For the last three years William Curley has been awarded Best UK Chocolatier by the Academy of Chocolate. He opened his first shop in Richmond, Surrey, in 2004, in partnership with his wife Suzue, a Japanese pastry chef and in 2009 they opened a second shop in Ebury Street in London’s Belgravia. They also have a concession in the Harrod’s Food Hall.
William has been attracting London foodies with his intricate and beautiful patisserie as well as his stunning chocolates, several of which are influenced by Suzue’s Japanese background. Flavours include Szechuan pepper, thyme and Scottish heather honey, apricot and wasabi, rosemary and olive oil, Japanese black vinegar, yuzu, toasted sesame, and blackcurrant and juniper.
William spoke to me about his modest childhood in Scotland and the genesis of his passion for patisserie. “I come from a little dock town that had no restaurants,” he said. “At school, I just went through the motions. I wasn’t really good but I wasn’t massively bad either.” At college, and uninspired by many of the courses offered to him, William decided to study cooking. After leaving college, he took an apprenticeship in the kitchens of Gleneagles, a world-famous hotel in Perthshire.
“When I arrived at Gleneagles, I hadn’t decided that I was going to be a pastry chef; I’d just decided that I was going to be a chef,” he recalled. “They asked me what I could do and I said that I used to make lemon tarts at college, so that was how I got started. I think it was when I was at Gleneagles that I decided I wanted to be a patissier and I felt very comfortable doing that. There were lots of girls doing it as well and I liked that!”
Following his apprenticeship at Gleneagles, William planned the next stage of his career. “I decided that I was going to work in France,” he explained. “I’d read Marco Pierre White’s book (White Heat) and I knew what Michelin stars were. I wrote to fifteen 3-star restaurants in France. I only got one response, which was about one paragraph in French to the effect of non! I eventually got myself into a 3-star restaurant in Belgium, which was really fascinating. I used to go into Brussels on my days off to look at the patisseries and I could see that relating to what I wanted to do.”
William eventually returned to the UK to continue his career. “I came back to London and worked with Pierre Koffman at La Tante Claire,” he remembered. “That changed me a lot; it allowed me to take on more responsibility. Then I went to Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons and worked for Raymond Blanc. He was inspirational and taught me about understanding ingredients. For a pastry cook, Le Manoir is a good place to work because Raymond really knows how to finish a plate. I learnt a lot from that and there’s a lot of that running through me.”
William met Suzue when they were both working at the Savoy, one of the most prestigious hotels in London. They later married and opened their first shop together. “During my time at the Savoy, I’d worked out that I was going to open a shop, whether that was a patisserie, boulangerie or chocolate shop,” he explained. “When we opened, I was going to make lots of patisserie, baked goods and a bit of chocolate. I wasn’t going to make drinks or ice cream. I was going to keep it really simple. But when you get going, you start to build your range. We realised that London is an evolving market. From a patissier’s point of view, it’s not Paris yet. From a chocolate point of view, it’s much closer. I think that the three or four best chocolatiers in London could compete with the best in Paris.”
Despite the dozens of awards that William has won for his chocolates, he still regards himself more as a patissier than a chocolatier. “Most of the chocolatiers who take it seriously in the UK are traditionally pastry cooks. When I started out cooking, I didn’t start with chocolates.” This approach is reflected by the stunning displays in William’s two shops, in which more space is devoted to his patisserie than his chocolates.
William is realistic about being an artisan patissier and chocolatier. “As your business gets bigger, you do buy little bits of machinery,” he said. “In the beginning, I used to use a three-pronged fork to dip every single chocolate. We’re chefs and we want to use craft skills. At the same time, we don’t want to be foolish, so we have to ask ourselves, ‘what’s the most economical way to dip chocolates?’ So we bought ourselves a little enrober.”
He is determined, however, not to lose his point of difference. “We still do things by hand, and I think you have to be careful to strike a balance,” he insisted. “There’s no point being like a factory that’s sterile and hospitalised with lots of machinery, because no one will want to work for me and that’s not what I’m about. I’d lose my edge.”
William believes that working in an artisan way also benefits his staff. “From a people point of view, being an artisan is important,” he pointed out. “I love developing young people. I don’t want to have big cooling tunnels or machines that pump the ganache into shells. I want my team to make the ganache and understand the quality of the ingredients, and for everything to have that hand-made finish.”
Speaking of ingredients, William is clearly passionate about the raw materials that he uses to create his patisserie and chocolates. “The most important thing in my business is the quality of ingredients,” he said. “For me, sourcing is everything. Piedmont hazelnuts are always going to be the best hazelnuts, so I have to use them. It’s the same with Sicilian pistachios. You have to look at cost sometimes and you have to weigh things up, but generally speaking, I think if you compromise on quality then you work backwards.
“I work with Amedei chocolate,” he continued. “Some other chocolatiers make their own bean-to-bar chocolate, but that’s not really what I’m about. For me it’s much more about making wonderful things with the best ingredients I can get. Amedei is a very small brand, like mine. They’re very uncompromising, which I like a lot. They don’t have to make all their chocolate to the standard they do. They could make different tiers, which is what most chocolate companies do. There is an attraction to work with people who have the same visions and mindset as me.”
I asked William about his plans for the future. “If I open another shop, so be it, but I’m never going to have 10 or 12 shops; that’s not what I’m about. My life is about cooking. I’d much rather be doing this sort of thing and be really happy making a living out of it than having a huge factory pumping out products and losing what I set out to do.”