Pierre Roelofs is an extraordinary dessert chef. I spoke to Pierre in his fifth year of dessert evenings, and they now continue at Milkwood Café in Brunswick East.
How long have you been a chef?
I’ve been a chef since 1994. I started in New Zealand at the Bronze Goat, an iconic restaurant on Ponsonby Road. It’s a long time ago.
Where did you go from Auckland?
My mum passed away when I was 15 and my dad visited me in New Zealand. He was a globe-trotting pastry chef in five star hotels all over the world. When he came to visit, I said that he owed me. He set me up with a job in the Swiss Alps at a place where he’d worked 40 years before.
Were you influenced because your father was a pastry chef?
He was around in my very early days. You always get asked when you’re a kid, what do you want to be and I always said “a pastry chef”. Whether I meant it or not for the early years is hard to say, it just became my answer. When I left high school it became what I was going to do. Luckily I was good at it and I was also passionate about it. But it became my default answer and I followed it and made it my career.
Was it a shock to leave New Zealand?
Absolutely. I went straight to a third generation family owned patisserie. They didn’t speak a word of English; I didn’t speak a word of German. So I just got thrown in at the deep end. I taught myself German after work every night and the more German I learned, the better my jobs became. My first word was putzen, which was ‘to clean’. I did a lot of cleaning. As I learned the language, I got trusted with more. I learned a lot from that family.
What is about desserts you feel drawn to?
I wasn’t always focused on desserts. It was patisserie in general. I’ve worked in little pastry shops, as a baker, in large-scale hotels, in catering environments, in banqueting, doing food for a thousand, and wedding cakes. I was always looking for my thing. When I started doing desserts, that’s when I knew. I like the scale of it, the immediacy of it, everything is last minute and you’re free to do everything to the best that it can be done. With restaurant desserts at the upper level, you have control over how it’s all put together at the last minute and how it goes out. That’s what I like about it the most.
People use words like deconstructed and molecular gastronomy to describe your desserts, how do you feel about that?
They’re funny terms. I don’t really know what deconstructed is. I guess my style of plating where it’s spread out and quite organic and there are little bits that form a journey where you get a different experience with each mouthful could be described as deconstructed. Molecular gastronomy was a term that was bandied about a while ago and then it became a really negative term. There are trends within food. Molecular gastronomy became a trend. It got celebrated by the media then it got over-used, then dismissed. I try and stay away from trends.
Where do you draw inspiration?
I change the menu once a month now. The first hundred I was doing a new menu once a week. I thought I needed to do that to stay relevant and interesting and to compete with everything else that was going on in the food scene. It turns out no one very really noticed. It was a stretch each week to try and put together something I was excited about and met my standards. It always felt like a shame if I’d really nailed something and then it was a quiet night. Now it’s a month and that works well.
Where do you get your ideas from?
They just float around in my head. I have a notebook I jot things down in. But I guess over time I’ve created my own library of flavours, my own language and way of doing things and so I can unlock different combinations and techniques as I go.
Will the dessert evenings continue?
That’s a good question. Who would have thought it would’ve gone this far, something so niche? And I’ve been making my living from just that one dessert evening a week. I’m really proud to have made a success of it for this long. I always knew it’d have a time and a place and I never wanted it to continue beyond it making sense. I always wanted it to finish on a high. We’ll go to the end of the year and see what makes sense to me then.