Chef Kirsten Tibballs strikes gold

Pastry chef Kirsten Tibballs speaks to BeanScene about winning the World Pastry Olympics, the popularity of coffee desserts, and why she prefers the aroma of coffee over its taste.

Kirsten Tibballs knows the pressure of training and competing for a World Championship. She understands how nerves and shaky hands can affect a performance, and how time is of the essence when attempting to assemble a signature creation. Just as Ona Coffee’s Sasa Sestic is Australia’s more recent World Barista Champion in the event often defined as the “Olympics of coffee”, Kirsten is Australia’s more recent reigning champion in the World Pastry Olympics.

Unlike the annual World Coffee Championship which consists of a 15-minute routine, the Pastry Olympics is held every four years in Germany and consists of a 13-hour performance.

“In our version of the Olympics, we train about 40 to 50 hours a week for two years to prepare,” Kirsten says.

“The products we have to produce are very intricate and time sensitive. What we do is very scientific. We have to pick a theme and make everything fit that theme. We are judged on how fast we beat something, how we balance temperatures, and how certain ingredients react together. We use thousands of different ingredients in different applications to give us a unique result that people like to look at but is absolutely phenomenal to eat.”

Kirsten’s first attempt at the Pastry Olympics saw her win gold in 2004. She has also represented Australia at the World Pastry Championships in Las Vegas, where she was recognised as the best in the world for her handmade chocolates.

“It was an incredible experience to win the Pastry Olympics, but I’d never compete again. I’m retired,” Kirsten says. “I couldn’t commit the hours to be successful. Unless you go there to win, there’s no point.”

Unfortunately, Kirsten says winning doesn’t give you the same level of respect as one might expect of a world champion. In Japan and France, she says world champions basically “write their own cheque”, but in Australia, the status of a World Pastry Champion is virtually “unrecognised”.

“If someone won now, it might be a completely different reaction and outcome, but I competed in 2004 when MasterChef wasn’t on and people didn’t have as much interest in food. Unfortunately people aren’t as passionate about patisserie as they are about coffee,” she says. “I admire anyone who puts that much dedication into their trade and wants to improve because that’s what competitions do – they make you become a better tradesperson and coffee is no different.”

Kirsten is one of Australia’s most celebrated and internationally respected pastry chefs and chocolatiers. Her job is to work with flavour combinations and ingredients to make tantalising and visually attractive creations. Sugar, chocolate, and butter are her staples, but says chocolate, salted caramel, vanilla, and coffee are four of the most popular flavours to work with. There’s just one tiny problem – Kirsten doesn’t actually drink coffee.

“I never grew up around coffee and I’ve never had the interest in trying it,” she confesses. “I’ve tasted it a few times, and maybe I’ve tasted bad coffee but I wasn’t overly impressed by its bitterness so I haven’t pursued it.”

On work trips to Italy, Kirsten kindly obliges when offered an espresso.

“It’s quite rude to say no to an espresso so I’ve had to drink it, but it’s always reconfirmed my decision not to drink coffee,” she says. “I actually love the aroma of roasted coffee and brewed coffee, it’s just not for me to drink.”

Kirsten describes her husband as “an extremely passionate coffee drinker”, to the point where each Sunday they take their 11-year-old son for breakfast from one of the coffee reviews he’s read. His favourites at the moment include Journeyman and Higher Ground.

“It’s nice to experience new places as a family. Quite often you have to put your name down and wait 40 minutes to get seated on a weekend, but our son just accepts that as the norm of going out for brunch in Melbourne,” she says. “My husband enjoys a coffee and I enjoy the food.”

At Savour Chocolate and Patisserie School, Kirsten never lets her dislike of the beverage get in the way of a good dessert. She uses coffee regularly from Olivier Etiennette at Little Gecko Café in her pastry, cake, and dessert applications, such as an orange financier with coffee chantilly cream, coffee ice cream, in which Kirsten uses espresso or infuses the beans into the cream, coffee custard donuts, and a coffee, pecan, and 80 per cent dark chocolate nougat bar.

“With nougat, you actually boil the sugar water and glucose to 175°C so it’s very difficult to infuse coffee flavour because you can’t boil coffee beans and water doesn’t carry a heap of flavour. Instead of infusing the coffee beans, which don’t really take, I use instant coffee with a fat base, such as milk, cream, or butter, which holds and carries the coffee flavour,” Kirsten says.

“It’s all about balance and making sure the coffee doesn’t overpower the other ingredients. I think if you can control it and the coffee isn’t bitter, what shines through is a beautiful aroma and flavour. Working with coffee as an ingredient is very different to drinking it.”

She started cooking from the age of eight. She started a chef’s apprenticeship in 1988, only to last five weeks before switching to patisserie for its artistic and creative traits. Kirsten has since forged a national and international career, known for her sweet creations and ability to create flowers, edible landscapes, and even furniture from chocolate.

“The patisserie industry has definitely advanced over the past 10 years, largely due to food-based television shows such as MasterChef, which have made consumers more aware of food preparation and processes, and has reignited their passion for dining out and cooking themselves,” she says.

Kirsten made her first MasterChef appearance in 2011 and has been on the program six times since. This year, she was responsible for making edible chocolate mystery boxes, followed by an intricate dessert for the finale. Known as her Trio of Fruits, Kirsten disguised sweet and sticky puddings as an apple, pear, and mandarin.

“MasterChef is amazing because it inspires you to create something that challenges people. I like to make something look realistic, only then to come closer and find out you can eat it,” Kirsten says. “The Trio of Fruits were actually easier to make than the mystery boxes. The boxes were really time consuming because we had to make one for every contestant. It took four of us four weeks to make them: we polished them, layered on colours, and repeated the process a number of times.”

Following the airing of the finale, Kirsten’s Trio of Fruits were put on the menu at MasterChef  Judge George Colombaris’ Press Club for two nights. The recipe is available through Savour school’s online classes that people can subscribe to, but Kirsten says eager dessert makers soon realise there’s a lot more time involved in making the dessert then devouring them.

This article features in the August 2017 edition of BeanScene Magazine. Subscribe here today to see the FULL copy:

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