Wolfgang Wagenleitner is an executive pastry chef in Dubai. Read our current interview to find out how he started out as a confectioner in Vienna before ending up in Dubai.

From a classical apprenticeship as a confectioner in Vienna, to executive pastry chef at Raffles Hotel in Dubai. Where does this passion for your work come from?
It has accumulated over the years, and since there’s always something new and current in our profession, you never get bored. What’s more, there is also the fact that in the hotel business your daily routine is not regulated.

How has the world of pastry changed internationally over the years? What are the latest pastry trends and themes?
In recent years, everything has been increasingly focused on artistic ways of presenting the dessert rather than its actual taste. Everyone wants to be the new El Bulli, despite not necessarily having learned the classic trade from scratch.
This means most people lack the basic knowledge of food science. Don’t get me wrong; I’m not against it, it’s just that this trend is becoming more and more pronounced. Nowadays, it is more about shapes and colours, so how you present yourself, because everything is more transparent in the virtual world. But without having tried something, you can only ever say that it looks great – you have no idea whether it actually tastes great. So the most important thing is to have a good camera, a good eye for photography and knowledge of computers. It’s a pity that things are no longer judged according to the principle of taste.

AN EXECUTIVE PASTRY CHEF NEEDS MORE THAN JUST A DECENT CAMERA

Vienna is considered a global centre of the pastry arts: Is this really still the case today? Are there any new or innovative creations from the Viennese pastry scene that can also be used in faraway Dubai?
I can’t really tell from so far away, as I haven’t lived in Vienna for 18 years now. As far as pastries are concerned, I would guess that the classical ones are still the most important, because people go to Vienna with certain expectations. Like apple strudel, Kaiserschmarrn, Sachertorte and such. In the hotel and restaurant sector, things have always been prone to change in Vienna, with new trends all the time.

How would you describe your own specialisation as pastry chef?

My greatest strengths are certainly my organisational skills, the ability to motivate a strong team, and being open to anything and everything in pastry trends. I am an all-rounder with no specific specialisation, because everything has always fascinated me. However, I must say that taste has always been the most important factor for me.

Dubai and the surrounding region are a Mecca for desserts. To what extent do the specialities there influence or inspire you? 
If you read up on the history of desserts, most of them came from this region. Take apple strudel for example, where’s the dough from? Baked pieces of yeast, for instance, only we don’t have to preserve them with sugar syrup in our colder countries. Most of the spices we use to make gingerbread come from there, or the region was their main transhipment point in former times. Spices, of course, are sources of new inspiration, but a number of techniques have been being practised in the same way for 200 years. This is fantastic to see in the souks or markets, where women sit on the ground and bake loucoum in hot fat with their bare hands.

EXECUTIVE PASTRY CHEF AND HISTORY EXPERT

It’s already been more than 5 years since you came to work as Executive Pastry Chef at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Qatar. To what extent have you noticed a change in culinary offerings there during this time?

The selection in the coffee house sector has probably grown extremely. Even so, since you used to have more business (fewer hotels) and now have fewer employees, while costs have to be kept under control, there has been a shift towards in-house production.
This is of course very good for me, because I am highly skilled in classical pastry making. Returning to homemade croissants & Danishes, macaroons, eclairs and so on doesn’t pose a problem for me.

Higher, further, faster, wackier. The emirates don’t seem short on ideas when it comes to culinary creations. What do you think is going to change in the pastry chef world there over the next few years? 

I think the most important thing would be to distinguish more clearly between the different types of pastry shop. There is now an abundance of cafés, but unfortunately only with doughnuts, muffins and microwave croissants. Most outlets do the same thing because otherwise they wouldn’t be able to stay afloat, but unfortunately now it is seen as more important to have the right brand of coffee than the best pastries. As you already mentioned, it’s all about the biggest, fastest and most expensive product and so on. But people don’t go to a café because they know it’s where they can expect the best cream slices.

What would you recommend young pastry chefs interested in working in the emirates? Is it best to start in a particular emirate and/or large hotel?

I’ve already brought 2-3 young pastry chefs to Dubai. As for the emirates, I would suggest Dubai and Abu Dhabi. Ras al-Khaimah is up-and-coming as is Sharjah, mainly due to tourism. The size of the hotel is not so important, but rather its reputation.
Any young pastry chef should ask a lot of questions and find out about life here beforehand. Not everyone feels comfortable here.

Sustainability, regional character and seasonality are major themes in kitchens. To what extent do these aspects play a role in the pastry chef scene?

Let’s talk about the world as a whole, because I always watch global trends closely. In Vienna people always say, why should you buy something that is not even in season – and which tastes bad for that very reason. Unfortunately, elderflowers are not available in Dubai, and nor are there beautiful outdoor strawberry plantations. In Austria, questions like these are common, with clients often taking a genuine interest in the origin of products.

In Asia/Thailand/Bangkok you worked as pastry chef in the Sheraton. What are your culinary memories of this time? Are there any local recipes you discovered there which you still work with today?

Perhaps less the recipes, but the ingredients like fresh coconut of course, mango, papaya, lemongrass, ginger and all the sago products. The fact that you can also make sweet vegetables or potatoes with flavour.

Which ingredients from your time in Thailand as pastry chef took you by surprise or would you avoid using today?

I was pleasantly surprised by the Thai mango and fresh fruit, and the fact that unripe fruits are used like vegetables. I can’t think of anything I disliked so much that I don’t use it anymore.

EXECUTIVE PASTRY CHEF – WORLDWIDE AND ACROSS EUROPE

Is there a certain style from your time in Asia that continues to influence your cooking today? 
I would say simplicity of serving – clean and tidy.

In 2010 you worked as an executive pastry chef in Greece. When it comes to local Greek pastries you initially think of sugar, sugar, and a little more sugar. Was it a sugar shock for you as a Viennese pastry chef?

Perhaps to begin with, but certainly not for long, because I wasn’t hired to make Greek desserts, but my own – which, by the way, were very well received. I would also like to mention that I can recommend any pastry chef in Greece, because of their sheer creativity and variety.

What did you learn from this time as pastry chef?
That in Greece people are hard workers and everyone has the freedom to express his or her opinion. This might not always be easy, but once you have learned how to handle it, it can be very helpful.

With so much experience in the international pastry scene, are you not tempted to open your own small exclusive pastry outlet one day? If so, where would it be and what would you specialise in?

Perhaps not a pastry place, but a place where guests enjoy drinking coffee, eating good cake and love coming back.

Wolfgang Wagenleitner, thanks very much for this insight and see you soon!