Let them eat [beautiful] cake

2011-01-22 00:00

CREATING works of art out of sugar and chocolate is how pastry chef, Nicolas van der Walt describes his chosen profession.

“Pastry is a different field … it’s art on a plate,” he says. “I can’t describe how much I love sugar and chocolate — there is no other medium which offers so much variety.”

Van der Walt, who is based at the Food and Beverage Institute’s (FBI) School of Pastry in Northgate, Johannesburg, is considered the local version of American Buddy Valastro, star of the Discovery Channel series, Cake Boss, which reveals how a master baker and his extended Italian family create remarkable cakes in a New Jersey bakery.

Van der Walt was born with a serious hearing impairment and his worried parents, Rina and Nicky, encouraged him to spend time with his grandmother in the kitchen on the family farm in Venterstad in the Free State. The idea was to keep him safe, but it fostered a love for baking which has become the ruling passion in his life.

Van der Walt said that to start with he would help his gran to make koeksisters and fudge. “Then one day, when I was 12 or 13, we went into town and I saw this stunning wedding cake in a shop window and I told my gran that was what I wanted to do. I wanted to make cakes like that. My gran saw my potential, and so she bought ingredients and books and she had the patience to help me,” he added.

After school Van der Walt did two year’s in-house training at the Bloemfontein Hotel, followed by a stint at hotel school. His first chance to learn from a master patissiere came when he working with Linda Kotze at the Park Hyatt — while at the hotel he was selected to represent the junior national pastry team of South Africa in the world championships in Maastricht, Holland, in 2001. Van der Walt not only won a gold medal, but was named most promising pastry chef in the world.

Stints at the Savoy Hotel in London, a fine dining restaurant in Clarens, the Michelangelo Hotel in Sandton and the Saxon Hotel in Johannesburg followed. Throughout this time, however, it was always at the back of his mind that he wanted to share his skills with young chefs.

“Before I went to the Savoy, Sune Niemand asked me to come to Bloemfontein and teach a group of 16 chefs sugarcraft for wedding cakes. I wasn’t sure I could do it, but she was convinced that I could. Afterwards, she told me I had a God-given gift to teach,” Van der Walt said.

He is now passing on his knowledge at the FBI School of Pastry.

Like Buddy Valastro in Cake Boss, Van der Walt has had his share of challenging culinary creations, ranging from a 3D bulldozer to a 1,6 metre tall chocolate wedding cake with 1 100 jasmine sugar flowers and 150 white Belgium chocolate roses, and a Louis Vuitton bag made out of chocolate.

“Getting people talking about what’s on the table in front of them is why I do what I do,” Van der Walt says. “I truly believe that if you’re passionate about something, you can change people’s lives.”

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