You might think, given the long hours and frenetic pace of life in a high-end restaurant kitchen, that any pro chef would be delighted to take a breather for a while. Not Calum Franklin.
When the executive head chef at Holborn Dining Room was put on furlough for a week after his London brasserie temporarily shut up shop due to the pandemic, Franklin didn’t sit back and relax – he teamed up with local foodie friends to fundraise for good causes.
“My wife works for the NHS so I think I had just a mixture of guilt and boredom after a week – I needed to do something,” Franklin tells me on the phone, just days before he’s due to reopen the highly-acclaimed restaurant and The Pie Room – which sells pastry-based creations to-go – both located at the five-star Rosewood Hotel.
“There’s a local butcher near me in Greenwich and I get on well with the owner – I went in with a plan. What we did was we organised a local business group in the Greenwich area,” he explains.
“Whether it was a cheesemonger, a baker, a brewery, they all provided ingredients free of charge, then we made pies here in the hotel and sold them at the butcher’s.
“And then all the money we raised over the lockdown period went towards building a garden for staff at Greenwich and Lewisham NHS hospitals, and we also raised money for a local hospice that really suffered during that period because of fundraising.”
Before embarking on the pie-making project, Franklin had started, like many chefs, preparing meals for hospital workers.
“I got word from a few hospitals that they were actually inundated with food, so I thought, ‘I want to do something more permanent’,” he adds. “At the end of this, it’s like a reminder, this is a thanks [to the staff] for your hard work.”
As well as his philanthropic efforts, with many eateries closed, the British chef was making more meals at home than usual this year too. So has he suffered, as many people have reported, any ‘cooking fatigue’?
“For me it was washing-up fatigue. I’ve never done so much washing-up in my life,” Franklin says with a chuckle, though he admits there was one benefit to not being able to eat out as much as usual.
“What it made me realise is, actually, that my diet was pretty poor before, because I’d go out a lot and eat in London a lot of the time. Looking at it now, my wife and I are maybe eating meat once a week, or fish twice a week, the rest of the time it’s vegetarian food.”
The 37-year-old has also been busy preparing for the launch of his debut cookbook. Called The Pie Room, it features dishes that have appeared on the Holborn Dining Room menu alongside some new recipes, as well as detailed guides on how to perfect all the classic pastry types, from shortcrust to choux.
Franklin hopes it’ll help dispel some of the fear that surrounds pastry-making. Why does he think people are often scared when it comes to the baking staple?
“One of the biggest issues people have, I think, is not controlling temperatures. It’s that thing of when you try to make a pie on a summer’s day and it’s super hot in the kitchen and the pastry’s melting, the butter’s splitting out of it, it’s hard to make it look pretty…
“That in itself is enough to put someone off doing pastry again, I think – that or getting a Wellington wrong and you’ve got the whole family sat around the table and you cut it and it doesn’t look nice, the beef’s overcooked… It’s a lot of work for it to go wrong.”
Naturally, the self-confessed ‘pastry deviant’ thinks homemade is best, but even he will bust out a packet of the shop-bought stuff on occasion.
“There’s no shame in it. I’ll use Jus-Rol at home if I’m in a rush to do something, I have that in the freezer,” he says, which is why recipes in the book include the option of readymade in the ingredients list.
“One thing that always plays on my mind throughout the whole process is that everyone’s lives are so busy nowadays. I think you will get a better result by doing your own handmade pastry if you follow those recipes in the book, but it’s not going to be for every night.”
So what’s a good a recipe for a beginner to start with? It’s not, you may be surprised to discover, a time-honoured British classic, but a thoroughly modern pie with an American-inspired filling.
“Something like the mac and cheese pie is a good one because the filling’s really quick and easy, and then you can apply some of the decoration techniques that are in the book,” Franklin says. “And it’s SO tasty. It’s super naughty – I’ve never served that and it hasn’t made people smile.”
Soon, the chef will be making diners smile on a daily basis again, and he couldn’t be happier at the prospect of getting back to the hustle and bustle of the kitchen – no matter how hectic it gets.
“It’s exciting to be cooking again. I always enjoy full-on busy, busy restaurants, I love the adrenaline of that,” Franklin says, as we wind up our chat. “I think I’m not built for sitting down, like an office environment – it’s not in me.
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