Hale’s Graham Mairs turns chocolate into an artform
PUBLISHED: 11:21 12 October 2020
Chef Graham Mairs’s life is like a box of chocolates – and with his artistry, you never know what you’re going to get
He’s been around the world, but for Graham Mairs, there really is no place like home. A global expert in chocolate and patisserie, work whisks him away to exotic locations, in a life of Michelin stars and luxury hotels. But after a summer at home with his family in Hale, he’s hoping to spend more time supporting the community here.
“My work takes me to all the major capitals and all the chocolate academies,” he says. “I was due to run workshops and masterclasses in 16 different countries this summer. I spend a lot of time on planes and in some lovely hotels, meeting chefs and teaching the skills I’ve learnt over 30 years. But sometimes you need something to make you stop and take stock, and being at home has been a blessing, even during these strange times.”
Graham started his career as a chef, studying at the Ecole Lenôtre in Paris, under the supervision of some of France’s most prestigious tutors. He went on to work for 3* Michelin chefs Paul Bocuse in Lyon, Roger Verge in Mougin, Louis Ouithier in Cannes, Michel Gerard in Eugenie-les-Bains, Pierre Herme; then Raymond Blanc, Claire Clark and Nickolas Boussin. “I grew up in Timperley and I had no idea these places even existed,” he explains. “But I’d fallen in love with cooking and I wanted to make the best food I could, so I went from restaurant to restaurant, learning as I went, picking up tips from every chef I worked with.”
From there, he spent eight years in London at Browns Hotel, then 90 Park Lane Restaurant at Grosvenor House, and over to the Bath Spa Hotel.
After meeting his future wife Donna he decided he wanted to open an independent restaurant in Cheltenham, quickly winning his own Michelin star.
“It was amazing, but I didn’t know when to stop,” he admits. “I’d be working all hours and eventually I was burning out, exhausted, so I realised I needed to take some time out.
“It was while I was doing that I fell into consulting, working with brands and retailers. I realised how much I enjoyed it, and I specialised in patisserie, especially chocolate.”
He was helping develop ranges for Waitrose and worked as executive chef for Uniq Desserts Group working on indulgent puddings and chocolates for M&S, before joining Morrison’s, leading a team of chefs there on the rebranding of food across 12,000 products. More recently he joined Co-operative Food as head of innovation and food, leading new strategic projects.
“Research and development is a very creative process, and I’ve been lucky to have a lot of freedom to be experimental. I work around combinations of three, as the brain can only take in three flavours or textures at a time. So whether I’m working on a complex product or a very simple one, I’ll always work with three elements.”
During this time, Graham and Donna moved back closer to home, in Hale, with their children Charlotte, 18, and Lewis, 15. Graham has created a home studio in his kitchen. It was there he was inspired to create three showstopping centrepieces to celebrate Cheshire Life’s Keep Life Local campaign. The edible artworks include a shopping bag, a business card and a dessert, all celebrating his vision of his home county. “Supporting our local retailers and businesses is vital, and I’m honoured to do anything I can do to help,” he says. “Cheshire is home for my family, and we love the depth and breadth of shops, restaurants and bars here. I’m delighted to see Cheshire Life promoting the community.”
His trio of creations was painstakingly sculpted in his home studio. It’s a process that can take weeks and months, although much of this is preparation and research. Each piece has to be made quickly, as chocolate melts so fast.
“It only took a day to make the Cheshire Life bag and business card, but the time was mostly spent beforehand doing the research and trying out different ideas, then making a mould,” he says. ‘Similarly, for the dessert, it was all about the preparation: making the compote, freezing it, building a jet with agar agar, making the pannacotta.
The business cards are an unusual touch and entirely edible. “There’s a bit of a story behind that,” he laughs. “I was doing an exhibition many years ago, and it was a bit soul-destroying handing out cards nobody really wanted. So I came back with chocolate ones. If anyone walked past without taking one I’d say ‘they’re edible’ and they’d always come back. I got so many calls afterwards, and I always thought it marked out the businesses who really wanted to work with me, because they didn’t eat the chocolate – at least until after they’d made the call.”
Graham is currently putting all of his considerable research and development talents to use preparing his centrepiece for the World Chocolate Masters, the Oscars of the confectionery world. It’s the latest competition in a glittering trophy cabinet of victories, from representing the GB culinary team at the Chefs’ Olympics to his 54 golds in international culinary competitions. He was the first retail chef to be picked to compete for the prestigious MCA (MOFGB) pastry award, as well as appearing on the BBC for Great British Bake Off Crème de la Crème.
“I’ve always been driven to do the best in everything I try,” he explains. “I’ve set up my own company, C3D Innovations, where I can teach patisserie, plus do my food consultancy for UK blue-chip businesses and global brands. The aim is to work from home and maybe do workshops here.
“Technology has improved massively, and lockdown has shown we don’t need to travel as much to be connected globally. But I’d love to work more with Cheshire brands and celebrate what we do here. It is such a great place for food, and rather than spending my time on planes and across the world; I’d love to pass on some of the skills I’ve learnt to the next generation of chefs, and help develop Cheshire’s brilliant brands.”