Hannah Catley, Head Pastry Chef, Chiltern Firehouse

The Staff Canteen

Hannah Catley is head pastry chef at Chiltern Firehouse where she has worked for the past two years. 

Her role as head pastry chef is to oversee the pastry section, train the team, create and develop dishes and menus for the restaurant, hotel bar, courtyard and hotel - altogether coming to around 700 covers a day!

She very briefly worked in the hot kitchen when she first started her career but it was pastry which really drove her. 

The Staff Canteen spoke to Hannah about her career highlights, why Cherish Finden changed her career path and why she thinks young chefs are better off diving straight into a working kitchen than going to college.

Red Apple panacotta%2C granita%2C burnt meringue
Red Apple panacotta, granita
and burnt meringue

Did you always want to work in hospitality?

I never wanted to be a pastry chef. It was very much so something that I fell into, I was working a summer job as a waitress and they put me in the kitchen one day to help with prep, from that moment on I became more and more interested in what the hospitality world had to offer. I studied at Bournemouth and Poole College on the Royal Academy of Culinary Arts specialised chefs scholarship, as part of that I went to work at the Langham hotel where I worked on the pastry section under Cherish Finden.

She inspired me so much so that I decided not to continue on the apprenticeship and instead focused on trying to pursue a career solely in pastry. In my spare time I like to try and push myself to develop and keep learning so I like to work a few days in other restaurants to learn new skills and see what other people are creating. Over the past year I’ve spent small amounts of time at restaurants including; Lyles, Portland, Coombshead farm, Dusty Knuckle and Belmond Le manoir aux quat’saisons.

What advice would you give to aspiring pastry chefs?

Keep your head down, stay focused and don’t be afraid of what your perception of a good idea is. I feel there is a massive culture in modern day kitchens where chefs are trying very hard to train people to think their way and only to produce food of a certain style because they believe that is the way it should be done. I think it is tremendously important to train young chefs with the outlook that no idea is a bad idea and that it’s ok to speak up because with the right guidance and understanding almost everything can be adapted to make something outstanding.

Info bar 

Signature dishes 
We have two dishes that I would class as Chiltern Firehouse classics.
The first is the Frozen Apple Pannacotta, originally an apple and shiso flavour combination which has now has been developed to focus around red flesh apples and always keeping the flavour as fresh and natural as possible.

Pickled cherry and Tonka pavlova
Pickled cherry and Tonka pavlova 

The second classic would be the Pavlova. Although it’s a new creation this year it has become somewhat of a staple with the flavours constantly being changed and adapted to suit the seasons – flavour combinations include vanilla and raspberry, pickled cherry and tonka, rhubarb and custard. It’s very easy to keep the foundations of the dish whist changing it entirely to keep up with the best seasonal produce.
We also have a lunch tart which changes weekly depending on seasonality.

Dessert island desserts 
Salted caramel tart
Crème caramel
Anything chocolaty
Blackcurrant leaf ice cream
Chocolate chip cookies

Another thing would be to try and maintain some kind of work-life balance. It’s so easy to forget to put yourself first sometimes when you’re working such long hours. All you want to do on your days off is lock yourself in your room and hibernate, but it is so important to force yourself to do something - go and eat in a good restaurant and be inspired by what other people are doing, reset your mind ready for the next week.

Do you remember the first thing you ever baked?

I have no idea what the first thing I baked was, I remember when I was young making lemon meringue pies and m&m shortbreads for my family but generally I don’t have any prominent food related background. It’s safe to say my family were very shocked when I told them I wanted to be a chef.

Blackcurrant and liquorice, blackcurrant leaf ice cream and puff pastry
Blackcurrant and liquorice, blackcurrant
leaf ice cream and puff pastry 


Why do you feel pastry is such a specialised area?

Pastry for me is like a science, I think a lot of chefs struggle to understand the importance of having a classically trained pastry chef in a kitchen, in my opinion pastry is a skill that requires a huge level of precision, patience and perseverance.

It’s very important to learn the fundamentals and continue to work on perfecting them throughout your career. It also has so many different skill sets, from chocolate to viennoiserie, to sugar work, all of which take years to learn and develop.

You took part in the Craft Guild of Chefs Graduate Awards – how was this experience for you and what did you learn from it?

The competition was great to be a part of, I learnt so much since I wouldn’t necessarily push myself to learn at work due to lack of time. It was also really interesting to see how I dealt with different kinds of pressures. The connections that you make and people you meet are second to none, most of whom I still keep in regular contact with.

Strawberry custard tart
Strawberry custard tart

You were named as the Craft Guild of Chefs Pastry Graduate Awards highest achiever 2017 and the Craft Guild of Chefs rising star 2017/18 – how important are these awards and accolades to you and what else would you like to win?

The awards and accolades are extremely important to me because they are kind of affirmation that I’m on the right track, personally and professionally. I think that it’s very easy to lose sight of what it is that you want to achieve and if it’s even possible to do so - awards like these are almost like stepping stones keeping me on track.

I don’t tend to plan very far in advance if I want to compete, I’m very much someone that lives every day as it comes as these days I am extremely busy with work, I find it difficult to make time for the competitions.

Would you consider taking part in Bake Off: The Professionals?

Never say never.

What would you say has been your career highlight to date?

I think my career highlight to date would be becoming head pastry chef of Chiltern Firehouse. It was really refreshing to know that they believed in what I was doing as much as I do and were willing to take a risk in giving me the position at such a young age.

White peach custard tart
White peach custard tart

What is your favourite thing about working as a pastry chef?

My favourite thing about my job is the possibilities it holds and the creativity, I’m always trying something new, there’s always something to learn, and you can work all over the world doing what you love. It’s full of potential.

Where do you find the inspiration for your creations?

I take inspiration from everything, the restaurants I eat at, social media, cook books, really anything that is available to draw inspiration from.

What are your favourite flavours and flavour combinations and why?

I don’t have any particular favourite flavour combinations so to speak, if it works then I will use it, it’s a lot of trial and error and a lot of searching for the right produce to use, I think the most important thing is quality as it really sets a tone for any restaurant and menu.

I have recently started a trend of trying to use the whole plant on the plate for example in the summer I did a blackcurrant puff pastry dish where I used the blackcurrants themselves to make a compote and sauce and then used the leaves to make a delicious ice cream.

puff pastry
'I love having puff pastry on the menu'

I’m now using the same principles with figs - using fresh black figs, caramelising them to be served with fig leaf ice cream, granita and oil and it works spectacularly.

What is your favourite thing to make on the menu?

I love having puff pastry on the menu as I think it is a good skill to train people and to continue making myself, it’s so simple and delicious it goes well with almost everything.

Earlier this year I spent a few days in the kitchen at Lyles with their head pastry chef Anna whom is phenomenal at what she does, as is everyone at the restaurant.

She taught me her technique for puff which is hand laminated and we now make around 4 books a day at the Firehouse, I think it is a fantastic skill to have and one that has been forgotten about in a lot of restaurants.

How important is training for young pastry chefs?

I think training for young chefs is vital and I do think that they are better off diving straight into a working kitchen rather than focusing on college courses - mainly based on my own personal experience. I think you absorb a lot more information and gain progress much quicker in shorter lengths of time when you’re in kitchens.


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The Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 20th December 2018

Hannah Catley, Head Pastry Chef, Chiltern Firehouse