Will Torrent is a young chef and one of the most successful in the UK, but the name might not ring bells. He doesn’t have his own restaurant and isn’t famed f or colourful language on the small screen. He is passionate about his craft but he has a well-rounded and balanced personality and uses his position to inspire our youth not only to take a culinary path but to follow any practical craft or trade.
I asked Will how he got his start. “My Dad’s father was a chef, at least he trained as one, and worked as a chef in the Navy during the War, and then went into firefighting. There’s a real bloodline – his uncle owned a patisserie in Paris, so it really is in the genes. He was half-French, so there is that connection, and we are just completing a book on French patisserie which will be out next year.
So my Dad’s side were professional chefs, and my Mum’s mum always baked at home – the Welsh heritage – Welsh cakes, bara brith, all those amazing foods, the classic chocolate cake, birthday cake scenario: Will can’t reach the top of the bench but ‘Can I lick the bowl out please, Nan?’ That classic cliché, but that is what’s driven me.”
Does he think it was his father’s professional association with food or his Nan’s hands-on approach that encouraged him more? “My family is quite musical, so if I had just had the baking at home, I would probably have gone into music and just baked for a hobby. But because I had the professional side too – seeing that picture of the family standing outside the shop in Paris – I knew that was the road I wanted to go down. The first thing I cooked was peppermint creams at about six years old, in cookery class at school. Then I was given a cookbook with fifteen easy recipes in, such as pan-fried salmon with orange-tarragon sauce, a real classic dish. Next time I made it I thought, why don’t I change the orange for lemon? At that age you really start to get excited. It’s when that thing works, that cake rises, or that bread proves really well. At about age 11 or 12 I said that I wanted to be a chef, and started buying every cookbook under the sun.
“I’m a ‘left side of the brain’ boy – creative, visual learning, music, theatre, television, cooking – I didn’t enjoy sports, I would rather be in the kitchen. I went to a school in Maidenhead, where my mates were very academic, and I was the creative one. I remember at 15, when we started work experience, I joined Heston Blumenthal for a week at The Fat Duck and I said, ‘That’s it, I want to be Michelin-starred, I want my own restaurant.’ Careers advisers can easily recommend university places for the ‘professions’, but when you say that you want to be a chef, they don’t have an answer. But I knew that when I came out of my training I was virtually guaranteed a job, anywhere in the world, and it might not be the same for those who follow an academic path. When someone wants to be a plumber like his dad, the response is too often, ‘But you won’t have a degree.’ But I say, ‘Go and be a plumber like your dad, because you’ll probably earn more money, and you’ll always have a job.’ As an ambassador for vocational qualifications, it makes me angry when I read that skills are not as important as A-levels or GCSEs – actually I think they are far more important. I did do a degree, I did get a First, write my dissertation, and it was hard, but I look back on it and say that it did give me my training as well.
“I have been really lucky to have worked in some fantastic places – I’ve done the training, put in the time, but I’m in the lucky position now to be my own boss and to have a consultancy business. I’m also building a ‘brand’, through the book coming out next year, and a TV show, hopefully, next year – not many 26-year-olds get to say that. But at the same time as having fun, I’m giving back with my involvement as Ambassador for World Skills UK, with the Craft Guild of Chefs, and with Young Chefs Academies.”
For a young chef just out of catering college, what should be his or her next step, where would you recommend they go? “Hotels is the obvious answer, especially for pastry chefs, because you’ll learn everything. My first placement was at The Dorchester, and it was amazing because I got to go around all the sections – banqueting desserts for a thousand, afternoon tea, desserts for the private dining room, room service – but it wasn’t what I wanted to do, because it was too big. So I went back to The Fat Duck, but I was always thinking, What can I do next? What can I change? but of course I couldn’t change anything because it’s Heston’s menu! There are so many different options. You might want to travel – go to Copenhagen, work at Noma, or Australia – amazing food – or New York. I don’t think there can be one answer, one route, any more. Something that shouldn’t be overlooked is contract catering – some of the top-end businesses in the City, and royal societies, use contract catering.
A phrase I heard recently is ‘Innovate, don’t imitate’ – don’t just follow what I do, or what Jamie Oliver did, do your own thing. “I was at the launch of the New Era for Apprenticeships campaign in February 2012 at the House of Commons. I’m there as a pastry chef and ambassador for skills and someone who just wants to inspire youth to go and follow their dreams. Lord Baker is launching University Technical Colleges, so I’m involved in a bit of both worlds.”
How did Will’s association with Waitrose come about? “Two years ago I was working at Bachmanns patisserie in Thames Ditton in Surrey. I was offered a stage (chef placement) at the French Laundry in California but unfortunately it was cancelled at the last minute. So, instead, I was making cakes for a church party and chatting to a guy who turns out to be a director of Waitrose! I now work with Waitrose developing new ideas, and we designed a dessert for the Royal Wedding, to be sold during that weekend. My role is to work with the supplier, spend a day with them to work in their development kitchen to give them an idea of what we want. I helped design the Diamond Jubilee Picnic, and I was there at Buckingham Palace handing out the hampers, and I got this great sense of service from that.”
He is a consultant with Waitrose so he knows what we can expect for the festive season this year. “One of my favourites for Christmas this year at Waitrose is a version of an old favourite. We’ve taken the Baked Alaska and given it a ‘Heston’ twist. It’s in a completely different form, with parfait instead of ice-cream, and unusual flavours. It’s fun and it tastes great, with lots of textures and colours in there.”
Will is an independent consultant and chef. Does this give him advantages over those who have a restaurant to steer? “I used to love working at my old places, but I was there 5 days a week, 6 till 6, which is long hours. Some chefs love that, but for me, although it gave me the skills and the knowledge, I wasn’t free. I have always been one of those people who ask ‘what can I do next? What can I play with?’ That’s why I’m in development now, that’s why potentially I might have a TV programme: because I want to be out meeting people, encouraging them.”
He is the UK face of The Pampered Chef. What exactly is that? “It’s an American kitchenware company and it’s given me contact with people who are going to cook and inspire others to cook. The consultants get their guests to come and use the equipment. My role is to develop new recipes that you can do in 20 minutes, and that use ingredients that you can get in the UK. The equipment has been trialled and tested in the US. Pampered Chef offers top-end equipment that you can’t buy in the shops.”
Which direction will food take in the near future? “This year (2012) has been the year of celebration – the Jubilee, the Olympics – and I think next year is going to be the year of nostalgia. With that in mind we are working on a few concepts, tapping into people’s memory-banks. Food is like music: when you hear that song you go back to that holiday, or that first date. I really find that food has that ability as well: when you eat that chocolate éclair you are transported back to your first visit to Paris.”
So Will returns to music as a theme. Does he still have an association with music? “I sing jazz with Laurie Holloway, and I work with his charity, the Montgomery Holloway Music Trust. I present all his concerts and perform with him regularly. So music is still quite a big part of my life, and I love it.”
Will Torrent isn’t all about just Will Torrent: he is dedicated not only to his own career but to encouraging others to make the best of their individual abilities and passions. Life’s not always a piece of cake, but it can be sweet if you are living your dream, and Will is certainly on the path to his.
Interview by Chrissie Walker © 2018