Behind the bar: Interview with Paul A Young

Renowned as one of the world’s finest chocolatiers, Paul A Young talks about Marco Pierre White, why he doesn’t worry about cocoa percentages, and why it’s OK to enjoy the odd bar of Dairy Milk


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My whole family has a sweet tooth, it’s in our chemistry. You have to have savoury and sweet and never just savoury on its own — simple as that. We lived in a village with no convenience shops nearby, so we made everything. My mum and grandma would put on amazing spreads of cakes and scones every Sunday for tea. We did have the odd convenience food that was trendy — like Findus Crispy Pancakes when they’d just been invented.

There were no pastry chefs in the North when I started out. So I trained as a chef and that meant doing everything. Even when I left Leeds in 1996, I’d go to places and say, “You don’t have a pastry chef, I could do that.” But they wouldn’t invest, they just had all their desserts sent up from London.

I got offered a job by Marco Pierre White in 1996. I had just bought a little house in Leeds, but I packed up and went to live on a friend’s sofa in London. I stayed with Marco for six and a half years, working through Criterion, Oak Room, Titantic and then as head pastry chef at Quo Vadis.

It was both hard and amazing working for Marco. If you didn’t pull your weight, you were out — and there was a queue of chefs trying to get in to work for him. I saw so many people who lasted just a week. They couldn’t handle the aggression and pace of work — everyone was focused on being the best they could be. You’d start at 8am, get home at 2am and start again a few hours later — and if you were late more than once you were out.

I got bored of seeing James Martin make another rhubarb crumble. I was a bit arrogant and just got fed up of seeing the same thing being made over and over on television, so I wrote to Great Food Live (on UK TV Live) and basically said I could do something better. I was on the show for seven years, mainly doing things with chocolate.

I’d never planned to be a chocolatier. I just hit upon making chocolates in a new way: with no preservatives, no artificial flavours, seasonal ingredients, and all handmade on site. After my salted caramels won a Chocolate Academy Award, the press asked where they could get them, so we had to find some premises. We opened in Islington in 2006, and on the first day there was a queue outside. We’ve since gone from one employee to 30, from one site to three. Selling boxes of chocolate is just a fraction of the business. We supply hotels, restaurants and corporate events too.

Chocolate isn’t hard to cook with. It’s more about the quality of the chocolate you use, because while the method is perceived as being very technical and difficult, everyone can melt chocolate. And if you can melt it, then you can put things in it, spread it, pour it and make things.

There are a few rules to follow. Melt the chocolate slowly, not in the microwave; it’s very hard to control chocolate when you can’t see it. Just melt it in a bowl over hot water, stirring regularly. Don’t let the water get into the chocolate or it will make it seize into a block. Don’t overheat it because it will burn — it’s sugar and fat. Buy the best quality you can afford, but mainly go for something that tastes good. You can’t make something that tastes bad taste good.

I don’t look at percentages, I think that’s all nonsense. The percentage is just the amount of cocoa and cocoa butter in the chocolate  that’s it. It doesn’t tell you about the quality, the taste, the texture or anything like that. There is crap 70% and amazing 70%, it’s all about tasting it. If it tastes rounded and not burnt, it’s a great 70%; if it’s burnt and really bitter, it’s not good 70%.

Aldi and Lidl chocolate is better than a lot of others. It’s not expensive, it’s made by a German company and the quality is great, and it’s only about £1.20 a bar or something. They’ve got origins too and it’s accessible. Tesco Finest is good too. Own brands are fantastic because their product developers are going to chocolate makers and chocolatiers and trying to emulate what they’re going. A lot of the bigger brands don’t do that.

I always get asked what the difference is between cooking and eating chocolate. You shouldn’t be using chocolate you wouldn’t eat. If it says it’s not chocolate, it’s not chocolate, so don’t use it — cake covering is not chocolate. People also ask if they should use single origin. Well, if it’s costing you £10 a bar, I wouldn’t bake it into a brownie — enjoy it on its own instead. Within reason, you should use the best you can afford, but practise your cooking with cheap chocolate first.

Don’t use the same chocolate all the time. Try different brands, because they all have different flavours and textures. You can transform a dessert just by changing the chocolate. Switch from a Venezuelan to Madagascan and it’ll taste different. The characteristics on the back of the bar give you an indication of the flavour profile — whether it’s fruity, acidic or earthy. That’s why people get into it like wine, they look for characteristics at certain times of year.

The first time I went to Ecuador, the growers had never seen chocolate. They’d seen beans but that’s it. They’re in the middle of the rainforest and there are no shops so they’d never seen a box, bar or anything, just cocoa beans. That was unusual and frightening, really — that they’d never seen the end product. But then I’d never seen their product because I lived nowhere near a rainforest.

I sometimes have a bar of Dairy Milk because it reminds me of being young. You should never be arrogant enough to think your palate is too good for something — after all, who doesn’t have a hankering for a McDonald’s after they’ve had a few?

Pick up a copy of the December 2017 issue of National Geographic Food (UK) on sale now.