An Afternoon Tea With Fortnum and Mason's Filipino Pastry Chef
At the end of each day, dashing to a pub near King’s Cross to unwind became de rigueur. It was an experience I revelled in each time I would attend short courses. This daily habit, however, changed in the spring of 2017 when I met a new Filipino friend in London. His name was Scott Villacora. Our common friend, Jaime Ponce de Leon, had excitedly introduced us over afternoon tea at Fortnum and Mason, the luxury department store along Piccadilly.
Fortnum and Mason is world-famous as a purveyor of tea—both blended and rare—plucked from every corner of the world. And it was a stupendous surprise to learn that Scott Villacora is the Head Pastry Chef of Fortnum and Mason’s tony Diamond Jubilee Tea Salon.
Fast forward to 2018, I casually asked Scott if I could write about him for Philippine Tatler Traveller, because I reckoned he embodied the excellence of the Filipino abroad and it would give his countrymen much pride to learn about him and to learn from him.
Suffice to say, our string of messages eventually permitted our schedules to match and we agreed to meet after my class one sweltering Monday afternoon. I escaped the heat of Piccadilly and entered the robin egg blue Edwardian setting of the tea salon. The tranquil ambiance hides the 400 covers (400 afternoon tea sets) the salon serves daily, thanks to the flawless service and the soothing piano-playing that can be heard in every portion of the spacious parlour.
Scott, who hails from Dumaguete City, Negros Oriental, has been working in the United Kingdom’s food industry for the past 13 years. He earned his diploma in Culinary Arts from the Philippine School of Culinary Arts in Cebu City.
The passion for producing pastries began in his youth. When Scott was eight years old, his mother taught him how to bake banana cake—a staple in their family’s Sunday lunches.
After an eight-year stint at the Sir Christopher Wren House Hotel and Spa in Windsor, he transferred to Fortnum and Mason.
Scott shares that he is part of the 14-member Pastry Team, which is just a bit larger than the Savoury Team’s 11 members. He heads the department that churns out 12,000 scones and 7,000 cakes weekly.
He reveals that the Diamond Jubilee Tea Salon has four menus each year–one per season. Focusing on British produce, Scott and the rest of the team conceptualise the menu three months prior to its execution.
The overarching theme of each menu is “Quintessential British,” but Fortnum and Mason reworks old classic desserts such as the rose éclair, toffee cheesecake, fruitcake, Black Forest Swiss roll, and the pear and hazelnut chocolate mousse, with a twist. Scott is quick to point out that their desserts are “not generic” and “not French.”
Interestingly, there are 10 pastries that are featured in each seasonal menu–two of which are always Scott’s original inventions for the season. Hence, in a year’s 40 pastries, eight are Scott’s original recipes. That’s a huge dose of creativity right there!
The best-selling pastries during afternoon tea are the red velvet cake and the vanilla lemon cheesecake, his first oeuvre ever. Moreover, he intimates that his personal favourite is the Sommerset cider brandy choux bun.
When asked if there was anything he didn’t like to bake, he exclaimed, “Tarts! [I] Don’t like making them…baking them!” But of course, this is just his personal opinion and we ended up having a tart later on.
After the constant flow of champagne and savoury delights, the tray with scones and pastries dazzles the table (at this point, I had long forgotten the calories and just relished the experience). Scott teaches me that one should start from the lightest to the heaviest pastry. Hence, the tasting sequence was as follows: peach and mint Swiss roll; strawberry crème brûlée; passion fruit and vanilla mousse; rose choux bun; gianduja cake. Being made with three different kinds of milk chocolate, the gianduja cake was the most decadent indeed!
The moment with Scott turned silent when the piano stopped playing. I turned around and saw that the salon was almost empty. The place was closing. I attempted to break the silence and casually asked, “So, which famous celebrity has come here and enjoyed your food?”
I saw the gleam in his eyes as he proudly enumerated, “Of course, the Duchess of Cornwall, Camilla… then there are Julia Roberts, Halle Berry, Whoopi Goldberg, and Robbie Williams… all of whom were walk-ins!"
For this passionate chef who sometimes does a back-breaking 14 hours of work during the Yuletide season, he de-stresses through swimming and indulging in Magnum ice cream. He adds that his travels to Costa Brava, Spain and Piros, Greece have re-invigorated his body and soul. Sports, travel, and ice cream are sure ways to reward oneself for all that gruelling hard work and draining creativity.
We had bid each other farewell, but I left Fortnum and Mason with two boxes of delicious treats. Perhaps it was to serve as a reminder of how an acquaintance became a friend; or how lucky I was to have gone through the same genteel experience once again; or how calories never really go away, they are just sometimes packed in the most fabulous of boxes! Maybe it’s all of the above.
Truly, this Filipino in London continues to represent the best of the Philippines and Fortnum and Mason through his craft, as the iconic department store won the Afternoon Tea Awards of 2018 for Best Children’s Afternoon Tea last July.
- Images Scott Villacora and Fortnum & Mason