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She's the cream of pastry chefs

Sarah Magnus loves cooking in top hotels — when she’s not being throttled, that is

    Magnus created designer patisserie for customers taking afternoon tea at The Berkeley hotel in Knightsbridge
    Magnus created designer patisserie for customers taking afternoon tea at The Berkeley hotel in Knightsbridge

    Next week, aficianados from all over the UK will gather at north-west London's Ivy House to spend an entire day cogitating, discussing and digesting a matter close to our hearts. Food.

    In the three years since he founded Gefiltefest, Michael Leventhal has become something of a godfather of Jewish food - the Noshfather, so to speak. If you need the lowdown on the best bagels in London, a pointer in the direction of someone to teach you how to grow your own vegetables, or an introduction to the writer of the latest cookery book, he is your man. He knows anyone and everyone in the world of Jewish food.

    Among the foodies Leventhal has unearthed is Sarah Magnus. Magnus is a rare creature. A nice Jewish girl, born and bred in NW8, who has elected to spend as much of her time as possible in hot, unforgiving and sometimes misogynistic professional kitchens.

    Magnus grew up with a love of food in part due to her mother's amazing cooking skills. After leaving Immanuel College, she toyed with cooking for a living but was put off.

    "I went to university and then worked in an office because that's what nice Jewish girls do," she says. "I ended up working as PA to the director of a charity because I wanted to do something worthwhile, but I was miserable."

    Sarah Magnus: “A shift can be 12-14 hours
    Sarah Magnus: “A shift can be 12-14 hours

    Her culinary epiphany came while helping cater an event at her synagogue (Lauderdale Road). "I realised I could do this and was good at it, so I decided to train as a chef," she recalls. In 2006 she went to the Cordon Bleu school in Marylebone and after graduating worked at The Bread Factory - a leading London artisan bakery. "We supplied bread and pastries to clients including Gail's, Selfridges and Harvey Nichols, and we made the best scones in London".

    From there she moved on to The Berkeley hotel. Where most of her contemporaries might be more likely to be found in their finery in the hotel's Caramel Room, enjoying their Prêt-à-Portea (a fashion-inspired luxury tea), Magnus was happier in the kitchens, constructing designer pastries and chocolates. "We were all encouraged to participate with ideas, which was really nice" she smiles.

    Two-and-a-half years later she was ready for a new challenge. A stint as a temporary chef led to a permanent position in the pastry department at The Savoy, where she has been ever since. Magnus is relaxed about the male-dominated environment she works in. "You can't be too sensitive," she laughs "or a bit of prude or you may find it difficult. I've found having four siblings has been good preparation. You learn how to hold your own."

    Life in the kitchen has its share of dramatic moments. Magnus recalls: "When I was at The Berkeley a world-famous chef, who was cooking at the hotel, came to use our pastry-rolling machine. I joked that he would have to wait a while, and the next thing I knew, he had his fingers round my throat."

    Her parents could not be more proud of her career, but her mother does not abuse her daughter's skills by asking her to knock up the occasional pastry. "She says she doesn't like to trouble me," says Magnus. However, her siblings have definitely found advantages in having a professional chef in the family.

    "In the early days of their married lives, it was not unheard of for my two sisters to ask me to make cakes so they can pass them off as their own," she laughs.

    Magnus's personal life has suffered since she changed career. "It's difficult," she says "especially in this job as the hours aren't very sociable. On a good day a shift is 10 hours, but can be 12-14 hours. A beer after work serves as decompression time."

    At Gefilte-fest she will be demonstrating how and how to make Turkish delight with kosher gelatine. "I thought we should do something a bit different," she smiles.

    Details at www.gefiltefest.org

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