In a little kitchen above the Honest2Goodness food market in Dublin 11, Eric Nolan pulls on a small, black hat and puts away his pots and pans.
On the stove at the end of the kitchen are large pink macaroons. To the left, a black forest gateaux, a gleaming chocolate slab made, says Nolan, in a “modern style”. On the centre island, 28 small cakes are lined up on a tray: raspberries, blackberries, mini-meringues, and bite-sized crumbles.
The odd egg or two sit on the silver counter-top. On the far side, there are whisks and blowtorches, trays and palette knives.
For the last two years, Nolan has plugged away, building up his baking business Urbn Cakes. First, he sold to friends and family. Nowadays though, he has a loyal clientele among the locals who visit the marketplace below each weekend.
A Choice (Kind of)
Nolan knows his way around a kitchen.
“I’ve been working in kitchens since I was 14,” says the 31-year-old broad-shouldered chef, who grew up in Finglas South and was offered a choice by his brother-in-law.
He could be a kitchen porter or a chef.
His brother-in-law insisted he be a chef.
But “the pastry end of things came in 2011, after living in Australia for a year,” he said. When he got back to Ireland, he saw the the documentary Kings of Pastry and decided that France, home to the patisserie, was his next stop.
He had thought he might go to culinary college in the US, but although he saved up, he couldn’t afford the €30,000 it cost. Instead, he settled on a college outside of Lyon, in “the middle of nowhere”, in a small town called Yssingeaux.
“It was a renovated castle on the side of a mountain in the volcanic region of France,” he says. “Fairy tale stuff.”
After six months of intensive training, at first in English and later in French, Nolan was moved to a Michelin-star restaurant in Le Puy-en-Valey.
“It was a one-horse-town, nothing to do, one Irish bar,” he says. “You couldn’t go out because when you were off everything closed. Monday everything shuts, nothing to do but relax or work.”
He lifts the chocolate slab, the gateaux, up from the countertop and carries it over. He points out the surface sheen, the golden stains on top — a novel method of decoration — and how it differs from the traditional spongy, often soggy cake made for parties.
Each Saturday, Nolan bakes through the early hours so he is ready when the food market below opens at 9.30 am, and he transports his cakes and pastries ready for the customers.
Trained in the French ways, Nolan says his early patisserie training tackled the technical first, with the flavours coming later.
While his creations are brightly coloured and inviting, they require precision and constant attention.
“You don’t become complacent in the kitchen,” says Nolan. “Some of the stagiaires were from France so you kind of got the feeling that if you didn’t speak the language, you couldn’t do it.”
After he’d “stag-ed” – culinary-speak for interned – in kitchens and finished his training, Nolan came back to Ireland and used his da as a guinea pig for a while. Then, he moved into the cake business proper.
From the fridge, he takes out some fresh Irish cherries and blackberries, and slabs of butter. A dozen or so bags of sugar and flour sit against the wall.
Each morning, he sets about his commissions: cakes for wedding parties, cakes for birthday parties and, of course, cakes for the Saturday crowd of shoppers.
Next for collection this weekend, already completed, is a strawberry and poppy entremet with a light poppy mousse, a coulis layer, Genoise sponge soaked in poppy syrup on a crunchy almond base. It is fancy and Nolan knows not everyone in Dublin will take to them.
“I wouldn’t be saying they’re for a paleo diet or anything or for someone who’s training,” he says. “That’s another thing that’s become huge, people choosing to go gluten free. It’s bolloxology, I think.”
He might have trained under chef Bruno Montcoudiol, but Nolan knows a Dublin audience won’t pay Parisian prices for pastries and cakes. He charges €3.50 for the mini cakes and for the larger commissions, such as the large chocolate gateaux, from €60 to €70.
Brid Carter, who has run the Honest2Goodness Food Market since 2010, first tasted Nolan’s cakes when he joined in November. “His cakes are irresistible,” she says. “And this is from somebody who’s gone on a low-carbohydrate diet!”
For now, Nolan plans to keep the business small. It’s easier to keep the quality high that way. His nephew recently came on board as an apprentice, and, busy with orders, the days in the kitchen are long and hot.
But Nolan’s early training had a military flavour.
One night in France, he was charged with making 24 intricate mille-feuille. The chef, furious, dismissed all the work.
It was in the middle of service and everything went dark, says Nolan. It was like a light bulb appeared over his head with the word “FUCK” inscribed above, he said.
“He broke me in a sense,” he says. “You see that this is what they wanted so you just got in, attacked the work that you needed to do and never looked for the easy route.”