Alison Thompson has a career many aspiring young pastry chefs would dream about – she has three successful cookbooks published, with a new one on the way and an impressive 20-year work history including working with some of the world’s biggest celebrities.
To what does Alison attribute her success? It all started with a new year’s resolution and a Robbie Williams concert!
By the ripe old age of 25, Alison had worked her way up to Head Chef at All Saints Estate in Rutherglen. Soon after, she decided to follow her long held passion for sweets and desserts and relocated to Melbourne to work as a pastry chef, working her way up to Head Pastry Chef at Cacao Patisserie in St Kilda.
When asked what happened next in her career, Alison remarks, “That’s when we get to the exciting bit. My boyfriend (now husband), Tim bought me tickets to a Robbie Williams concert in Dublin, it was the push that we needed to just go over there. We went over, did a bit of travelling, went to Dublin for the concert, did a bit of Europe and then landed back in London. I knew I wanted to get into cake decorating over there because they are well known for their cake skills (in London) so I sent my resume to the top three places in London and my number one pick called me.”
Alison’s number one pick, was none other than the Little Venice Cake Company, London’s leading cake designer. While working with the Little Venice Cake Company, Alison laughs about how within her first two weeks she was asked to make Gordon Ramsey’s 40th birthday cake, “I was really scared. His personal assistant called and said that he loved it. That’s about as good as you get!” During her 12-month stint at the Little Venice Cake Company, Alison also made a birthday cake for Ozzy Osborne and a wedding cake for Little Britain’s Matt Lucas. “When we made Matt Lucas’ wedding cake, he wanted it on display at lunchtime when he was having lunch with his friends, so we had to go and pick it up afterwards to take it to the actual wedding reception. We walked into this room full of celebrities and as we walked out, there were probably 40 paparazzi outside trying to get a photo of the cake, all yelling at us, ‘what’s the flavour? What does it look like?’”
After their visas ran out, Alison and Tim returned to Australia and moved to Yarra Glen, where Tim started work as Head Chef at De Bortoli. Before long, Alison was working there too. “I was only meant to be helping him for a couple of weeks and ended up there for three and a half years.”
It was during her time at De Bortoli that Alison, on 1 January, made a list of goals for the New Year. One of those goals was that during the winter, she would get a book deal. “I didn’t know how I was going to do it or who to talk to. That was just my goal. By March, I had a phone call from Penguin saying, do you want to write a book about baking? I knew I wanted to do a baking book but I hadn’t written anything. They said, we want 200 recipes, so I started going through boxes of recipes I had collected over the years – anything I could gather from grandparents or anything I had written in my whole career.”
This book was titled Bake and has been a resounding success, having been released in Australia, UK, Asia, USA and more recently France. “I never thought I would sell a baking book to the French!” she exclaimed.
Yet, this was not Alison’s first cookbook. Alison’s mother reminded her when she got her book deal with Penguin, that she had in fact written a cookbook at age 11. “I didn’t even remember I had done it. Mum posted it to me and sure enough, I read the cookbook. [It contained] things like scones, honey joys, a bread recipe and coconut ice. I still make scones a lot – other things not so much. There are a lot of rice bubble recipes in there [but] I had indexed it and numbered the pages, it had a front cover – I’d done the whole job.”
Not one to remain idle, Alison also launched her own wedding cake business in Yarra Glen called Alison Louise Designer Cakes along with a further cookbook titled Macaron. Tim and Alison relocated to the inner city where Alison helped in his new consultancy business, assisting clients in establishing their restaurants and also teaching baking classes.
Unfortunately for Tim and Alison, the inner city never felt like home, “We’d been living in the city for a while and hated it so we decided to come back. [There was] no real sense of community and I felt really lonely. I would go off to the supermarket and would not see anyone I knew. The moment we moved back to Yarra Glen, within five minutes we were waving to someone we knew. It just feels nice. It feels like home. I don’t want to be in the city anymore, it was good to go in (to the city) and realise what we have!”
On their return to Yarra Glen, Alison decided to return to the restaurant scene and immediately thought of Stones of the Yarra Valley. “I had delivered a lot of wedding cakes to Stones in the past and they always seemed so organised and professional and nice and busy as well, which is important. I thought I would give them a call and see if they needed a pastry chef and they did. It is a bit weird because every job that I think I want, I seem to get – it just happens to be available!”
Alison describes working at Stones as great and has enjoyed making some slight changes to the dessert menu, as well as preparing the old favourites. The wedding desserts are all miniature, canapé style items served on platters, which Alison loves as she gets to play around with them. Bride and grooms getting married at Stones have the option to discuss with Alison their wedding cake ideas and she is happy to work with the couple to design and prepare a sumptuous creation for them.
Alison attributes her passion for desserts to her great grandmother, Lucy. “Every time we would visit her, she would have biscuits, cakes and scones on a table full of food. That is where I’d eat a lot of sweets! Then I would come home and there would be nothing in the house so if I wanted something, I had to bake it. If I wanted desserts, I had to make them out of flour, sugar, butter, jam – all the basic staples. I started whipping up jam tarts and got recipes out of Women’s Weekly magazine or whatever mum had around.”
On the horizon for Alison is her new cookbook, Sweet, which will be released on 30 April. It will be an all desserts affair featuring meringues, mousses, custards, soufflés and layered desserts like trifles just to name a few.
“[It contains] anything you can think of. I tried to put in a good variety of everything and also a good variety of skill level from really easy right through to harder things,” Alison explained, “I try not to keep any secrets. If there is a little trick that chefs use, then I will include that. It all helps.”
Alison has an utterly down-to-earth approach in preparing her cookbooks, “When I write books, I try and make sure people can buy everything at the supermarket. If you cannot buy it in the supermarket, I do not put it in the recipe because I don’t want people to have to search for ingredients. There is nothing worse than driving all around Melbourne looking for ingredients. I want it to be a book that everyone uses every day. I have hundreds of cookbooks but there is only one or two that aren’t dirty. I want it to be used and not sit on the shelf.”
TRY THIS AT HOME:
MILK CHOCOLATE AND COFFEE SEMIFREDDO
3 egg yolks
50g caster sugar
340g cream, whipped
400g milk chocolate, melted (choose a good quality chocolate such as lindt for best results)
30ml strong black coffee
Grease then line a rectangle loaf pan with a couple of layers of cling film and set aside. Any shape mould is fine if you don’t have a rectangle loaf pan.
Heat the 180ml of cream in a small saucepan until hot, meanwhile in a bowl whisk together the yolks and sugar. Pour the hot cream into the yolks and mix well, return the mixture to the saucepan and cook over a low heat stirring continuously until the mixture thickens slightly and coats the back of the spoon (79 degrees celcius if you have a thermometer).
Immediately pour the mixture into a large clean bowl set aside while melting the chocolate and whipping the cream. Once the remaining ingredients are ready whisk the melted chocolate into the warm cream mixture then stir in the coffee. Fold in 1/3 of the whipped cream then gently fold in the remaining.
Pour the mixture into the prepared loaf tin and freeze for at least a few hours until firm. To serve remove the parfait from the loaf pan and peel off the cling film, using a hot knife cut it into slices and serve with a generous pile of caramel popcorn on top. The parfait will last in the freezer for up to one month.
Salted Caramel Popcorn
Makes enough for the parfait plus extra just for eating!
1 cup popping corn
225g unsalted butter, diced
225g brown sugar
100g corn syrup
1 tsp salt
Firstly the popcorn needs to be popped, this can be done either with an air popping machine, in the microwave or in a covered saucepan with a tablespoon of oil over a medium heat until the popping noise subsides.
Transfer the popped corn to a large bowl leaving behind any unpopped kernels in the pan. Preheat the oven to 150 degrees celcius. In a small saucepan combine the butter, sugar, corn syrup and salt. Cook over a medium heat stirring regularly until smooth then simmer for 3-4 minutes until thickened slightly.
Pour the caramel over the popped corn and mix well, spread the popcorn out onto a couple of baking trays that have been lined with baking paper. Place the popcorn into the oven and bake for 15 minutes, remove from the oven and mix well.
Return to the oven for a further 10 minutes then give it another mix and cool on the trays until completely cold. Store the popcorn in an airtight container for up to one week.
Recipe Alison Thompson
Words Kimberley Burden