Was there a eureka moment when you realised you wanted to focus on pies?
There wasn't a moment I sat down with the team and said ‘this is our new direction’. The starting point was finding a load of old pastry moulds in the basement of Rosewood London, but it was a gradual process. One day we realised we’d fully committed and that’s when we started having conversations about what would become The Pie Room (the separate space at Rosewood London that Franklin opened in 2017). The further we went with the pastry work the more we found ourselves restricted by the main kitchen, which was far too busy and hot. Luckily the hotel understood the passion and the drive we had for that side of things, so they backed us.
What attracts you to pies and other traditional pastry dishes?
I like that no other contemporary chef had fully delved into it. It was an opportunity to look at British food history and put my OCD mind to work. Pies are fascinating because they can be practical and humble, but they can also be these lavish spectacles. There’s a varied and constant history that’s been documented in the UK for at least 600 years. The rise of the pie in this country is closely linked to road travel. People would go on these long journeys and they needed a way to preserve meat and fish. It was only fairly recently that the pastry was made to be edible. I guess one day someone said: ‘hold on guys, we should probably be eating this’.
Tell us about the setup at The Pie Room…
We have four chefs in here, three staff members and a stagiaire. There’s a huge demand for stages, especially from the US. We’re always up against it so nearly everything we do in the space is for that day. We start by making the savory pastry items for the restaurant and then move onto the things we sell through the hatch, which are typically a bit simpler. I never wanted the pastry work to happen behind closed doors. I love the hatch because it means the chefs can talk to the customers. Chefs new to Holborn Dining Room can’t start at The Pie Room straight away, they need to do at least six months in the main kitchen first.
The Pie Room (Johny Carey/Bloomsbury)
You’ve done some quite outlandish and ambitious things with pies – did you have any disasters early on?
I’m measured and I don’t rush into things, so not really. But if you look back through Instagram, you'll see a clear progression. Out pâté-croûte was quite basic when we started out, but we’ve gradually made it more sophisticated. Our pickling project didn’t end well, though. It was the first year I was here – about six years ago – and chefs were fermenting everything in sight. We bought a load of big jars and spent a whole weekend pickling veg. We dotted the jars throughout the restaurant. They looked pretty good, but a month or so later there was a hot day and they all started exploding in the middle of service. That’s the last time we ever tried to be cool.
Tell us about the design process for your more elaborate creations...
I have a fairly good understanding of what does and does not work with a pie structurally speaking so the first stage of the more involved pies is sketching and drawing. I start elaborate and try to keep it that way, I think it’s important to work to a goal rather than away from it. I was quite good at art at school, but I was lacking in confidence. I love that side of things now, sometimes I’ll close the curtains in The Pie Room and spend the whole night coming up with new designs.
Your pies look and taste amazing, have you ever considered entering pastry competitions?
That’s in the works actually. We’ve been looking at entering the World Championship of Pâté-Croûte (held yearly in Lyon, France). I sent my sous chef Nokx Majozi last year and she thinks we’d been in with a good chance. She’s going to be the person that actually does it though. She’s been working with me for years and she’s just as skilled as I am. I also like the idea of a female South African chef going over to teach the French a lesson in pastry.
Calum Franklin and sous chef Nokx Majozi (Johny Carey/Bloomsbury)
Tell us about your new cookbook…
It’s been nearly three years in the making. I took a long time over it as I didn’t want to neglect Holborn Dining Rooms. I went with Absolute Press (an imprint of Bloomsbury) because they were the first publisher that said I could take as long as I needed. They also understood that I didn’t want the book to be really chef-y. I also didn't want it to be something that just sits on a coffee table or on a chef's shelves. I want it to be a book that gets people doing pastry work at home. I'll keep the chef-y one for further down the line.
What would you say to those that are a bit daunted by more complex pastry work?
I tell them to look at where I’ve come from. I didn't start doing this properly until five years ago and I never trained in pastry. A lot of my success has come through trial and error. If you can control temperature and understand some basic principles, it's actually pretty easy.
Do chefs call you for advice on their pies?
Sometimes. But that’s not the main one. I’ve become the go-to guy for beef Wellington. I get at least a question a week. I’ve never been afraid of giving away our secrets. What’s the worst thing that can happen if we tell someone how to do it like we do it from start to finish? They do it better than us. I like that, it means we have to work harder and innovate.
The Pie Room is out now (Bloomsbury, £26)
The Pie Room cookbook