Respected pastry chef discusses the art of Irish baking and pastry
March 13, 2023 By Karen Barr
Paul Kelly is the executive pastry chef at The Merrion Hotel, just across the street from the Government Buildings, home of the Irish government, in Dublin, Ireland. The Merrion is not the average hotel, but a five-star, 144-room architectural dream. Housed in four exquisitely restored Georgian townhomes, with a contemporary garden wing and two private period gardens, the hotel’s original private art collection features 19th- and 20th-century Irish and European art.
“Do you know I have been working here for 25 years now?” asks Kelly, who stands in chef whites, his face dominated by a large smile and contemporary black framed glasses. Kelly started with The Merrion Hotel when it opened its doors in 1997. Here, arriving at 6:30 am each morning, he manages a group of eleven staff on his baking and pastry team.
Kelly is famous in Ireland for his pastry arts. For eight years, he represented the country, as the pastry chef on the Irish Culinary Team. Kelly is also known for his television appearances, most notably as a judge on the popular baking show The Great Irish Bake Off.
One of the drawing cards at The Merrion Hotel is the Art Tea, a lavish afternoon tea based on the hotel’s art collection and Kelly’s imagination. Savouries include Irish cornfed chicken breast with truffle mayonnaise, on whole grain bread. Hen’s egg with mayonnaise sits on a slightly sweet brioche bridge roll.
Next are the light and fluffy scones, in plain and raisin, with a sprinkling of icing sugar. When asked what makes a perfect scone, Kelly says with a laugh, “Scones are the bane of my existence!” The jovial pastry chef moves his fingertips to his temples and says, “Every day I think, ‘How can I make the scones even better?’ ”
Cake slices include flavourful lemon bread and a perfectly spiced Portercake. For the Battenburg cake, Kelly captures the spirit of artist Sean Scully, whose work hanging in The Merrion features heavily painted stripes. One cake slice is comprised of turquoise and yellow stripes of sponge cake, while the other is a checkerboard of blue and red, both enveloped in a thin layer of sweet marzipan.
For the dessert course, three expertly crafted, miniature plated desserts arrive on a platter. These change daily. For the artwork Roses and Temple by Patrick Hennessy, with giant roses in the foreground and archeological pillars behind, the dessert comprises sublimely flavoured rosewater and orange mousse on a white chocolate feuilletine.
In Shut Eye with Acolyte (Praxis) by John Boyd two men viewed from the side lean forward, one of which wears a hat and a theatrical mask. Kelly takes the background colours as a starting point for a turquoise and robin egg blue striped teardrop filled with pistachio and white chocolate mousse.
In Self Portrait 1912, Irish painter Saurin Elizabeth Leech portrays herself dressed in lime green and pale yellow, with a dramatic orange scarf wrapped around her head. Her neck is adorned with a beaded necklace, finished with a heart pendant. Kelly’s dessert is a small rectangle in a playful trio of citrus, featuring a lime sponge, orange Chiboust, and lemon jelly curd. A flowing arc of orange-coloured white chocolate represents Leech’s scarf, with details of the necklace and a tiny heart.
Dinner at The Merrion Hotel begins with warm, homemade sourdough and multi-seed bread, served with butter from Cork. Once the main course is eaten, it’s hard to pick just one plated dessert. There is something for everyone.
For vegan desserts, Kelly says, “I have two favourites – the lemon meringue pie and the lemon cheesecake. Classic desserts using traditional recipes, but there are no animal products used in the creation.”
The passionfruit and mango souffle puffs out proudly from a ramekin. Surrounded by light and refreshing apricot ice cream, with a tuille blossoming up like a flower, it is served alongside a creamer filled with sauce Anglaise. It’s almost sinful not to taste the souffle on its own first, before adding the sauce. So beautiful is the souffle, that customers are hesitant to cut into it. Helpful servers offer to assist.
Paul Kelly is famous in Ireland for his pastry arts. For eight years, he represented the country, as the pastry chef on the Irish Culinary Team.
Another fruit dessert on the menu is the green apple ganache, with transparent apple, yogurt cake, and apple meringue. The ganache, with an intense taste of apple, sits in a round of shortbread in the centre. Small cubes of both yogurt cake and transparent apple are sprinkled along the perimeter, while dollops of meringue appear decoratively on top. It’s a light dessert, that perfectly finishes off the meal.
The menu also features freshly made ice cream and sorbet. “We can serve up to 50 litres of ice cream per week, with flavour favourites including vanilla, chocolate, and strawberry.”
For something richer, Kelly suggests the salted caramel chocolate tart, with milk chocolate and banana Chantilly. The dessert is served on a spiral design of caramel, with popcorn ice cream and pieces of homemade caramel popcorn. “I’ve reduced the size to just 70 per cent of the original dessert,” Kelly says. “Milk chocolate with caramel and banana is one of my favourite flavour combinations.”
Other chocolate combinations Kelly enjoys paired together include, “Dark chocolate with kalamansi, Ruby with raspberries, white chocolate with orange blossom, and milk chocolate with cinnamon.”
Kelly loves all things chocolate. “As an Ambassador for Cacao Barry, I was invited to develop a signature chocolate for The Merrion Hotel,” Kelly recalls. “The first stage was developing our customer taste profile, which included a lot of sampling and testing over three to four months. Next, we entered the creation stage. During this stage, we reduced the sugar in the white chocolate, added caramel to the milk chocolate, and added fruit to the dark chocolate flavouring. The dark chocolate we developed is suitable for vegans.”
The follow-up was 10 weeks of production in France. Then, the custom-created chocolate was shipped to The Merrion Hotel. “From there it was distributed amongst our dining team and used for all pastries and bakery work within the hotel, including all turn-down chocolates and chocolate bars,” Kelly says.
Those lucky enough to stay overnight at the Merrion Hotel are greeted with a full buffet breakfast.
The team is responsible for making up and baking off warm buttery croissants, sweet cinnamon swirls, and Danishes, with fresh berries, including Ireland’s beloved blackberries, resting in thick vanilla pastry cream.
And then there is pain au chocolate, pain au raisin, Irish brown soda bread, almond claws and rich brioche. The latter makes it into the hot breakfast menu, with decadent brioche cinnamon French toast, served with real Canadian maple syrup. For North American favourites, breakfast includes a variety of muffins such as chocolate, blueberry, banana, and carrot.
Kelly also gives back to the community. When he isn’t working at The Merrion Hotel, he is training future chefs of tomorrow. Kelly teaches part time in Culinary Arts at DIT Cathal Brugha Street in Dublin, where he also helps to develop new pastry and baking programs.
With so much on the go, how does the pastry chef relax? After work, he puts on a pair of headphones and ambles for an 8-kilometre walk, while listening to a podcast. Kelly is also a fan of hot yoga and guided meditation for his body and mind.
Then, each year, he travels to New York to visit his sister. If time permits and his curiosity is piqued, he might even volunteer for a stage at one of New York’s finest restaurants. For Paul Kelly, it’s all about living a balanced life while continuing to explore his craft.
Karen Barr writes about arts, culture and cuisine. She is a graduate of George Brown College and a Red Seal pastry chef.
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