Chris Underwood: Career Profile

Chris Underwood became the pastry chef at Five Fields when it opened in May

Pastry chefs are few and far between in UK restaurants, but Chris Underwood has been in the pastry department for all of his working life. Gaining experience with an array of big-name chefs including Tom Aikens, Michael Caines and Alan Murchison, Underwood now works alongside Taylor Bonnyman at the new Five Fields restaurant in Chelsea. 

How I got to where I am now:

I spent three years at college in Luton and while I was there I was sent on a work placement to Gidleigh Park which was very special. In my third year, I did a lot of work with pastry. And that’s where it all started.

My nan’s next-door neighbour used to make cakes for Granada Studios, so I used to go and help her on weekends. That’s how I really fell in love with pastry.

I worked my way up at some really great restaurants with some inspiring chefs. I worked at Cliveden, Pied a Terre, The Capital Hotel, Colettes and at Gidleigh Park – I learnt something from everywhere I went.

On the technical side of things, I probably learnt the most from Tom Aikens. He likes to push boundaries which is why I learnt so much. Tom was great, the guy’s amazing. It was a real learning for me; I learnt how to organise myself and getting the best out of flavours. The way of working was all about dedication.

Now I’m here at Five Fields and it’s been excellent. We’ve had some great reviews, it’s a great team. And we’re closed for lunch, we only do dinner service which has made my lifestyle a lot more relaxed.

The team here is very experienced and we’re a really tight brigade. Having the opportunity to do my own thing, from bread all the way through to petit fours, is great. I’ve been able to put my own style on the plates here, not so much ‘pushing boundaries’, but always looking to do something a bit different.

My greatest achievement:

The best achievements have come when I’ve got all of those jobs that I mentioned earlier. Having worked with some of the most prestigious chefs that I know – Michael Caines, Tom Aikens, Alan Murchison, Will Holland – you can’t get better than that, espeicially if you want to work your way up the career ladder.

Being part of the team when we got the star at La Becasse was also right up there – the time I spent there was really good fun.

My biggest challenge:

Probably the early starts - getting five hours sleep at night, every night, can be a big hurdle to overcome, so being consistently motivated is key. Everyone has a hard job to do in any career; it’s just that having the sheer determination to carry on in the kitchen can sometimes be hard.

The job is 10 per cent talent and 90 per cent hard work. But if you work hard, you develop your skills and things start coming together, so it all pays off in the end.   

What I love about pastry:

I love the arty side of it. The pastry section is always very controlled and organised. It’s a bit more elaborate and, in my opinion, more technical.

There are not many pastry chefs that I know working in restaurants and, generally, the need for them is not as high here in the UK, as other chefs are being trained in pastry. In restaurants, I don’t think pastry chefs are given as much recognition as they deserve.

What I don’t like about the industry:

I think there are too many chain restaurants and not enough independents doing their own thing. There’s nothing wrong with the bigger groups, they’re consistent and do the job they set out to do. But I think it would be nice to see younger guys coming through in other types of operation.

My advice for young pastry chefs:

Don’t be scared to try anything and don’t give up. Take in as much as you can from each job and when you feel you’ve learnt everything you can, move on. Also, don’t be afraid to ask questions. Read books and prepare to be influenced by all varieties of cuisine.

With regards to working your way up the ladder, the approach you take really depends on how you feel about the industry. Switching jobs quite regularly can sometimes help but it really depends on where you’re working and how much you’re learning.

What’s next…

Things are going really well here at Five Fields but I eventually want to have my own little bakery. My partner’s from Kent and there’s a really nice area called St Michaels – a nice bakery there would be lovely. Offering cakes, fresh breads, an open kitchen and an area for customers to sit and relax. That’s always been my dream.

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