We spoke to the pâtissier, cookbook author and owner of Cake Boy in South West London, Eric Lanlard about his earliest food memories, his passion for sharing knowledge and why baking is all about substance over style.
Considered among the best pastry chefs in the world, it really seems like Eric Lanlard has done everything. Owner and chef of the luxurious cake boutique Cake Boy and author of eight cookery books, he counts Elton John, the Beckhams and the royal family among his fans. We caught up with Lanlard to chat about the pastry shop that inspired his career choice, his time in the French Navy and his future plans.
I knew I wanted to be a pastry chef when I was five
Growing up, I realised what I wanted to do very early. There was a pastry shop in our town that we used to go to, and it just fascinated me. Everything looked so beautiful yet precise, and I think that’s what interested me the most – the visual aspect of it and the precision as I’ve never really had a sweet tooth. When I was 10, I took my mum to that pastry shop and said: “This is where I want to do my apprenticeship.”
Food was always very important in my family. Although my mum didn’t have a lot of time to cook, she loved to entertain, so on Sundays we would always have a big meal. And it’s the same with me now, I love having people round and serving up a feast for everyone. I’m turning into my mother.
The Navy opened my eyes to the world
After I finished my two-year apprenticeship, I had to do the national service, which was mandatory at the time. I was stationed on the flagship of the French Navy, La Jeanne d’Arc, as a pastry chef and I was lucky enough to travel the world. This experience sparked my love for travel and discovering new ingredients, recipes and ideas – I saw a cocoa been for the first time, tasted papaya and saw how it grows on a tree. These weren’t things you had easy access to in Europe at the time, but they’ve left a very deep mark on me. At Cake Boy we always continue to move forward and try new flavours – we’ve worked a lot with ingredients like yuzu that’s been all the craze for the last two years as well as really high-quality, rare dark chocolate from South America.
During my time in the Navy, I also realised I had to improve my English, so the plan was to come to London for a year and then go back to France. I was fortunate enough to get a job working with the Roux brothers, Albert and Michel, and a year quickly turned into five and now, 30 years later, I am still here.
There’s no baking without precision
Being a pastry chef is very different from being a savoury chef. You’re always stationed in the smallest, most crammed corner of the kitchen. It doesn’t matter how big or how high-end the restaurant is, it doesn’t matter how many stars it has or how modern it is – the pastry section is always the smallest with chefs working on top of each other.
There’s no improvising in baking. Of course, you can try different flavour combinations but even after all this time, I still wouldn’t be able to bake anything without my scales and measuring spoons. I always say to everyone who comes to my demonstrations or classes at Cake Boy that we also make mistakes. There are days when we forget to add sugar or the right amount of flour and it’s ok. It’s fine to make mistakes.
You have to go back to basics
If you want to start baking, no one’s making you go into the kitchen and bake a five-tier wedding cake or a croquembouche. Start simple, master the basics. Learn how to bake the perfect sponge, master classic buttercream and try different types of pastry. Then, if you have an artistic flair, you can start doing sugar work or try something like gold leaf.
Somebody once told me that people won’t remember a good cake, but they will never forget a bad one. Flavour and texture are so important – a lot more than how it looks. Today, even a lot of professional chefs focus too much on how it looks. There’s all of the style but none of the substance.
Giving back is very important
I was very lucky to learn from great chefs all my life. In my first apprenticeship, chefs would say: “Eric, stop what you’re doing and come take a look at this.” They would show me new recipes, new techniques every day. The Roux brothers promoted me very quickly and I was running the pastry section in their kitchen at a very young age. It was a baptism of fire, but I learned so much from them – not only about food and cooking but also how to run a kitchen and a business.
There are moments, especially when I’m doing demonstrations to large audiences, that I still have to pinch myself and do a sort of a double take to remind myself that this is really happening to me. I’ve always wanted to pass on the knowledge I’ve been lucky enough to receive, so I knew that Cake Boy had to have a cookery school. I love engaging with people and chatting to them and sharing our passion for baking.
When I first started out, food in London wasn’t what it is today, and baking was very much behind continental Europe at the time. Baking wasn’t fashionable, nobody wanted to do it – this was the time before Bake Off. Now people love it and it makes me very happy.
Chocolate has always fascinated me
From a young age I was fascinated by chocolate, I read books about it and even went to train with a chocolatier in Luxembourg. It’s so versatile and there’s so much you can do with it, I think it’s fair to say chocolate is my favourite ingredient. People have finally learned to appreciate dark chocolate – everyone used to say that dark chocolate is bitter, and they wanted something sweet and artificial. Today, there’s a lot more appreciation for high-quality ingredients.
I also love working with citruses, especially lemon. I think it’s a wonderful ingredient and if I had to pick my last meal right now, it would probably be a tarte au citron. Or even a tarte tatin – if it was made well, of course.
I still enjoy every day when I’m working
Being a pastry chef isn’t easy. Even though I travel a lot, the days when I’m working at Cake Boy, I’m still usually the first one in the kitchen at four or five in the morning. But I love it and I love what I do. I’m working on a new cookbook now and it’s almost a travelogue of the places where I’ve travelled, learned local traditional recipes and then I put my own ‘Eric’ spin on it.
I think the day when I stop enjoying it will be the right time to hang up my apron, but I don’t really see that happening any time soon.
by Karlina Valeiko