The Pastry Chef that's changing the game

Thursday, September 23, 2021

Corentin Esquenet is a relatively fresh face on the culinary scene, having been a chef for just three years. However, his top-notch skills and devotion to the culinary arts are such that he has quickly become one of the hottest new pastry chefs around.

We talk to Esquenet ab out his love of pastry and his exciting Christchurch venture – BUTTER.

Where did your love of pastry start?

My grandmothers sparked my passion for pastry. My mother's mother makes the best apple crumble I've ever had. I also used to sit at the kitchen bench and watch my father's mother make tarts when I was a little kid. I can still see her lining a tart tin with the precision of someone who's done it every week of their life and being in awe of how she transformed fresh ingredients into beautiful food.


How long have you been working as a chef?

I moved to Christchurch four years ago to study pastry and was quickly welcomed into the hospitality scene. It's the best city in New Zealand for collaboration between chefs and restaurants - something that's really helped me get my business up and running. Along the way, I gained as much experience as I could working at restaurants I respect and admire, plus I was part of the team that competed at and won Nestlé Toque d'Or. My goal in whatever I do is to learn as much as I can.


Tell us about BUTTER and how it came about?

BUTTER was a project I started during the first COVID-19 lockdown. I posted photos of food I was making to gauge people's interest in what I was doing. It quickly became popular and people began asking if they could buy my creations. I built BUTTER around the constraints of a pandemic. I only take orders a few days a week, I have set pick-up times, and a tight menu. This all means that it's a business I can run by myself during lockdowns from alert level three down. 

What made you decide to go solely virtual?

My virtuality is a reaction to the struggles I see within the hospitality industry today. Restaurant owners put so much at risk, even before putting a plate down in front of a customer. I decided that if I ran a business it would be small and sustainable for me to operate. Being virtual was the best way to do that.


What were some of the challenges when setting up the business?

Finding a kitchen was my biggest struggle. I needed a certain amount of chiller and bench space, good access, and something that was affordable. I'm very lucky to be in the kitchen I'm in today, thanks to the help of Rod at Base Pizza in the Tuck kitchens.


What is the most popular item on the menu?

My chocolate and caramel tart - the flavour combination is a classic. Salty caramel, rich chocolate ganache and a whipped chocolate chantilly dusted with premium cocoa powder. That’s closely followed by my lemon tart. I love the clash of sharp notes in the lemon curd and the sweet soft meringue.


Run us through the creation process of your products

I have two sketchbooks. One is for recipes, flavour combinations, produce I can access and food that I've eaten that inspires me. This drives the flavours in my menu. The second is my visual diary where I draw, sketch, brainstorm techniques and find ways to make ingredients visually appealing. My background in graphic design helps me to consider colours, visual textures and composition, when I put my food together. Afterall, we eat with our eyes first.


The world of pastry is wild! So many people are doing so many different things, trends come and go quickly. One day realistic looking fruits are in and the next it's all about going back to tradition. I like to sit somewhere in between. I aim for my pastry to look modern but real. If I use a mirror glaze it's got vanilla or zest. If I make a tart, I'll hand pipe the chantilly into imperfect shapes and patterns, rather than using a mould. I really love the small imperfections in handcrafted products and try to use that as a point of difference in terms of what I make.


What‘s your top culinary tool?

It has to be my tiny spatula. I often joke that I could cater a whole wedding with a small spatula and a paring knife. I use it to stir mixes, spread fillings into tarts, lift tarts off my counter - all sorts of things. Any tool that helps add detail to my work is greatly treasured.


Do you have any sustainability tips?

Wasting any type of food should be a crime. Left over mousses and ganache are perfect for experimenting and making new products. Also, be aware of what is getting wasted and find ways of using it somewhere else. For example, I always use egg yolks and have left over egg white’s so I make sure there are items that use them such as macarons or meringues.


Where to from here?

I love what I'm doing right now and it's still so new for me. I'm focusing on work life balance and making sure BUTTER is something I really enjoy doing. I’m constantly coming up with new recipes and ideas, and using as much local produce as I can. I want to keep BUTTER fun and fresh, and always exciting for me because I know that's what will ultimately keep me in business.


Having been born in France, I’d also love to one day work in some of the incredible restaurants over there.


Got any advice for other young chefs?

Hospitality is very demanding, it's volatile and recently, more than ever, unstable. I see chefs who have been in the industry for decades still struggling with old and new challenges. Often issues remain hidden because most of our information comes from social media where people only post the good stuff. For every perfect dish you see on an Instagram feed, half a dozen probably got remade or ended up as a dinner for staff. 


Work on getting experience before doing something on your own. Read books, talk to chefs, look at menus. Dig deep and find out what really matters to you. If you work towards what you believe in, it's easier to make better decisions plus the hard work will be so much more rewarding.


Check out all the cool stuff Quentin is doing by visiting the BUTTER website, and see all the incredible desserts on the BUTTER Instagram