02 Jul Creative Minds – Deni Teo & Ben Mellefont
‘We’ll be there in ten minutes – just sorting out the chicken’. Said chicken being Deni Teo and Benjamin Mellefont’s peri-peri homage to their beloved Nando’s. During our conversation it became clear that Deni and Ben’s household is as foodcentric as Munchtime Mansion. The couple met at the Royal College of Music where they studied cello and clarinet. Since then their career paths have led them to working in orchestras such as the BBC Symphony Orchestra, Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra and London Philharmonic Orchestra where Ben is currently Principal Clarinet. Alongside their musical achievements they nurtured culinary hobbies which have taken them to unexpected and exciting places.
Those of you who know Deni will already be aware of her passion for baking. @denibakes is full of joyful creations showcasing her love of colour and fanatical attention to detail. Over the past decade she has been honing techniques in the pursuit of effortless looking confections. I remember bumping into Deni on the Tube with boxes of mermaid themed cupcakes – sea foam icing, glittering waves and perhaps a tantalising mermaid tail or two. Despite being laden with music bags and a cello she ensured the cakes were held completely upright at all times. No smushed buttercream here.
Her initial foray into the baking world came from family. One of her Singaporean cousins was considering a pastry career and during this time gifted Deni her first cake recipe books. From here she delved into YouTube tutorials, visual guidance lending itself to demonstrating baking and decorating. An early favourite was Cupcake Jemma, owner of Crumbs & Doilies. She has hundreds of videos which take you through the whole process step by step whether it’s a buttercream piping masterclass, recreating signature recipes from well-known patisseries or making the ultimate red velvet cupcakes. On many occasions Deni found other so called ‘how-to’ videos would leave out quantities or ingredients in order to retain the chef’s secrets so Cupcake Jemma was a breath of fresh air. Fast forward to RCM and with the basics under her belt plus a lot more baking equipment, word got round about Deni’s cake wizardry. When a fellow student asked her price for twelve cupcakes she was pleasantly surprised. Making money out of baking hadn’t been something she’d previously considered but she took it as an opportunity to push herself and take it more seriously.
While Deni was upping sales of flour and eggs, Ben was busy exploring his own corner of the culinary world. ‘I started drinking coffee really young, maybe too young!’. His native Australia is known worldwide for its coffee culture. On top of that he was hooked on the quest to find better coffee. The concept that as your tastes and parameters are perennially changing, what you consider to be better naturally evolves too. With this simmering in the back of his mind Ben arrived in London, coinciding with the Third Wave coffee boom in the UK. Unfortunately coffee waves aren’t the sort you learn about in school so here’s what my quick bit of research came up with.
First Wave coffee centred around the mass market with less emphasis on quality or sourcing. A natural progression led to an increase in cafés such as Starbucks resulting in the Second Wave. This was all about customer experience and introduced flavoured drinks. While the quality improved, coffee beans were not the focus. That’s where Third Wave excels. Rather than the dark, bitter flavours of previous Waves, these are lighter roasts from considered coffee growers. Third Wave chimes with a consumer shift where the origin of ingredients becomes of greater interest. Some say there is a Fourth Wave brewing which relates to home coffee enthusiasts roasting green coffee beans to suit their own specifications, or that it is a culmination of the best features of the first three Waves. We shall see how it develops over the next few years!
Back to London 2011. At the time there was a niche coffee community with a handful of roasteries. Ben soon sought them out and on the spur of the moment was offered a job by a wildly stressed out cafe owner. Like Deni, he had never considered turning his love of coffee into a job but figured ‘I’m eighteen and my only obligation is my clarinet lesson every week’, joking ‘I was really keen to earn minimum wage’. As luck would have it he was able to learn from their world class head barista, Jordi Mestre, two time winner of Spain’s National Barista Championship. Broadening his understanding of coffee from such an expert fired up Ben’s enthusiasm for the industry. In the following years he worked in cafés, markets and restaurants doing ‘some of the most honest work I’ll ever do’. Honesty stemming from dedication to such a laborious process purely for love of the end product despite obstacles such as poor pay and long hours.
In Deni’s case the quest of perfection merely starts with the cake. Decorating is a whole different beast. ‘That’s my favourite bit, I get very into it though there have been times when I’ve lost my temper, scraped all the icing off and started again!’. This is hardly surprising judging by the immaculately straight lines on her ombre cakes and picture perfect apple segments evenly arranged on a tart. You don’t get that without some blood, sweat and tears. ‘I hate wasting ingredients, especially now [during lockdown]. With cooking you can rescue a dish but with baking it either works or it doesn’t, there’s less leeway.’ Even so Deni enjoys the challenge this provides, preferring to treat it as motivation.
Her methodical strategy suits baking down to the ground. If I had a pound for every time chef Marcus Wareing preached the importance of precision in pastry I’d be a rich lady. Ben’s more improvisatory style of cooking complements this. A keen cook himself, he has a knack for turning out delicious meals from basic store cupboard staples. ‘It’s nice now to have the time to cook resourcefully’, making stocks and the like which take hours rather than quick thirty minute meals. Similarly Deni has been trying out new recipes. Kouign-amann (pronounced queen-a-mahn), an epic buttery pastry, proved a big success. Baguettes and cinnamon rolls have also been ticked off her list.
This is excellent news because we all know that the Great British Bake Off’s notorious bread round can make or break contestants. Deni applied last year and progressed through six of the nine rigorous stages required before you step into the renowned marquee. As well as bringing a variety of bakes for tasting she was thoroughly quizzed on her baking knowledge. After passing that it was on to a camera test which proved more uncomfortable in the moment than expected, ‘You’re supposed to repeat the question in your answer [as the question isn’t heard on camera] and I kept forgetting!’. Not that the tv career is off the cards yet. She was contacted out of the blue by ITV’s Love Island who had seen her Southbank Sinfonia profile and thought it would be interesting to have a musician on the show. ‘How hilarious would it be if I ended up on Love Island before Bake Off!’. I have no doubt that if she goes for GBBO 2021 she will win us over with smooth camera asides and the tastiest cakes.
A long held dream of this multi-talented duo is to open a café specialising in great tasting unique coffee and cake baked in house. What could be more perfect, celebrating Deni’s creative eye for design and Ben’s industry experience. Add to that Ben’s electronic music and you’ve got a truly personal experience. If I’ve learned anything about this couple it’s that their enthusiasm and openness to new ventures will ensure this ambition becomes a future reality.
Time for our quick fire round named Petits Fours (‘little ovens’) after the miniature sweet treats traditionally served at the end of a meal ?
M: What’s the most unusual cake request you’ve made?
D: A schoolfriend’s mum celebrated 15 years free of breast cancer so she ordered 24 boob cupcakes!
M: When we’re able to travel freely where would you head first?
B: I’ve wanted to visit Pakistan for a long time, some of my favourite food comes from that area.
M: What are you currently reading or listening to?
B: I’m gradually reading Ulysses at the moment. That might make me the ultimate quarantine snob ?
D: There’s a hilarious podcast I’m listening to called Seek Treatment. It’s hosted by two New Yorker comedians and best friends sharing stories about their love lives.
B: We watched Melancholia recently which is about the end of the world. The only music in the entire film is Wagner’s Prelude to Tristan and Isolde. It was so intense, we ended up having a seriously deep discussion afterwards.
D: We went to bed feeling really sad but the film was fantastic, I highly recommend it. Kirsten Dunst stars in it and the week before we’d just watched Bring It On so we got the full spectrum of her work!
Thanks for reading this, please give it a thumbs up if you enjoyed it! Check out the links below to Deni and Ben’s websites as well as @munchtimeminn. ???