Kirsten Tibballs is one of Australia’s most respected and talented chocolate and pastry chefs, and runs the Savour Chocolate and Patisserie School with fellow expert Paul Kennedy. This diminutive pocket-rocket won the 2004 World Championships for her hand made chocolates and was also awarded a gold medal for her chocolates in the Pastry Olympics in Germany that same year. Here in Australia, Kirsten has also won numerous awards and competitions and regularly travels the world to participate as a judge in chocolate and patisserie events, teach others her skills and gather new ideas and techniques to bring back to use at her school in Melbourne.
Having already spent four weeks in Europe and time in Japan this year, Kirsten is a busy woman to catch. Today I interviewed her whilst she was busy running the first day of a two day course on Special Occasion cakes – the rich chocolatey smell of the cake mix was the first thing I noticed when I entered Savour; the second was how much the students were enjoying themselves.
Resisting the urge to ask one of them if I could put my head into their gloriously-filled mixing bowl of cake mix, I chatted with Kirsten in between her hands-on teaching. She had a calm and friendly teaching style which no doubt explains why many of her students come from interstate and overseas to attend her classes.
What is an average work day for you?
It’s very diverse. I teach on Mondays and Tuesdays; I travel around the world demonstrating with the four products I endorse – Callebaut and Cacao Barry chocolates, Boiron fruit purees used in professional kitchens and Demarle molds and pastry sheets; I judge international chocolate and patisserie competitions, work as a consultant in the chocolate and patisserie business; do product development for chocolate manufacturers, train up-and-coming chocolatiers in India and China because they don’t yet have the experience or infrastructure…
Wait a second – you do product development for chocolate manufacturers?
Yes, but I have to sign confidentiality agreements so I can’t tell you who!
So, is there anything such as work/life balance in your busy schedule?
I try but it can be difficult. My son is now three and I try to take him with me when I travel overseas but it’s not always possible. I also try not to work on Fridays, Saturdays or Sundays but sometimes that’s when expos and events are on, so it’s a fairly constant juggle.
What does your husband want you to bring home after work?
He tells me not to bring anything home or he’ll eat it all. However he does love the Gianduja ice-cream that I make.
What chocolates have you made that you are most proud of?
The three that I made that won the 2004 World Championship – bear in mind that I trained for two years beforehand! One was a calvados and cinnamon sugar crusted liqueur enrobed in 70%; the second was a Cassis (blackcurrant jelly) with a 66% ganache and enrobed in a Tanzanian 75% dark chocolate; and the third was a caramel-based vanilla ganache that included six vanilla beans, leatherwood honey and milk and dark chocolate.
Mmm, I love honey and chocolate…
Yes, honey not only adds a wonderful flavour but allows the chocolate to be stored for longer because it’s a natural preservative.
What is the best chocolate you have tasted?
At the end of 2007 I was judging the World Chocolate Masters in Paris and the French competitor had made a peanut caramel with a dark ganache. It sounds simple but the chocolate had achieved the perfect balance of texture and flavour.
Why do you use only Callebaut chocolate?
They have a huge range of product to choose from, and despite being the largest in the world they haven’t sacrificed quality for quantity. For example they have six ranges of praline pastes, and a lot of other chocolatiers don’t have even one kind available.
Every chef has a disaster they wish to forget – what was yours?
When I was an apprentice I was supposed to be making lamingtons. After soaking the sponge cake squares in icing, they were then meant to be flipped into the coconut. Mine ended up being flipped out onto the floor. (Smiles) I haven’t made any lamingtons since….
Who inspires you?
So many chefs (lists a few that all sound French to my non-French ears). Mostly though it’s the other chef who works here at the school, Paul Kennedy. He and I fire off each other and inspire each other. He even made the chocolate sculpture at my wedding which we had in place of a traditional wedding cake. Also, I tend to find a lot of ideas overseas, especially Europe. We want Savour to continue to be the leading chocolate and patisserie school in Australia.
I’ve heard that many chefs and stores hate the Australian weather when it comes to chocolate.
I don’t have a problem with it, as long as it’s stored correctly. I know of someone who makes chocolate in Far North Queensland and there it really is difficult with intense tropical heat and mould. Here in Australia we have the benefit of having opposite seasons to the northern hemisphere. There, when winter, Valentine’s Day and Easter are over, it becomes a very slow time for chocolate, but for us, it’s now our cold time and we’re still loving and eating it.
What is your favourite guilty meal at home?
I love creamy pastas and we have a great Thai take-away around the corner.
What chocolate do you eat when you’re at home, on the lounge, relaxing?
Like my husband, I very rarely eat the naughty stuff at home because it’s all around me at work and I’m always trying new tastes and recipes when I’m here.
What ingredient is your greatest extravagance?
For me it’s cooking equipment rather than ingredients. My husband is an accountant who sets a budget for the business, so I often have to hide things from him!
Being surrounded by such rich and wicked ingredients, how do you take care of your health?
(Laughs) I don’t! I do go to the gym though, and I don’t drink tea, coffee or alcohol and I’m a vegetarian.
So does that mean you don’t match wines with chocolate?
Oh no, I’m not a totally strict non-drinker. I did a course on wine-matching in Paris with a sommelier there who showed us how to match everything from Muscat to tequila, even music. These days, I need to work through the food and wines and match it all beforehand using my own tastes and senses.
I have to know: what is the Anti-Aging chocolate class all about? Have you finally answered everyone’s prayers?
Savour is the only place in Australia you can try Callebaut’s new anti-ageing chocolate. It has nine times more polyphenols (‘good’ antioxidants) than red wine and five times more than green tea. Eight grams of this chocolate per day is all you need, about 16 buttons.
(She gave me some milk and dark buttons to try. It certainly tasted good and I was going to suggest that if sixteen buttons per day does the trick, surely 160 would be ten times more effective but decided that I could try that myself at home).
What do you dislike about your job?
Having to teach students how to roll a paper piping bag. It is a difficult thing to learn and each person can take a long time to get the hang of it. Matter of fact, I’ll be teaching these guys later today!
What do you like about your job?
The flexibility and the constant learning. The second I stop learning in this industry, I’ll retire.
She answered the last question with a smile on her face and I suspect it will be many years before retirement features in her plans.