The first thing I notice about the kitchen of London restaurant Holborn Dining Room is that the chefs are all using rulers. The second is the rows and rows of ramekins in the chiller, each one lined with pastry and awaiting its mutton filling. The man overseeing it all is executive chef Calum Franklin.
"I think everything goes with and tastes better with pastry," he says.
Despite having no formal culinary training in pastry nor any experience working a pastry station, Franklin's skill in the stuff is unparalleled. His decorative pie lids, intricate beef Wellington casings, and beautiful lattice work have earned him a cult following both on social media and with diners at the Holborn restaurant.
"I started off in the industry when I was 16-years-old, just by luck as a kitchen porter. I never had anyone teach me how to make pastry but by being in the kitchen, I'd see people prepare classic pastry dishes," says Franklin. "What got me hooked was that you couldn't just write down a recipe. Pastry is something you physically have to learn and practise over and over again. Once you've learned it, it's in your head, it's ingrained."
He continues: "I'm also quite obsessive about design and pastry is a good outlet for that as a chef. When you're working with pastry, there's structure but there's also creativity. And there's huge satisfaction in cutting the first slice of a beef Wellington that's taken three days to make and it's perfect inside."
Franklin proudly shows me small circles of pastry marked with tiny grooves. These will form the top of a mutton pie.
"With the beef Wellington, we have a big cutter which we roll across a sheet of pastry to imprint the design. But I wanted smaller indents for this pie lid and a cutter small enough doesn't exist," he explains, while using one of the kitchen's many rulers and pen to draw the design on paper. "So instead, you have to stand in the fridge with a ruler and a knife, and make all the small cuts by hand before cutting out circles from the pastry sheet."
"Like I said, I can get quite obsessive about things."
As Franklin places the pastry circle on top of his mutton pie and expertly crimps the edges, I ask where the inspiration for his pastry genius comes from.
"We have a hive mentality in the kitchen. We are 32 chefs and when you put everyone's brains together, it's a huge sea of information. But my favourite place to be on my day off is a little kitchen downstairs. I'll sit in there and play around with new ideas," he admits.
"But I do look elsewhere for inspiration. I was in Singapore at the start of the year and I went to an M C Escher [the Dutch graphic artist known for mathematical prints] exhibition. I really want to work that idea of repetition in art into a pâté en croûte."
While an Escher-inspired pastry design is still in the pipeline, Franklin has agreed to show me how he makes his pâté en croûte. The classic French dish is essentially a rectangular pork pie, made by lining a mold with pastry before adding meat, a layer of jelly, and topping with more pastry. Of course, Franklin does it with a lot more finesse.
"What I want to do with these old-school pastries is update them with great ingredients that we have in the UK," he explains. "I like putting things on the menu that remind people of their childhood and then when they get it, it's a ridiculously refined version. Elegant cooking is coming back. We're bringing it back."
This filling for today's pâté en croûte is rabbit.
"It's the whole rabbit ground down—the heart, kidney, liver, legs, shoulder, breast, loin—and mixed with smoked bacon, pistachio, mustard seeds, and tarragon," explains Franklin. "Then we take the carcass left over from the rabbit, roast it, and make rabbit stock. The stock is reduced until you get jelly which sits on the top."
And that's all before any decoration is added to the lid and sides of the pie.
"I asked loads of pastry chefs about how you make certain patterns in pastry but everyone's really secretive about it. Eventually, a chef from Montreal gave me some tips," says Franklin.
I make a lame joke about "the first rule of Pastry Club."
Franklin stops his delicate work on the edge of the pâté en croûte and looks me straight in the eye: "Seriously, there's a weird pastry subculture going on."
Moving swiftly on, I ask Franklin whether he ever expected his pastry dishes to garner such a positive reaction.
"I never expected it. It's something that I enjoy and if it makes other people happy, then that's amazing," he says. "It's all about seeing someone smile when they eat my food. It's less about, 'Wow look what this chef can do.' I'm more interested in seeing people giggling when they're eating."
He lets me in on a secret: "There's a marble pillar in the dining room and when I've tried out a new dish and I know it's going to a table, I hide behind it and watch people's reactions. That's what it's all about!"
Suddenly producing another pie from the chiller, Franklin says: "Oh, by the way, I've got a finished rabbit pâté en croûte that you can take a picture of."
He blowtorches the metal to help release the pie from its tin while muttering under his breath.
"I really hope this works … There you go!"
Franklin has knocked it out of the pastry park again. The tin is lifted to reveal an ingenious, MUNCHIES-branded pâté en croûte.
He doesn't even have to hide behind a pillar to see my overjoyed reaction.