Justin Piers Gellatly, baker and pastry chef
One day last week, I took a walk through the empty streets of Spitalfields in the early morning before the schoolchildren were even about. I slipped in through the tall double doors of St John Bread & Wine in Commercial St to meet Mr Gellatly, my bakery hero – the towering genius responsible for the delicious sourdough bread that I have been enjoying daily for the last couple of years, not to mention the extraordinary custard tarts and doughnuts too.
Justin joined St John ten years ago as a chef under the tutelage of Fergus Henderson and discovered his aptitude for baking while covering when members of the baking team took holidays. As a result of his talent, he has now risen -in the manner of his own baking- to become Head Baker and Pastry Chef for both St John restaurants or, as he terms it, in charge of “all things sweet and yeasty.” He speaks of Fergus Henderson, the founder of St John, in glowing terms, explaining Fergus’ ability to create a dedicated team based upon mutual respect. At St John you will hear none of the angry people shouting and swearing common to many West End kitchens, and he ascribes the enduring success of the restaurant to the resulting high quotient of long-term permanent staff who are able to give of their best in an attitude-free environment.
The same cannot be said for the wild yeast that Justin uses for the sourdough bread – my particular favourite. Apparently, it is not cultivated and as a consequence can be problematic. “It doesn’t behave very well” admits Justin who is familiar with emergency phone calls in the middle of the night when the yeast doesn’t prove. “It is very sensitive to heat and cold,” he confides in defence of the capricious micro-organism. Though when I question him further about the alchemy of baking he reveals an unsentimental nature, emphasising the discipline of a process that requires scientific exactitude. Baking is clearly both an art and a science too.
In spite of his fresh features, Justin claims his working hours are midnight to midnight, sometimes working twenty four hours at a stretch. Moving back and forth between both restaurants, he has four pastry chefs and two bakers working under him to create the baking and all the desserts. “I love what I do” he declares and anyone who has read my review of his doughnuts will know this is a statement with which I concur, I love what he does too. In fact, I could not resist an invitation to spend a night reporting to you live on the bakers at work, early next year.
Justin confirmed a rumour that one of his colleagues was spotted making vast quantities of mincemeat in preparation for the festive season and agreed to set some aside for me from the very first batch on 1st December. Justin’s mum created the recipe and, in an act of pure altruism, I shall be writing up the mince pies in detail for you on 2nd December.