Published 17 December 2021
by Henry Southan
CODE caught up with Cherish Finden at the newly opened Pan Pacific hotel by Liverpool Street and sampled her ‘Kopi Tiam’ afternoon tea. Readers will know Finden as a judge on Bake Off: The Professionals, where she’s known for carrying her ruler around, always striving for precision and pastry perfection.
When I was growing up, my father was very ill and my mother was out at work, so I had to take charge of the kitchen. People seemed to really enjoy my cooking, so I decided to go to a culinary school which is where my training really began. I did a lot of my training at The Sheraton hotel in Singapore, where I found the pastry section of the kitchen most fascinating. I remember going into the office and saying “I want to be in the pastry kitchen!” A few weeks later I was transferred there. I spent my first three years as a chocolatier, rolling truffles, working on interesting and unique flavours.
I became very competitive. At that time, if there was a competition, Cherish was there! I could never settle for bronze or silver awards, I was craving perfection. I think because my family was very poor, I always wanted to achieve the very best. My mum has always taught me to push myself.
Pastry involves a lot of elements – chocolate, bread, desserts and so on, so putting together an afternoon tea is challenging, for sure. It’s down to the finest details. The colours, texture and flavours need to co-ordinate with each other. Pastry is very dimensional and artistic. I always think artistically and visually first, as great taste is easily achievable for me afterwards.
With this tea, I wanted to do dim sum instead of sandwiches. I do love sandwiches, my favourite is cheese and cucumber, but we wanted to switch it up.
I’m so sorry about that, ordering is quite a challenging journey at the moment. Brexit has made it more difficult to bring in ingredients. This and the staffing crisis are the most challenging things for hospitality right now. I’m very fortunate to have a great team. We’re a very small team, but a very efficient team.
Precision is very important. I always tell my teams the story of McDonald’s. Whether you go to America, Thailand or Singapore, the burger will pretty much be the same. This is what we want to achieve with everything we do, consistency. When I was young I would go to kopi tiam (coffee shop) to have a snack, whether it was dim sum, or something sweet. You get to know the people who work there, the team remember your order and become almost like your family in a way. I used to call one lady ‘auntie’ as I saw her every day, and she felt like one!
I like to start with a story when I create a new collection. For example, the Kopi Tiam afternoon tea we do. ‘Kopi’ means coffee, and ‘tiam’ means shop.
Also, I think about childhood memories. My mother used to make me soft boiled eggs every day, and one of the courses at the tea is served in an eggshell, just like I had when I was young.
And the coconut piece too was inspired by when my grandma would take me to a village in Malay where monkeys would collect coconuts from the tree.
Nature and music inspire me a lot too. I listen to a lot of Kitarō, who is a Japanese composer. Most of my ideas come to me at night. I don’t sleep very well actually, as I’m most creative at this time. I actually have a notebook and pen by the side of my bed where I note any ideas.
The ‘Taste of Umami’ course was my favourite to do. It’s quite playful as everyone’s palates pick up on sweet or savoury, and it’s nice for people to have a little debate on what flavours they are picking up more of. The toasted sesame we use is like an explosion of flavour on your palate.
It changes a lot with the season and my mood, but at the moment I’m enjoying using lots of spices, clementine and rhubarb. I do think that while designing a collection is very complex, that you should keep ingredients and flavours simple, letting them really speak for themselves.
We’re very disciplined in the kitchen. In the morning we don’t really talk, we’re all very focused on what we need to do, achieving that ultimate precision.
Creating the new collections, for me. Starting with a story and concept and building on it. Also seeing the smiles on all the guest’s faces.
Yes, it’s been really popular! It’s called, ‘The Night Before Christmas.’ The design is Santa’s journey to delivering presents. On the plate, you can see the journey of Santa delivering presents in the order we recommend eating each part in. At the end, there is the mince pie for Santa, and not forgetting the carrot for Rudolph!
It’s very different. Back in Singapore, we have lots of street food. I’d also say that in Singapore, places focus on one thing, and try and do it the best, rather than offering loads. It’s more casual too, you go out in your shorts and so on. The food is very reasonably priced in Singapore, you could have a really nice plate of food for the equivalent of £4.
On the other hand, the UK is great because you can have great relationships with farmers, pick your own fruits and so on. There are lots of products you can get in the UK that you can’t in Singapore.
I actually live in Kent, so I travel around there a lot. The Kentish Hare is one of my favourites, Amano too. Very humble food. I also love wine tasting, and we have Chapel Down nearby which is great. A plate of charcuterie with some English sparkling wine puts a smile on my face!