Sweet dreams: Aussie pastry chefs head to France for just desserts

Inga Ting
Rock stars of the pastry world ... Team Pastry Australia from left: mould maker and sugar specialist Dammika ...
Rock stars of the pastry world ... Team Pastry Australia from left: mould maker and sugar specialist Dammika Hatharasinginghe, coach Dean Gibson, chocolate competitor Justin Yu, captain and sugar competitor Andre Sandison, ice competitor Barry Jones and team manager Jian Yao. Photo: Janie Barrett

Latest News: Team Pastry Australia has placed 7th in the Coupe du Monde de la Pâtisserrie, ahead of pastry heavyweights Belgium and Taiwan.

Almost 10 hours after he began baking, pastry chef André Sandison is putting the finishing touches on his sugar showpiece, his face pinched with concentration.

The captain of Team Pastry Australia is less than 15 minutes from closing a practice run for the most demanding and prestigious pastry competition in the world – the Coupe du Monde de la Pâtisserrie or Pastry World Cup.

Sandison picks up what looks like a sea anemone with long golden tendrils perched on an elaborate satin bow and attaches it to the showpiece. He steps back to survey the results. Behind the burst of gold ribbon, a giant marlin leaps skyward, the iridescent blue curve of its body encircled by shimmering sprays of crystal clear water. Standing more than a metre tall, the sculpture has the look and feel of glass. But in fact, it is crafted entirely from sugar.

Ten minutes to go. An ominous crack causes everyone within hearing distance to hold their breath. A heartbeat later, both the gold flower and the elaborate bow drop to the tiled floor and shatter into tiny fragments.

Team manager Jian Yao, managing director of Strathfield's Continental Patisserie, is the first to break the stunned silence. “This is when you cry,” he says.

“Or go for beers,” says fellow team member Barry Jones, an affable Welshman and former executive pastry chef at the Star casino. “This close to the end, you'd just give up and get to the nearest pub.”

Rocking the Pastry World Cup

Beginning at the crack of dawn today, a team of Australian pastry chefs will compete against 22 countries for the title of world pastry champion. It is the first time in six years that Australia has sent a team to compete at this level.


“It's like the Olympics of pastry,” says Team Pastry Australia coach Dean Gibson, who competed in the 1999 Pastry World Cup with Adriano Zumbo, perhaps Australia's best-known pastry chef. Except that unlike Australian Olympic athletes, no one knows who you are.

"In France, those guys are like rock stars. Being in Australia keeps you humble … but I think a lot of people are going to be surprised [by us]. There's a real underdog element,” Gibson says.

Each team will have 10 hours to create 12 identical plate desserts, three chocolate cakes, three fruit-based ice-cream cakes, one chocolate showpiece, one sugar showpiece and one ice showpiece. Time is so precious and the competition so intense that the competitors will not stop to rest, eat or even go to the toilet, Gibson says.

“There's no room for error at this level. Everything has to be perfect."

Although the showpieces are the most visually impressive – each stands more than a metre tall and takes between four and seven hours to build – taste is paramount when it comes to scoring. The trick to scoring highly, Gibson says, is remembering that each judge will sample 33 desserts on the day and is unlikely to take more than one or two spoonfuls of each.

"That's a lot of sugar, so the way we design the desserts is not only packing in a lot of flavour, but we minimise sugar and fat because sugar and fat coat your tongue and they mask flavour," Gibson says.

Take the team's playfully named “Great Berrier Crunch”, for example – a six-layer, melt-in-your-mouth chocolate cake combining macadamia praline, ganache, chocolate sponge, lime crémeux, raspberry jelly and chocolate glaze.

“When you taste the cake you can taste fruit acid, chocolate – you want to taste creamy, crunchy, chewy. It's a lot to fit into a spoonful,” Gibson says. “The flavours are a lot more intense. It's not something you would get at a restaurant.”

Sydney Harbour in chocolate, sugar and ice

Although the showpieces are not marked on flavour, each is made entirely out of the designated material, from the gold coral at the base of Sandison's sugar sculpture, right down to the glistening cocoa butter paint that chocolate competitor Justin Yu will apply to his chocolate sculpture.

Each showpiece must incorporate specific elements to demonstrate the full range of the chef's skill. “There are books of rules about how high it can go, how wide, how heavy, things you're not allowed to use,” Gibson says.

The team's theme – Sydney Harbour – isn't hard to pick. Yu's chocolate sculpture, which takes 6.5 hours to build from liquid, depicts the iconic Sydney Tower soaring above the white sails of a miniature Opera House, the sky punctuated with red and yellow fireworks. The total weight: 18 kilograms. All chocolate.

“We're basically talking about building something out of fat,” Gibson takes. “Judges want to see different textures and types of chocolate, no fingerprints, scratches or marks. And most of all, they want to see natural chocolate.”

If the showpieces look difficult to make, it's because they are. Sandison, who will transform a small mountain of sugar into a intricate, crystalline artwork over some eight hours, says the delicacy of the finished product belies the intense physicality of the work.

“When you pull sugar you're basically trapping the air into the sugar, which helps with the shine. The cooler the sugar, the better the shine, which is why a good pastry chef keeps the sugar at a very low temperature. But that also makes it very difficult to work with,” Sandison says.

“All the people I know who pull sugar are quite muscular and strong, which makes me think I should go to the gym."

But there's precious little time for the gym. These chefs have been working towards the world event for more than two years, training 12-14 hours a day, four days a week in the final months before the competition.

"When I first started, it used to take me two days to finish the one piece. I was there 12 hours to 16 hours a day doing it, whereas today it took me four hours,” says Jones, whose ice carving of an angry-looking shark with razor sharp teeth weighs in at around 200 kilograms.

There have been a couple of close calls along the way, says the pastry chef who took up ice carving less than four months ago. “I nearly cut my fingers off a couple of times. The grinder nearly cut me in half once, in my stomach.”

With the competition so close it is practically breathing down their necks, the team is careful about managing expectations – and stress. “It's a show and it's a mind game, but it's really a competition against yourself because it's a creative process,” Sandison says. “It's not a race where the fastest person over the line wins.”

But there is a line, or at least, a presentation stand, to which Sandison, Yu and Jones will have to carry their showpieces without breaking them (a task that has been the downfall of even the world's top teams). It's no mean feat, particularly when you're in an 8000 square metre gastronomic stadium, being watched by 1500 spectators, 22 judges and an excitable French media pack.

Perhaps it helps that there's €39,000 ($49,400) in prize money up for grabs, including €21,000 ($26,600) for the winning team.

But even first prize would be a drop in the ocean for a mission that has cost around $200,000. “And that's not including the thousands of hours of time that the team puts in,” Gibson says. But that's okay. Team Pastry Australia isn't in it for the money. “It's for love and glory,” he says.

Ever wanted to bake like a world-class pastry chef? Try one of the Team Pastry Australia recipes: 

Great Berrier Crunch chocolate cake

Passionfruit and vanilla pavlova

'Lifesaver' frozen fruit dessert