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CREATIVE pastry perfectionist Jonathon Challenor is using all his culinary prowess to help raise awareness about breast cancer and to offer a sweet enticement to lovers of desserts to support the Think Pink Bahrain cause.
His pink-coloured presentations at the Ritz-Carlton, Bahrain are the star attractions this month at the Ritz Gourmet Lounge, perfect for afternoon tea on the veranda or as takeaway cakes and desserts for special gatherings.
“We’re all pulling together for a really good cause and I’m delighted to be able to play a part. Cancer has touched my family, it seems to touch everyone. It’s not work, this is much more than that.”
Jonathon’s tasteful treats have been causing a sensation across social media in recent months and a photograph of his cheesecake has become the most shared image on the property’s Instagram account.
“People just come in and they open the picture on their smartphones and show it to a member of staff and say: ‘I want this’. There are queues of people just coming in for the cheesecake!”
This month folk are flocking to sample Jonathon’s pink desserts as part of the company’s Community Footprints initiative. The resort has once again partnered with Think Pink Bahrain, with five per cent of the total proceeds raised from select food and beverage events and specials being donated to the cause.
The 36-year-old’s creations include:
Rosewater Éclair – classic éclair with rosewater and vanilla cream in the centre and on top, garnished with raspberries and chocolate and silver leaf.
The St Honoré features a choux pastry on the top and on the sides, with a macaroon underneath. It is filled with a raspberry compote and has meringue and a crystalised dyed rose petal.
The Raspberry and White Chocolate Mousse. The chocolate, turned pink with the help of beetroot colouring, is plastered into place using a high-powered culinary spray gun.
And then we have the incredible Pink Lemon, featuring a grapefruit jelly centre covered in white pink-coloured chocolate and coco butter.
It may look like a real lemon but it is just part of the stunning illusions stirred up by the father-of-two and an adaptation of one of the most talked-about culinary creations ever produced on the island.
It started off black, of course! Black lemons are actually dried limes, and owe their misnomer to the English translation of ‘loumi’ from Arabic. They’re used in the Middle East as a souring agent in chutneys, soups and stews, and even ground into flatbreads.
The powder made from black lemons has a sweet-tart flavour that is unique and has no substitute and Jonathon, who was born in the English town of Aldershot, came up with a unique twist to a creative dish.
“It started when we had a function for 700 people and we wanted to create something special that represented Bahrain and the region that no-one had done before.”
He was bouncing ideas around with his colleague, Executive Sous Chef Jann Lejard, and started talking about loumi. An idea of a black lemon-shaped dessert was born, filled with a mango and lime compote in the centre so that when it was cracked open a lush liquid would come flowing out, and around it was the mousse.
“On the outside we used white chocolate and coco butter and infused the loumi powder into it,” Chef Jonathon revealed.
It was an explosion of taste. “It was something we were very proud of – and the guests loved it!” he added. “It was something that we had created for Bahrain and the hotel and it was absolutely unique.”
That event was followed up by a VIP setting for 20 guests at one of the exclusive Ritz-Carlton villas and the dish was served with dry ice to spectacular effect.
Shaping up desserts is a clever ploy that Chef Jonathon uses with the help of silicone casts that he forms.
He is not averse to calling on his colleagues around the building to help him get a creative handle on things, such as asking the engineering crew to supply a packet of nuts and bolts so that he could make moulds for chocolate on an industrial-themed cake sculpture. “That’s the side of cooking that I like most, to be able to do things that other chefs aren’t doing, or at least try to!”
It’s not the first time he has used his culinary talents for a good cause either. His last property worked with The Make a Wish Foundation to help a nine-year-old girl suffering from a brain tumour have her dying wish of being a ‘princess for a day’ come true.
She enjoyed a horse and carriage ride through the streets of Vienna. All the ladies and gentlemen involved dressed up in character and a Disney-style buffet was laid out for her and all of her friends in the hotel’s presidential suite. When the majestic cake was brought into the room the little girl shed tears of joy. It’s a memory that has been engrained in chef’s heart.
Chef Jonathon began his career on the bottom rung of the ladder and despite reaching the heady heights of an executive position at a five star property he is not done with learning more tricks of the trade.
He’s well-travelled too, having lived in Malaysia, enjoyed a long spell in Ireland where his father held a senior executive role with Guinness Group, and a five-year spell in Jamaica.
He worked as a bar steward and in kitchens making sandwiches and washing the pots and pans to earn money during his college years in Ireland. “I had always had an interest in cooking from when I was a child. I was always in the kitchen with my mother and my grandmother,” he explained. “I was always cooking. I don’t remember a time when I wasn’t cooking.”
But it was a chance encounter, whilst working in an inn located in his home village that helped catapult his career with Ritz-Carlton.
“A lady walked in and I could see she was struggling,” he said. “I took her bags and introduced myself, we started talking and she said: ‘you’d fit well in our hotel’. I asked her where she worked, she replied ‘The Ritz-Carlton’ … and it happened … I got an interview through her and secured my first pastry job working at its Gordon Ramsay restaurant.”
After two years at the Powercourt property in County Wicklow he moved on to work in the kitchens of the five-star renaissance hotel The Shelbourne Dublin, famed as the property which played host to its most historic meeting – the drafting of the Irish Constitution in 1922.
His last port of call was at chef de partie at the Ritz-Carlton Vienna. He arrived with no knowledge of the country or how to speak the language, known as German/Austrian. “That is something I am quite proud of,” said chef, “and I left there after six years with a new language and a memorable experience of Austrian cuisine.”
The country is famous for its sweets and desserts such as apple strudel, Topfenknodel curd cheese dumplings and Sachertorte – created back in 1832 when Prince Metternich asked his court kitchen to create a special dessert. Due to the illness of the chef, it fell to 16-year-old apprentice, Franz Sacher, to dream something up and thus the Original Sacher-Torte, a specific type of chocolate cake, or torte, now famous all over the world, was born.
He first came to Bahrain last February as part of a culinary task force to help out with a large wedding. “I was shown around and I thought I like this place and the people,” he said. “It left a lasting impression on me. I fell in the love with the property, the people who work here and the country itself.”
A permanent move followed and he brought with him his original stunning cheesecake delight he is famed for in Vienna. “I took an old corporate recipe and said let’s make this better, add a few more eggs, real vanilla essence, a little bit of lemon zest and let’s put a different biscuit on the outside. It just took off.”
Over Eid more than 800 were ordered by guests. “It’s not anything that is really madly over elegant but it just works,” said Chef Jonathon.
The crust is powdered digestive biscuits with sugar and butter placed in the fridge to set. The filling consists of sour cream, eggs, sugar, vanilla and lemon zest and cream cheese. It is baked in the oven for between an hour and a half and an hour and 40 minutes at 120 degrees.
The whole process from start to finish, producing a cool product ready to serve, takes about six to seven hours. These things can’t be rushed.
Who knows, in years to come, people may be celebrating the Challenor Cheesecake or the Jonathon Bahraini Loumi … but until then he hopes to have a few more surprises up the sleeves of his chef’s whites.
“I’ll be travelling to France at the end of this month for a week just to indulge in French cuisine and do a little refresh – attend a course over there on pastries and cake-making and then do three or four days of travelling - visiting all the cake shops and having a good look.”
Enjoy a Pink & Sweet Delight until October 31, from 10am - 11pm, The Ritz Gourmet Lounge and Lobby Lounge. Pair your teatime with a special pink pastry by Executive Pastry Chef Jonathon Challenor. It’s enjoyment for a good cause all in one. Price: Á la carte starting from BD4++.