastry world “to be really good at it you really have to give up a lot of your life. I think I have done that. I’ve made a lot of sacrifices. But I don’t regret it.” The confidence it has given him, the opportunities to travel the world doing what he loves and the friends he has made along the way have made it all worthwhile for Paul. “When you enjoy something this much” he says smiling, “it doesn’t even feel like work.”
The passion for pastry isn’t something that can be switched on and off and Paul notes that even when he isn’t physically in the kitchen, his mind often is. “I drive a bike and sometimes I don’t even remember how I get from the Merrion to the Malahide road because there’s just something stuck in my head!” he says, laughing heartily. It is clear from the genuine enthusiasm in his tone that this really is his element – “I put in long hours here, but some days I find myself wishing it was more, you finish one project ant midnight, you’ve been there since 6 in the morning but you don’t even feel tired”, he says with obvious excitement.
Many outside of the industry will recognise Paul from his role as a Great Irish Bake Off judge and he is quick to note his disappointment at it’s axing this year following three successful seasons. “It was great entertainment and good for Irish baking” he believes, but behind the scenes it wasn’t all sugar and spice and everything nice as it may have looked on TV.
“I don’t think people have any idea how tough it is for everyone, you’re away from your family, some are away from their kids, you’re up early and straight away at breakfast have to deal with the cameras and your own pressure. There’s seven or eight cameras at one time looking at you. It is not easy”
On his perceived persona as a harsh judge, Paul says he never intended to be a bad cop style character. “There was no script for me, I’m not an actor. I said to the producers from the beginning ‘this is who I am’, when I am in the kitchen it is the same thing – if it’s not right, it’s not right and you have to say it.” As strict a judge as he is, by his own admission, as a lecturer on DIT’s Culinary Arts course, Paul doesn’t believe in ‘fluffing things up’.
While Paul is hopeful Irish Bake Off will return to our screens, feeling “someone will see the potential in it”, in the meantime he may have some other silver screen appearances up his sleeve. Having previously been in talks with producers about his own TV baking show, Paul tells me “I was getting quite excited, it was talked about for months and then I guess it kind of got taken off the burner.”
Following in the footsteps of his fellow Bake Off Paul (Hollywood), the goal would have been to travel around showcasing small producers and people ‘baking from outside the back of their houses.” Clearly much thought had gone into the concept as he tells me “I could have done it on a bike – like the Biker Baker!” Don’t be surprised if you do spot Paul back on our screens again in the near future, as The Merrion pastry kitchen was recently visited by a very well known TV chef to showcase the delectable delights on offer there.
While Paul is clearly a stickler for perfect presentation, obvious from Bake Off and his own visually stunning creations, he admits that it is only the paramount concern initially. As I take him to task on food colouring and the common pastry faux-pas of style over substance, Paul is adamant that we eat with our eyes too.
Initially – let’s face it, your eyes attract you to something, whether it’s food or a new car, whatever it is, first. But then it’s really down to flavour, if the taste is not there you’re shafted.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in Paul’s personal masterpiece – The Merrion Art Afternoon Tea. Inspired by a ten day trip working between the kitchens of The Berkeley and The Dorchester in London, Paul creates masterful edible interpretations of The Merrion’s unrivalled art collection. While he describes his ‘catalogue’ of twelve artistic creations, the one of which he is most proud was commissioned by the artist herself, Pauline Bewick. The Path Moreea is composed of a craquelin-topped choux pastry topped with all three of The Merrion’s signature blend of chocolates – milk, white and dark – a bespoke element few other kitchens can claim.
Somehow, all roads with Paul lead to chocolate, as the intricate processes involved in chocolate work – precise temperatures and complex processes – feed into Paul’s self-confessed perfectionism. That said, despite his expertise in the art du chocolat, Paul laughs when asked what treat he craves most after a day of tempering – “Chocolate Hobnobs are my absolute favourite!”
As for using his chocolate powers to woo the ladies, Paul admits he will whip up some bespoke chocolate hearts for his girlfriend Ramona – an avowed chocolate lover – this Valentine’s Day. “It is handy to know how to work with chocolate for birthday’s and Easter” he says…and women, I interject? “Yes and women too, I suppose!” he laughs, blushing.
As our chat comes to a close I discover that Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, of the Wilder rather than Depp vintage, is Paul’s all-time favourite film. Twenty years after taking up his role at The Merrion, Paul is able to tell me that he went to bed the night before thinking about the croissants he had left to prove overnight and woke up excited about them, with Wonka-esque enthusiasm. I can’t help thinking as I leave The Merrion that therein lies Ireland’s answer to Willy Wonka, a chef utterly betwixt by all things sweet and the whimsical wonder chocolate and baked confections can evoke.
Swapping the top hat and velvet coat for chef’s whites, Paul’s colourful creations almost sing from the plate “come with me, and you’ll be, in a world of Pure Imagination”. In the world of pastry and sweet delights, Paul Kelly truly has the Golden Ticket.
Growing up with the name Darina, I was constantly asked if I could cook like my namesake. With that(and greed) as the ultimate motivator, I realised that baked goods make excellent bribes and an obsession was born! With bachelor’s and master’s degrees in law I undertook a PhD, but a preference for cookbooks to textbooks persisted. As a (self-confessed!) demon in the kitchen, I am the only person to have contested both Masterchef and the Great Irish Bake off, fuelling my desire to focus on food in a serious way. Working with TheTaste allows me to satisfy this craving and marries my food fascination with my love of writing and ranting.