Master Chocolatier Interview: Keith Hurdman


Keith Hurdman is a talented master-craftsman, known for his creativity and artistry, in particular in the fields of chocolate work, patisserie and sugar confectionery. He is rated by many judges to be one of the best confectioners in Europe, and is especially noted for his display work in chocolate and sugar.

Hurdman trained in England, Switzerland, Belgium, France and Germany. He has worked in some of the finest hotels and restaurants in Switzerland and has demonstrated his skills all over the world. He has won many National and International awards for his work, most notably winning the prestigious ‘Truffe d’Or’ in Geneva as Champion Confectioner of Switzerland.

Hurdman was Creative Director at Melt in Notting Hill and won a clutch of awards for them including two Golds and a Silver from the Academy of Chocolate within six weeks of joining in 2006. He works, at present, for Thorntons and also does product development and consulting for both large and small private businesses in the UK and all over Europe. When he can find time, he gives classes in Britain and abroad.

In 2011 Hurdman was named UK Chocolatier of the Year. He lives in Claygate, Surrey with his Swiss wife and her tabby cat.


Q. What do you love most about working with chocolate?

A. It is the most beautiful, sensuous, aesthetic material appealing to all the senses. It is extremely versatile and offers a great degree of flexibility and creativity in the hands of a skilled chocolatier or pastry chef as it can be carved, modelled and moulded. With its incomparable variety of nuanced flavours and textures, chocolate touches everyone to one degree or another whether used in cakes, pastries, desserts or chocolate and confectionery.

Q. Which matters more, creativity or technical skill?

A. Both are equally important. Saying that, the technical has the slight edge in my opinion as you will see a lot of poor technique being disguised by bizarre combinations and they will then be promoted as being ‘creative’.

Q. What’s your personal philosophy when it comes to flavour combinations?

A. I do like recognizable flavours. I am not a fan of muddied tastes. If, for example, it says tonka or quince, it needs to do what it says on the tin. The combinations ideally will be well balanced and harmonious (and please forgive my conservatism here) they should also be accessible and not too far left field.

Q. You’ve travelled the world, how do you find approaches to making chocolates and pralines differ?

A. On the European mainland the styles are superficially different, but basically very similar. However the main differences are that the French are in thrall to their cut dark chocolate ganaches, the Belgians and Swiss to filled milk chocolates. Saying that the Swiss are probably the most technically proficient of all the continental Europeans as they cover a far wider range of products than any of the others. Without doubt the Spanish and to a lesser degree the Italians are showing the most real creativity at present. A weekend in Barcelona or Turin should convince most people of the truth of this.

Firstly the Swiss, then the French colonized the Asian pastry/chocolate world. In Singapore, Japan, China and South Korea you will now see a mixture of European technique combined with Asian flavours and presentation. The end result is a brilliant fusion of flavours, colours and textures gloriously illustrated by the likes of Julian Hutchings in Shanghai, Hidemi Sugino in Tokyo and by Jinsun Kim in Sydney.

In the US, Norman Love with his highly coloured, predominantly moulded creations and clearly defined flavours has raised the bar there for his compatriots.

Q. How do you think chocolate tastes are changing in Britain?

A. There is no doubt that there has been a general move to better quality chocolate over the last few years which was way overdue and more than welcome in my opinion.

The work done by the Academy of Chocolate, its members and its educational agenda has been immense over this period and will no-doubt be more accentuated in the years to come. People are becoming more and more aware of where cocoa and chocolate comes from and that can only help to improve the quality overall.

Dark chocolate is taking up a larger percentage of products made, albeit from a low base but as peoples’ tastes become more sophisticated, the demand will continue to grow strongly.

Saying that however, we are a northern European country and have traditionally been fans of milk chocolate. This will not for the general population change dramatically any time soon.

Q. What advice would you offer an aspiring chocolatier?

A. It all depends on who is asking the question. I have answered this one previously from all sorts, from the career-changer, maths graduate who had her road-to-Damascus moment while working as an accountant, to recovering semi-literate substance abusers and the answer is still the same.

I have seen so many people over the last few years, who have done a four-day course at this or that manufacturer somewhere and then convince themselves they are now ‘chocolatiers’. I have tremendous admiration and a lot of respect for their immense courage and drive, but am also amazed at their naivety as sadly in most cases, they realize all too late that this is not the glamorous profession it’s made out to be and it entails a huge amount of commitment and serious hard work to make a living.

For every person who is half-way successful after a few years of living hand to mouth, there are at least six who lose a great deal of money and I am frequently being contacted by supplier X and asked if I know someone who wants to buy a used machine/cabinet etc. as the business from a Mr. X and/or Mrs. X has now folded.

So, so upsetting and to a certain degree, it’s avoidable.

If the person is young (I mean under 30 and with no ties), beg, steal or borrow as much money as you can and go and do a two year basic pastry course somewhere as this is the foundation upon which everything else is built. Try and attend part-time business classes and get in with one of the players in shops/hotels etc. in this country or abroad, keep your head down and learn from them as much as you can. Buy every book and professional magazine you can afford and devour them.

Then, if you don’t get too distracted by boys/girls/alcohol/chemical substances or a combination of these, work extremely hard and, if you have a great deal of luck on the way, you might just have a chance. A friendly multi-millionaire, either to marry or sponsor you would not do any harm either. This is not a job where you get rich quick or even at all, even the very talented struggle at times.

If you are older and time or commitments are an issue, go and do a four month course on pastry somewhere in France, or drop serious money at the Cordon Bleu or some such (and that is the basic minimum). Once that has been done, do as the above… oh, and a couple of foreign languages would not go amiss either as the best literature on chocolate is published in French, German and Spanish.

Remember that God gave you two ears, but only one mouth, so please use them in proportion. Very importantly, stay healthy and stay fit. If one looks at most top hotel/restaurant pastry chefs in this country and the likes of for example: Damian Allsop, Paul A. Young, Paul Wayne Gregory, Sun Trigg, William Curley, Greg Cadoni, Chikako Watanabe, Barry Johnson and myself, I should not imagine that any of us weighs much more than 10 stone (and the two ladies a whole lot less). The profession is both physically arduous and mentally demanding.

Q. What was the most challenging chocolate you’ve ever created?

A. Oh dear, how long is a piece of string? Everything brings its own challenges. When I have had the finances in place, the best raw materials money can buy, the equipment functioning and trained staff to hand, it is comparatively easy to make an excellent product. It is the equivalent of chefs in a great restaurant using lobster, truffles and caviar. Indeed I think in competent hands, it’s difficult to mess things up.

On the other hand, huge volumes and mass production – with its attendant financial and corporate constraints – are a far more challenging proposition for me.

On another seasonal note, a famous chef I used to work with when I was younger once asked me if I could make a blown-sugar Father Christmas for the display table… life size… now that was indeed a challenge.

Q. What do you regard as your greatest achievement as a chocolatier?

A. Again very difficult to answer. I have so many fantastic memories, among them competing for the Truffe d’ Or of which chocolate composed just 40% of the total marks at the time. This entailed such a massive commitment and it was so much more difficult and stressful than anything competition-wise I have attempted previously or since.

I was deeply honoured to win, but the whole experience is not something I would care to repeat.

However, I lived for some years in Switzerland and worked at some wonderful places as a patissier, confiseur and chocolatier with some great craftsmen. Eventually I attained the standard of the masters who I so admired and who taught me so much when I was training.

This led to me being approached by the world-renowned Richemont School in Lucerne and invited to teach. They do not advertise for lecturers and it doesn’t help at all what your paper qualifications are or whom you know, it is strictly by invitation only. I am certainly the only Briton to have taught chocolate, confectionery and pastry work in Switzerland at a professional level.

My first day at work there I had to assist the school’s Head of Confectionery on a demonstration to the Japan Confectioners Association. Fredy Eggenschwiler was seen in Switzerland at the time as a demi-god and the walking oracle on all things chocolate, but was also notorious for his extremely short fuse and was a perfectionist from A to Z.

I can remember I didn’t mess anything up and afterwards received a comment from him of: “Well done. Nice clean work Herr Hurdman.” It wasn’t until I’d worked there for about a year that I realized what high praise indeed that was.

Q. If you could invite anyone from history to a chocolate tasting, whom would you choose?

A. The man from Stratford upon Avon. With his amazing facility with the English language I would love to hear how he would describe what he was seeing and tasting.

Q. Which chocolate is your all time favourite?

A. Again, this is such a challenging question, which I get asked so frequently and of which it is almost impossible to answer as so much depends on your own mood and the circumstances at the time of tasting so I am afraid you will have to give me a little leeway here.

I was previously approached when working at Melt by many different manufacturers to exclusively use/endorse their products. Now sooner or later most artisan chocolatiers negotiate a commercial arrangement with one manufacturer or another. So-far-so-good-so-understandable, but then they will swear that their chosen chocolate is the best there is bar none.

Sorry, but with all due respect I have to disagree. Different products need different applications and personally, when I have the chance I like to have the freedom to use what I consider goes best together regardless from whoever or wherever it comes from.

The fact is there is no single chocolate or even any one producer, which is better than everything and everyone else and covers all the uses and applications.

However, as you have asked… here’s my current top three (with the caveat however that no doubt in a week’s time there would be a different line-up)!

1. Duffys Corazon Del Equador 43% Milk – for eating.

2. Friis Holm Indio Rojo 70% Dark – for eating (surprisingly smooth and creamy for a 70%).

3. Felchlin Cru Sauvage 68% – to work with everyday for dipped and moulded chocolates.

I was very fortunate indeed to be allowed to use this one when I developed the ‘Thorntons Centenary box’ in 2011. It also did fairly well at the Academy of Chocolate Awards that year. In addition it was used by two of the last winners of the ‘Noval’ trophy, so a very handy one indeed to have around.

Q. How do you plan to celebrate Christmas?

A. With my wife, mother, brother and his family I expect, and probably being terrorized by my 7-year-old niece with her Jessie J. and Katy Perry impressions when all I want to do is read the papers, enjoy a glass of Tawny Port and relax by the fire.


In your Christmas Magazine:

Christmas Recipes

What’s New at The Chocolate Festival?

News from The World of Chocolate

Christmas Competition

Chocabulary: Truffles

Top Chocolate Christmas Gifts

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