Chef Heather Kaniuk admits to not “really having too many career expectations” when she left for London as a 20-year-old. But, having trained at the likes of Peter Gordon’s The Providores and Tapa Room and Gordon Ramsay’s Maze, she then worked as head chef aboard super yachts and executive pastry chef at a pair of London’s most prestigious five-star hotels—Shangri-La at the Shard and Hyde Park’s Mandarin Oriental—while bagging several industry awards along the way. Heather’s now one of the most talked about pastry chef’s in the business.
“I simply wanted to explore the diversity of cuisines and culinary talent in Europe that wasn’t accessible in New Zealand at the time,” says Heather of her initial move. “I dived in at the deep end, working through Michelin-starred restaurants, and the change of pace from New Zealand kitchens was phenomenal.”
Do you feel it’s a prerequisite for chefs to travel?
“Nowadays there is such a high-quality and diverse food scene in New Zealand, with so many amazing flavours and tastes, but when I was starting out, things like olive oil and pimento were relatively new there. Now, Kiwi chefs are doing amazing things with native ingredients which is bringing New Zealand cuisine to the forefront. Hospitality is certainly an industry that allows you to travel with ease, and any young chef will no doubt grow from a stint overseas.”
In 2017, Heather co-founded (with Graham Hornigold) consultation and patisserie management company, Smart Patisserie, to help train chefs and develop and grow restaurants. A move that, says, Heather, allows her to “give something back to the industry”. Growing up with teacher parents, I wonder, must have been beneficial in this regard.
“My parents taught me to have a solid work ethic, and this no doubt helped not just my own career, but in guiding younger chefs,” Heather says. “I love to teach and pass on my knowledge—this is probably the most rewarding part of my job.”
Were there other aspects of your upbringing that helped shape your career overseas?
“New Zealanders are well-respected around the world and this has definitely helped in many a situation. We are naturally laid-back and get on with others, which helps with the team building aspect of kitchens.”
Such an approach must certainly have come in useful in the high-pressure environment of Gordon Ramsey’s kitchen, in particular. I ask Heather if she was ever on the receiving end of one of the chef’s outlandish outbursts.
“The Maze kitchen was notorious for shouting and swearing,” she says, “and I don’t think anyone really escaped the rants—though they were usually from the head and sous chefs rather than Gordon himself. I’ve ducked a few flying pans, been manhandled, and heard far too many insults to name.”
Historically a notoriously male-dominated industry, Heather says that though much has been done to fix the imbalance of power, more progress is required. “It’s a complex issue,” she continues. “Hospitality is not the most flexible when it comes to balancing a career with childcare, for example. Sexism still exists, in my first executive role in a five-star hotel I was asked to wear a pink apron—why? Ethnic minorities, too, remain vastly underrepresented. I was once given this great advice: if you can affect those in your immediate surroundings, long-term, you will begin to create ripples of change. So, I’ve always tried to mentor young women chefs to be resilient, giving them the tools to succeed and thrive.”
Heather also points to there only being five to 10 percent coverage of women in pastry magazines “if you’re lucky”, despite there, statistically, being more women in the role.
I ask what encouraged the chef to make the move from the savoury kitchen to the sweet one.
“I had always loved baking and the sweeter side of the kitchen, but was initially drawn to the thrill of service in the hot kitchen,” she says. “The adrenaline kick you get from a busy service is addictive, requiring speed, precision and accuracy. I soon discovered the value of being able to handle all sections of the kitchen, and, at the time, it wasn’t uncommon for restaurants to bundle the dessert section together with the starters. It wasn’t until I came to Europe that I discovered not only was being a pastry chef an actual role in itself, but attitudes towards pasty were more revered, and it was considered a specialist skill.”
There is such artistry to Heather’s creations. I ask if any chef can achieve such standards, or, like many other artforms, there is an element of natural flair. She believes there’s “an element of nature versus nurture”, good pastry chefs must be “well-organised, precise and patient” with a tendency to prefer the cooler calm of the pastry section rather than the “rough and tumble of the hot kitchen”.
“Over the years you develop your own interests, a mix of your own experiences and the chefs that have trained and mentored you. The difficulty these days is that a lot of young chefs tend to emulate what they see on social media rather than take the time to develop their own style. Throughout my career, I always worked for specific establishments or chefs that I wanted to learn from. I think that this approach affords you a more rounded skill set.”
Heather’s latest lip-smacking project is Longboys, a range of revolving premium finger doughnuts that see seasonal fruits such as raspberry, lychee, peach or rhubarb paired with the likes of toasted almonds, sticky toffee and custard.“We wanted to create a unique product that allowed us to incorporate high-end technique and flavours into a more accessible dish,” Heather says. “I’ve always been partial to a jam and cream filled doughnut, and these have fallen out of fashion in recent times, so we thought we’d bring them back. But they have been modernised for the current market.”
You must possess masses of willpower to not constantly be snacking on your wonderful sweet treats?
“I do have a fairly sweet tooth, but balance it out with lots of salads too! Our philosophy towards pastry is to reduce the overall sweetness, so we tend to produce everything inhouse. We cut back on sugar where we can and rely more on the natural sweetness of the seasonal fruits. There’s nothing worse than ending a meal and feeling sick from overly sweet, cloying and heavy desserts.”
Longboys are currently available from stalls at some of London’s hippest locations such as Wembley Boxpark and Selfridges Food Hall, but the burning question is, are there any plans to bring them to Aotearoa?
“We’d love to! Perhaps a summer pop-up, any excuse to come home. If you hear of any opportunities, we’re all ears.”
Heather adds that she’s always excited to get back and learn about the latest happenings in the New Zealand food scene: “I’ve got many good chef friends in New Zealand and love seeing what they are up to. There is a generation of chefs who left New Zealand to develop their careers and have now returned with a wealth of knowledge and the scene has really matured.”
I finish up by asking Heather about her Christmas plans.
“I love Christmas at home, but sadly do not get to spend it in New Zealand often—this needs to change. Being with my family at Christmas is precious, and the memories are special. But I must admit, I do also love the festivities of a traditional European Christmas. My partner is British, and cooks the best roast dinner with all the trimmings—we light the fire, eat mince pies and drink mulled wine.”