Interview with Sarah & Cristina from GBBO: The Professionals
Fans of Great British Bake Off: The Professionals may recognize our latest F&Be interviewees, Sarah Houghting and Cristina Sangiorgio! This fierce duo from The Rubens at The Palace Hotel has only been working together for a couple of years, but have already formed a deep bond with each other.
Largely self-taught, newlywed Sarah’s passion for desserts brought her from South Africa to London in 2005. As Head Pastry Chef at The Rubens at the Palace for the past 3 years, Sarah and her team are responsible for all the desserts and Royal Afternoon Tea—quite a daunting task when your neighbor across the street is the Queen! Teammate and assistant, Cristina, moved to the UK from Italy and has worked in some of London’s top hotels including The Dorchester and Hotel Café Royal. Having now braved both a pandemic and the high-pressure stakes of Bake Off, everything now is just…easy as pie!
Hi Sarah & Cristina! Congratulations on your recent wedding, Sarah! Before we get into Bake Off, we’d love to learn a little more about your backgrounds. Where are you from?
Sarah: I am originally from South Africa, from a small little town called Hibberdene. I grew up on a sugar farm and always joke that my sweet tooth was highly developed from birth. It was always a dream of mine to work in the UK. I moved here in 2005.
Cristina: I’m from Italy. I lived in Lake Como until age 19 and then I moved to London.
What has been your path—from South Africa and Italy—to The Rubens at the Palace?
Sarah: I was lucky enough to be one of the group of people in South Africa to get a 24-month working holiday visa, meaning that I could work the full 24 months. This was a gift because, later on, I would use the years as a senior chef to gain the work permit that allowed me to stay longer in the UK.
While on the holiday visa, I initially worked in London for two different places before deciding that I needed some country air and a better position, so I left London and went to Scotland for almost 2 years. This is where I was fortunate enough to get my first work permit, which started me on the road to getting my British citizenship. From here, I was offered the opportunity to return to London. I was able to renew my work permit with a job at The Chesterfield Mayfair. I spent 5.5 years there as an Executive Sous chef. I then left and worked in contract catering before deciding that I needed to change— first to pastry, then back to hotels. Cue Ben Kelliher, my previous boss from The Chesterfield. We reconnected in 2018, and he asked if I wanted to head up his pastry team at The Rubens …. And, as they say, the rest is history!
Cristina: I studied hospitality and specialized in pastry at CAST Alimenti (The Italian School of Culinary Arts). I was able to do some work experience while in school, then I moved to London to learn something new. I had been working in a few different hotels before joining Sarah at The Rubens.
I had always worked in more modern hotels, but I really liked the style of The Rubens at the Palace as it is properly English, from the decor to the food. The team is diverse, however, so everyone is bringing a bit of themselves over.
How long have you been working together?
Sarah: We have been working together for 2 years. Sadly, that time includes the pandemic, but the moment I met Cristina, I knew we’d conquer mountains together!
In any kitchen, especially at a big hotel, it’s as much about the team as it is about the head chef’s creative vision. How would you describe your working dynamic?
Sarah: I would say that I take classics and twist them to bring out new versions! I don’t copy things I see, but I do take little bits from here and there to create something new—almost like Frankenstein, but hopefully better ;) Cristina knows me and how I like to work. Considering that we have not been working together for very long, it’s really awesome! I had always wanted another person around me who just got me and understood my thought process. We bounce ideas off of each other because two heads are always better than one.
Cristina: At the moment there are only three people on the pastry team [for the hotel], so a lot is coming from us because we can then vary from afternoon tea to the room amenities.
As competitive and high pressure as the hospitality industry can be, it is quite a difference to be in an actual competition like Bake Off. Have you ever done anything like this before in your career? How did you get involved with Bake Off?
Sarah: This is the first time I have ever done something at this level! I've entered competitions, but they were Mickey Mouse compared to this!! I have watched Bake Off for years and always imagined being on the show. I loved how the contestants would come up with the ideas and was amazed at the talent that was on the show! I would think to myself: Was I good enough for this? Could I possibly be on the show? I entered the show [on an earlier season], but only made it as far as taking our pastries in and that was it! Then, this year, we decided to give it one more bash!! And, well, it paid off!
Cristina: We are very busy at work, but during Bake Off, you feel so much more pressure because of the timing and the atmosphere, as it is not your kitchen. I had never done anything like this before, it was my first time participating in a tv show. We got support from our head chef and the hotel, but first we had to support each other as we had some tough moments when something wasn’t coming outright.
What was the most surprising thing about being on Bake Off?
Sarah: Meeting the most amazing people. And Cherish and Benoit are not monsters like I thought! She always scared me. And the stage, it’s so deceiving!! They have moving parts and secret pathways!!
Cristina: The most surprising thing is seeing, on the first day, the entrance of the kitchen as it's very emotional to be there and what you see on tv looks different.
As a non-professional, it is fascinating to see how you have to work together. With so much happening in such a short space of time, you almost have to read each other’s minds as there is no time to explain or elaborate. What didn’t we get to see?
Sarah: The comments and looks that pass between us. There is so much pressure and a lot of things happening; at the same time, the storyteller is asking so many questions to get content and write your story! You almost feel like you need to be able to multitask to the max!!
Cristina: It’s been a challenge. Because of the time, it's quite important to not waste a single second, so we had to understand each other very quickly—as we do when we are at work— but on Bake Off, we had to speed up even more.
The coffee bean idea for the tiramisu was gorgeous and your Groot-inspired crumble sounded delicious, but I was heartbroken for you when your desserts didn’t set properly. What would you do differently?
Sarah: PRACTICE PRACTICE PRACTICE! And talk less! The pressure got to us and, sadly, we didn’t pick up that there wasn’t enough gelatin. It also taught me that I must use powder throughout all my recipes! Then you can’t fail. Hopefully.
Cristina: Yeah, the taste of this dessert was very good. The tiramisu is one of my favorites. But it was a competition, so even if we’re now talking like we could have done that, it’s too late. For sure, this will help us in the future. We made some mistakes, which we weren't going to make if we were more relaxed and in our own kitchen; but, because of all the stress, I couldn’t think and I just followed what was written on my piece of paper.
What was your biggest take-away from the experience? (Both, personally and professionally.)
Sarah: Professionally, I would say take care of the ingredients you choose— one hero, maybe two—but always make sure you respect the ingredients. Personally, my biggest takeaway is that I am capable of so much more! Competing really opened my eyes to that. I have so many ideas swimming in my head and it's about getting them out and letting others experience them...Maybe that’s a professional one too. But I also had the best support in the form of my family and, now, my husband.
Cristina: My biggest take-away, personally, is that I need to improve myself to get stronger under stress; and, professionally, I learned what the other professional chefs had to say about what we created.
Has this experience made you stronger as a team at The Rubens?
Sarah: Definitely!! We are thinking more, developing more; we seem to think the same, but not the same—if that makes sense. I feel like I have found my other half in the pastry world! Cristina challenges me on all levels to be better, to think out the box, and to be more of a mentor!
Cristina: Of course we are very happy to be back, but now we can experiment with new things and make customers happy.
Were you happy to get back to your own kitchen?
Sarah: Yes I was!! I loved the kitchen at Bake Off but I trust my ovens more
LOL! Even though we have a very small space, we have learned to work in that space and produce quality and volume! Now we just need to triple that and we will be unstoppable!!
Cristina: Since we’ve come back to The Rubens, we have made an all-new afternoon tea menu following more of our personal styles and flavors.
As pastry chefs, what are the three things you can’t live without?
SCALES!!! This is a science, you know!
My spatula! This thing makes scraping, mixing, and the like so much easier, and I have a special one I love!
My little paring knife!! That thing is invaluable!
Cristina: I can’t live (in life or in the kitchen) without
a good book
a selection of pastry nozzles
What is your favorite dessert to make?
Sarah: You wouldn’t believe this, but tiramisu is one of my favorite things to make!! And any petit gateaux. I love the complex layers you can create and the flavors you can pack into one of those desserts!
Cristina: As I’m Italian, I really like to make tiramisu...a simpler version of what we made on Bake Off. My husband can finish it the same day I make it, so it must be good. Hahaha!
What is your favorite dessert to eat?
Sarah: Crème Brulee! Hands down this is something I will always order if I see it on a menu! But you can't beat a good lemon poppy seed cake!
Cristina: I really like to follow my Italian traditions. I really like tiramisu, as I said, but also ice cream and a lot more.