It’s a sultry Friday morning in Central London. As I power through South Kensington to my rendezvous, my phone won’t stop vibrating. They arrive one after another, engorged pulsing tidings of admiration, carnal reveries which don’t belong to this tentative morning daylight. But my friends can be excused. For I have a date with the King of Cream. The Sultan of the Eclair. The Sovereign of Choux. Joakim Prat.
I arrive to the South Kensington outpost of Maitre Choux to find him engrossed in conversation. This gives me a moment to study the world’s finest pastry chef, Joakim Prat unobserved. He is all tattoos, lustrous hair and molten brown eyes. You’d be forgiven for thinking he’s never been near an eclair in his life (although he later assures me to the contrary). “He’s got the face (and body) of a beautiful tortured Christ” says one friend. I submit that he’s more likely to pass for the lead in a Pirates of the Caribbean franchise. Or maybe a Dothraki in Game of Thrones. But never a pastry chef.
We pass the display of jewel like eclairs, representing the finest example of sugarcraft you ever will see, to take a seat at the back of the store. The Harrington Road outpost of Maitre Choux is the company’s first shop.
When I first stumbled upon Maitre Choux I was struck by the warmth yet simplicity of the interiors. Everything is warm white – the walls are tiled in a very current hexagonal pattern and a hint of colour is betrayed by the minimalistic wireframe lights overhead – and of course, the eclairs.
It’s impossible to continue without mentioning the coffee, an aromatic assault that’s impossible to refuse. And if I can help it, there’s not a day which goes by without one of their hot, peppery, rich Americanos (black no sugar).
Meet Joakim Prat – Head Pastry Chef and Co-Owner of Maître Choux
Joakim sits across from me, bright eyed, drinking a fresh orange juice “for the vitamins” he says. Born in Lyon and raised in the Basque country near Biarritz, he hasn’t lost his characteristic French cadence. His accent is rich. His manner is open with a pleasant directness of gaze, a refreshing change from the awkward foot-gazing Englishmen I grew up with.
“How do I pronounce your name?” I ask. “Jo-ah-kim” he says phonetically. “What about J.P. – does anyone call you J.P.?”. “Er, nooo…”. Deciding that he doesn’t look like a ‘Jo’, I move swiftly on.
I tell him that I’ve watched him on his Instastories, buzzing between kitchens (full of fawning students) in Moscow, Italy and Biarritz. “Yes, I travel once or twice a month, at least. I am doing some masterclass abroad, teaching pastry skills to professionals.”
Where did his passion and love for cooking come from? “Basically, I always wanted to be a chef”. He says with a certainty I envy.
“Always?” I clarify.
“Always. Since I was four I would say ‘I want to be a chef!’… Maybe because my mum was a terrible cook” he laughs. “No it’s true actually”. He smiles. He has a megawatt smile. And listening back to the interview, an infectious laugh. When he laughs, there’s no sharing-the-joke-strain, laughing with him is the easiest thing in the world.
It’s clear to me that for Joakim, his vocation is his ultimate truth. I ask him what he loves about pastry. After all, the precision required is totally different to cooking more broadly where you can improvise, a dash of this, a splash of that.
“As soon as I started pastry I realised it’s what I wanted.” he tells me. “Not putting my hand up a raw chicken first thing in the morning. Pastry is completely different. There’s so much enjoyment to be had. You come, you have the chocolate smell. The cakes coming out of the oven. It’s more technical, more precise of course. And with pastry, when something is wrong, you start from the beginning. But everything is more colourful, more visual. I love that”. As a testament to his passion, this is the most excited that the gets during our interview.
Joakim started working aged fourteen, “I wanted to know everything in the industry. So at fourteen I became an apprentice, working in the main kitchen and studying in cooking school as well. By the time I was sixteen I was working from 4 o’clock in the morning to 4 o’clock the next afternoon, whilst continuing to learn about pastry in school”
“I moved out from home when I was 16. Got my own place and started living independently.” I ask how his mother felt about that, presumptuously assuming that a loss of a golden child couldn’t have been fun. “She was happy!” he laughs. “Oh she was?”, I say surprised. “ Yes, she actually pushed me to do it, because she knew how important it was to me”
Working those hours as a teenager must have inculcated a killer work ethic. “It’s certainly a different approach but the French training allows you to learn about the professional life earlier than in other countries. For example, when I moved to Spain to teach, my students were in their 20s, whereas I was 22 and teaching people the same age.”
So essentially he had a massive head start on his peers? “I started early. Imagine I am 34 and I already have 20 years experience.” But conscious not to appear immodest, he adds that starting younger doesn’t always make for a better chef, “for example someone in their 20s may have a lot more focus than someone younger”.
I ask him why he left France. Secretly, I’m hoping that he’ll let rip, attacking its taxes, absurd employment legislation, bloated bureaucracy and impossible business environment.
No such luck. “I wanted to travel”, he tells me.
“Being a chef gives you that freedom, even if you don’t speak very good the language”
I ask if he sees himself moving back to France. “ I don’t think so” he tells me.
“Why? Don’t you like it?” the controversialist in me asks hopefully.
“On the contrary, I love France. Maybe when I am older I’ll get a home in the countryside, probably the Basque country, near the mountains. I grew up 40 minutes from the ski station and only half an hour from the beach. And since you’re on the border with Spain the food is just incredible.”
The birth of Maitre Choux
By the time Joakim started Maitre Choux three years ago, he had reached the height of technical accomplishment learning classic French pastry skills at some of the world’s finest restaurants. Joakim Prat’s biography includes a stint as head pastry chef at Joël Robuchon’s L’Atelier in London before moving on to Mayfair’s The Greenhouse, both restaurants boasting two Michelin stars. He was also head pastry chef at Can Fabes, the first three Michelin Star restaurant in Spain.
I ask Joakim how the idea for Maitre Choux came about. He tells me that the wanted to dust off the fusty traditional image of patisserie. So he created what is really “a conceptual pastry shop focusing on one type of product to the highest possible standard”
He’s not kidding. I have already demolished the plateful of chouquettes that he considerately placed before me at the start of our interview. If you want to know exactly why the pastry at Maitre Choux is so good read our review here.
When starting out, Joakim had the idea to sell choux which was freshly hand-piped at the till by the staff. However, this proved a logistical nightmare. Ever the perfectionist he decided that a different approach was needed.
At 9pm every evening, the magic begins. A dedicated team works through the night baking and filling eclairs for the new dawn. By 6am the spell is complete and the eclairs are taken to South Ken and Soho to be consumed by appreciative locals.
Living locally, I happen to know that in South Ken they are normally sold out by the evening. Is there an expansion plan?
“I’m looking to open in Westfield in a few months. And I also have my eye on the King’s Road. Hopefully, by the end of the summer there’ll be two more shops. And maybe eventually stores in Dubai, Singapore, New York… but for now, my focus is on London”
I decide to switch focus. “Can you tell me about your tattoos?”, I ask. “Oooo” he says with emphasis. “It’s um personal. Undeterred I jab at a circle on him left bicep. “What’s that? Is it Japanese?”, I ask thinking of Under the Wave by Hokusai. “Er no. Actually this my home. This is Biarittz, you seen the mountains and the sea”. “What about the rose?” I ask. “I got that for someone” he says. And what was your first tattoo? He points at a dark band on his other arm, “this one, also personal, commemorating something”.
“So now that we’ve got onto the personal…” I say, in perhaps the clumsiest conversational segue known to man, and in spite of the fact that Joakim clearly doesn’t want to get personal. But since, there are many readers who would dream for a taste of Joakim’s eclair, I have to ask.
“I have this software at work which tells you the most commonly searched google terms for a particular subject… and for you, those terms happen to be ‘Joakim Prat girlfriend’ and ‘Joakim Prat wife’. How does it feel being a sex symbol?”
Ok, now I’ve really done it. Joakim looks at me in disbelief, “Really?” he says, “those are the top Google searches?!”. “Yes, they are among the top searches”, I confirm.
He laughs his warm gorgeous laugh. “Well I certainly don’t feel like a sex symbol. I’m just a guy making cakes.”
I decide that it’s probably best to stop awkwarding out my gracious host and ask what the future holds.
“So would you do a Julian Metcalfe – build up the business and look for a multi-million private equity exit?” Joakim looks genuinely surprised. “Why would I do that?” he asks “No, I would definitely like to keep it. It’s like my baby and I am not focusing on the money. I am focusing on doing what I love, following my passion. You know, when I go to the kitchen, I am not going to work. I am going to enjoy myself. There is no price for this. I would not change it for anything. And I don’t think there are too many people who can say this about their job”
As I walk out of Maitre Choux, loaded up to the hilt with boxes of different eclairs, chouquettes and choux, I have nothing but love for Joakim (and his boundless generosity). My husband then calls and listens patiently as I wax rapturous about the encounter. As we end the conversation, he lightly says “aren’t you lucky you’re with someone like me and not Joakim? Just imagine it, if you were with someone so hardworking, so accomplished, so masterful in the kitchen, so good-looking, and there’d you be – just massively fat.”