HomePeopleKirsten Tibballs: The ‘Queen of Chocolate’

Kirsten Tibballs: The ‘Queen of Chocolate’

(This article appeared in the Fall 2020 issue of Pastry Arts Magazine)

She is one of Australia’s most celebrated pastry chefs and chocolatiers, but through years of hard work and a laser-like focus on her craft, Kirsten Tibballs has also become a pastry and chocolate star on the international stage. When she represented Australia at the World Pastry Team Championships in Las Vegas in 2004, her chocolates earned the highest score from the panel of judges. Later that year she was awarded a gold medal at the Pastry Olympics in Germany. And she has also been active on the other side of the table, serving as a judge at a number of prestigious competions, including the World Chocolate Masters competition in Paris, the Patisserie Grand Prix in Japan and the World Chocolate Masters National in London.

In 2002, Tibballs established the Savour Chocolate and Patisserie School in Melbourne, the only cooking school in Australia that is solely dedicated to teaching the art of chocolate and patisserie. Since then, the school has relocated to a larger, state-of-the-art facility in Brunswick and, until the COVID-19 pandemic, has played host to a Who’s Who list of international pastry chefs. While hands-on classes at Savour are temporarily suspended, Tibballs and her staff continue to teach courses online (www.savourschool.com.au). Chef Tibballs recently took time out of her busy schedule to talk to us about the school, her career journey and what the future might hold.

When did you know you were destined for a career in pastry?

I was unwell as an adolescent, so I didn’t actually attend high school. I used to bake a lot at home. My highest level of education is probably to the age of 12, but I used to bake a lot at home and then started selling my cakes. Once I was well enough at 15, I wasn’t sure if it was the patisserie and baking side that I really loved, or maybe it’s just cooking in general, because I did do both at that stage. I started a chef apprenticeship and it was very clear, pretty much straight away, that cooking was not the aspect of it I liked — I liked the artistry and the creativity. So, I then stopped that chef’s apprenticeship and then switched to a patisserie apprenticeship.

Was there someone that was influential early on to you, maybe a mentor who helped you along?

I would have to say my parents, because when I did my apprenticeship, I started at 2 a.m. everyday. My parents were divorced, and I lived with my Dad, so we would leave the house at 1 a.m. and he would drive me 45 minutes to work. Then he would drive all the way home and get up again to start work, which he did for three years. My Mum would pick me up each day and drive me to my Dad’s house and then she would drive home. She worked as a teacher, so she would be home from work about 4:30 p.m., and I would rarely finish before 5 p.m. She would never know what time I would finish, and they didn’t have mobile phones in those days (I’m giving a little bit away about my age). So, she would actually have to wait at home for me to call. My boss would say, ‘You can call your Mom to pick you up, we’re finished.’ And I would think ‘I don’t think we’re finished.’ She would come and he would tell her if she wanted me to finish a little earlier that she would have to help with the dishes. Which she did, just I could get a little bit of extra sleep. They committed so much to my career that I almost felt obligated to be the best I could possibly be because they sacrificed so much of their time to support what I was doing.

Would you say that it was your parents who instilled that work ethic and sense of responsibility into you?

Yeah, absolutely. I think that they were concerned with the number of hours that I used to do, but I loved what I did. They were always very, very supportive and encouraging of exactly what I was doing. Yeah, I absolutely got my work ethic from them.

How would you define your approach to pastry, to baking, to the craft itself?

I think it’s an ever-evolving scene — it’s constantly changing — and I think that for me to better myself as a professional and improve what I’m doing, I need to evolve constantly. So, if I create something which I think is amazing, I need to then share it with everybody and then I move forward. I think on social media, once you put something out there, it’s no longer yours — you put it there to inspire other people, for other people to copy it and replicate that product. I’m quite proud and happy when people do that. I have a rule that I try not to keep doing the same thing. It forces me to continue to evolve, and I think by sharing what you do and encouraging other people to copy what you do, it ensures that you’re constantly creating something new and coming up with something else. You can’t sit on that something amazing that you’ve made and keep repeating it.

I have a rule that I try not to keep doing the same thing. It forces me to continue to evolve

It seems that creative individuals are sometimes a little self-conscious about their craft, especially when they’re just starting out. Did you wrestle with that early on?

No. I’m probably fortunate that early on in my career, what I did wasn’t made public because there wasn’t social media then. I was able to grow and develop without being in the public eye. So probably when social media came out – and even now – I never think about who’s viewing or watching what I’m doing. I have standards that I adhere too, and I never compromise those standards. Whatever I put out fits with my style and my expectations of myself. These days I’m always really happy and excited about what I put out, and hope other people can gain something from it.

Where do you find your inspiration?

That’s a really good question. Sometimes I’m given a theme, whether it be Mother’s Day, sometimes I’m given an ingredient to work around, or sometimes I really just knuckle down and think about our online classes platform and how I need to do something that has exceptional technique that’s really going to push people’s boundaries. So it’s always something different that inspires me. But I will say that I always draw a picture of what I’m going to make before I even consider the flavors, because what we do, especially what I do, it does have to look beautiful. Don’t get me wrong, the textures need to be amazing. But the first thing that attracts somebody to a product is always a visual. I draw a picture with colored pencils and complete it till I’m happy, and only then do I allocate textures and flavors.

I have standards that I adhere too, and I never compromise those standards. Whatever I put out fits with my style and my expectations of myself.

Are there any routines or processes that you have in place that help foster that professional creativity?

Actually, I’m probably the complete opposite. I don’t necessarily have a regular thing that I do. I create digital content and recipes for various companies. Some companies don’t even want the recipe and just want the digital content. Then I develop things for YouTube, for our online classes, for our hands-on classes. So for me, it’s ever evolving, and I basically just go through the list of when my due date is and when I’ve got to fulfill a contract, and I ensure that I have ample time to test a product and develop it and test it again until I’m 100 percent happy with it. I always photograph a product before I film it, so I’m satisfied with the image and the photo and how it looks. Then I go back to filming a step-by-step video tutorial. I don’t have any routine though which may be a little bit crazy.

Sometimes if I’m working on a trip overseas or something, I’ll start with the headline ‘New York’, for instance, and then I’ll look at how many products I need. Then I will look at, for example, the chocolate that I’m required to promote and then I have to highlight that product. So, I try to look at flavors and images that will actually fit with that and the style of people I’m demonstrating to. So yeah, I like to say I have a sort-of routine — and my husband’s quite organized, he’s an accountant, so he’s the complete opposite of me, where I’m really free reign.

Was that there was a defining moment in your career that you felt like you finally made it?

You know what? I never think like that and it may seem strange, but I’ve never had a final long-term goal. I still don’t see myself as having made it, as you say, because I like to evolve and I think in this ever- changing world, you need to be able be flexible and change with what’s required. I’ve done some incredible things that made me think, wow, that was amazing and I’m so happy with the outcome, but what’s next? I’ve published two books, won a gold medal in the Pastry Olympics, competed for Australia in the World Pastry Team Championships, I run a successful business of 18 years, but I still don’t look at that and think that I’ve made it. I’ve got my own TV show called The Chocolate Queen as well, which screens in 60 countries around the world, but I don’t have a look at that and think, yeah, that’s it, you’ve done it all. I never set out to achieve a certain thing, but I’m always going, moving on to something else, something big, like ‘okay, I’ve done that, now this is what I really, really want to do.’ I want to achieve this and I’m very tenacious and probably very demanding of my staff, unfortunately, until I actually achieve that next goal. So, I probably say I set one goal in advance. I achieve that, but I don’t look back. I’m just always looking forward.

What’s that motivation that keeps you going?

I think it’s to try different things, to see if I can succeed in those different areas of business. But a lot of those things that I’ve done to get a title or a gold medal or even a cookbook are not necessarily overly profitable, but they are great marketing tools. A TV show is amazing to do – it’s really great marketing. So, I hope then people will come back to me in some form, whether it’s in person to do a hands-on class or an online class for an education. So, I think for me, I’m driven to continue to get the brand out there so people would hopefully look to me for the opportunity to learn something. They might think, ‘I’ve heard of that lady, and maybe I could get something out of that.’

I set one goal in advance. I achieve that, but I don’t look back. I’m just always looking forward.

Do you follow trends?

If a trend doesn’t sit with my style or what I do, I’m not going to embrace it. I might touch on it, but I won’t necessarily change the whole movement or style of what I’m doing just to encompass that. I’ll give you an example – right now plant-based and gluten-free items are really, really popular and yeah, I’ve dabbled in that, and we certainly have some offerings in our online classes, but it’s not something that I really want to focus on. I don’t really like using modified ingredients, but I know that you have to in some cases. If you want to recreate a gelatin for example, but it’s not a gelatin, but gives you a gelatin-like setting capacity. No eggs, but something that gives you an egg-like texture, but it’s not all natural. So, for me, I will dabble in it, but I’m not going to embrace that even though it’s a trend.

In terms of trends, I like to stick to and evolve with what I like. I always try to focus on the look of the product and ensure that it’s clean, no matter what I do, it’s clean. I do see things moving and probably even subconsciously I move with those trends, like moving away from mousse cakes now and moving away from intricate chocolate decorations that take hours for one cake. We’re going more into simple products where we can see more of the texture of the product rather than a shiny glaze, for example.

If a trend doesn’t sit with my style or what I do, I’m not going to embrace it

What do you think is going to be the next big thing in pastry?

I think that croissants, Danish and laminated pastries are going to continue to evolve and become exceptionally popular as consumers embrace those sort of products – and that’s a global thing, not just in Australia. So, the focus will be on all different types of varieties of croissants and getting the perfect lamination and using different types of butter to achieve different results. I think that is going to continue, as it is now, but it’s going to continue to be a major trend. I do think that the plant-based product trend is still going to be very popular. But in another way, I think people are going to start moving away from artificial colors and go back to more of a natural look that we probably used around the nineties before we really embraced different chocolate colors and colors of cakes and things like that. I think things are going to go back to a more natural, organic look.

What flavors or ingredients are you exploring right now?

I’m not looking at doing corn heads and chili powder in a raspberry soufflé sort-of flavors or roasted garlic or anything like that. I always try to steer clear or minimize or give substitutes. For example, yuzu is a stunning fruit and exceptional flavor, but because I’m educating people, I don’t want to use exclusive ingredients — and yuzu’s so expensive — without giving an alternative or a substitute. I don’t want people to be inhibited from recreating my products — it’s important to me that  they’re not having to go to a far-off specialty store to try to recreate what I’m making. So I stick to the classics, I would say.

Is there an absolute guilty pleasure that you love to make and eat?

It’s hard, because I don’t make the same thing all the time. I like really crunchy things. So, I like honeycomb dipped in chocolate. Probably my ultimate favorite is roasted macadamias, which are caramelized and then coated in a layer of milk chocolate and rolled in some crushed caramelized hazelnuts and coated in a second layer of milk chocolate. That for me – the caramel, the nut, the texture of the chocolate – is the ultimate.

What makes your school unique, and what’s the biggest draw for people?

Well, I would say the hands-on classes, but unfortunately, we’ve had to close them for the time being. But because we’re a private business and we’re very small, we’re very nimble. We’re constantly changing our offerings, so it’s not stagnant. It’s continuously evolving, but with the online classes and in today’s climate, I’m really, really fortunate because I actually launched the online classes seven years ago. We’ve had a couple of gaps, but I’ve pretty much released a video every week or added a video to the library every week for six years and we now have over 320 video tutorials. For someone who’s logging on, and for the money, it’s quite inexpensive to get that many video tutorials. They know something fresh and new is coming in weekly and can watch all of those videos multiple times – they’re not limited, and they can download the recipe.

We’ve really tried to cover everything, and even things that I feel I’m not skilled at, I would then get experts and professionals in to then teach that subject. But we have everybody from Melissa Coppel to Antonio Bachour, we have Frank Haasnoot, Johan Martin. We have some really high-profile chefs that have recorded tutorials as well, and they’re unlimited – all subscribers can access those. So I think, as I said, I’m really fortunate that I have that as a backup for the business, or else, to be honest, the business would probably be closed. With everybody on lockdown but still wanting to learn and improve their skills, a lot of people are logging on. We just had a look this morning, and our views from this time last week have actually tripled. We’ve had 30,000 people view our online classes over the weekend, 30,000 views. So that’s a huge number. We don’t get paid by view or anything, but I’m just excited to say that people are logging in, because I think sometimes it’s almost like a gym membership, sometimes people subscribe and think yeah I’m going to get to that but don’t. But clearly now they’re got the time to finally take a look.

Do you have a favorite tip or technique you can share?

Yeah, here’s a tip for making chocolate curls on a stone surface– some people call them straws or cigarettes: I usually put my chocolate in a plastic bowl and microwave it for 30 seconds at a time until most of the chocolate is melted, then I just simply stir until the chocolate is all melted. Your chocolate is then tempered. The mistake a lot of people make when they’re trying to make chocolate curls on a stone bench is they spread their chocolate on the bench, and then they sit back and let it set. Then they try to do the curls. Well, actually what you have to do when you spread the chocolate on is to use an angled pallet knife, and you have to work the chocolate backwards and forwards, backwards and forwards until it starts to get a dull finish or it starts to resist a little bit. What this actually does is it makes the chocolate a little bit more elastic, so when you go to scrape it up either with your knife or a scraper, your chocolate curl will actually be softer, it won’t have contracted as much, and you’ll get the most beautiful curls and the chocolate won’t have set as quickly. You get more time to manipulate it and shape the chocolate before it starts cracking and forming really small chocolate shavings. The idea is to work it across the stone bench backwards and forwards multiple times until it just starts to resist, and then you try to scrape it.

Now with striped ones, I usually put the lighter color down first, the white chocolate, because it takes longer to set. Do exactly the same thing, spread it out, work it, work it, work it, then I comb it. Then I clean up the edges a little bit. I usually put a dark or a milk chocolate – now don’t pour that directly on the white stripes, pour it on above it on the stone, and then spread it down and do the same, work it, really work it. Then you have to trim it back, so that it fits inside, so it’s smaller than the scraper or blade. Then use the scraper so that it’s parallel with the bench, because most people lift the scraper handle up as they’re working, and that won’t work. Keep the scraper parallel with the bench and then probably pull it back three quarters of an inch, and then scrape it to make individual striped chocolate straws.

What chocolate is best for molding?

In terms of percentage of, you’ve got to look at the cocoa butter, not the total cocoa content. So if you look at the total cocoa butter content for dark chocolate, for example, I would go between say a 37 to 40% cocoa butter; at about 40% it’s too fluid to mold, and much below it’s going to make the chocolate shell too thick. When you go into milk and white chocolate, you have butter oil from the milk powder contributing to the fat content. So you can’t just look at the cocoa butter. I would be looking at a similar percentage, but you combine the butter fat and the cocoa butter to get it for white and milk, if that makes sense.

Photos courtesy of Savour Chocolate & Patisserie School

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