Damien Wager is a Chef Partner at deZaan – makers of delicious cocoa ingredients – and a self-taught pastry chef and author, who owns two patisseries under the ‘Edible Art’ banner, one in Cheltenham and the other in Bath.
Here, he shares his thoughts on the versatility of cocoa powder, along with tips for getting the most out of it...
What makes the deZaan cocoa powders stand out from other cocoa products?
The range explores variation in the fat level, acidity, flavour notes and pH levels in the powders, all of which affect the way that they can be applied. If applied correctly in different recipes, the colours and flavour notes will shine through and this is something that you just don’t get from other cocoa powders on the market.
How has being a self-taught pastry chef helped you break with conformity?
I would actually describe it as a hindrance more than anything else. Trying to gain recognition (outside of social media) with well-respected peers has been a battle in itself. Trying to garner respect when you haven’t been through all of the different academies, or worked in certain establishments, can be challenging. People tend to see you as more of a ‘gimmick’ or passing fantasy, as opposed to a chef.
Can you provide some examples of how you've used cocoa powder in an unconventional way?
We use cocoa powder as a spray, mixing it with cocoa butter to create a ‘chocolate velvet’ effect on different recipes. But, more interestingly, we are working with cocoa powder as a substitute for chocolate. There is much more room for variation and putting your own signature stamp on things when you are adjusting flavours, acidity etc. using cocoa powder as opposed to just using a standard chocolate straight out of a bag.
Your first book is titled 'Edible Art'. What is your thought process when inventing your creations?
Without sounding too cliché, it is what flavours I enjoy and just what comes in to my mind. More importantly and I’m not afraid to admit this, seeing chefs that I idolise and what they are creating and then seeing if there is a way I can replicate it to suit my style and my client base. Commercially speaking, I need to keep my business going so the thought process takes into account what not only has the wow factor but is also financially viable in terms of sourcing ingredients etc.
Your unique eye-catching creations are instantly recognisable as yours. How important is it to have a signature style?
It is very important, but from a business point of view we focus heavily on branding. I aim more for my packaging/marketing to be recognisable as opposed to a specific item. I would describe my work as recognisable, but I think it is clear to see that I do take inspiration from other chefs.
How do you think cocoa is generally viewed amongst professional pastry chefs?
I think that question can vary depending on where you ask it around the world. I believe if you asked the same question to a chef in France their answer would be more in line with what I would say. I think in the UK the knowledge of cocoa powder as a core ingredient is improving but, unfortunately, a lot of chefs still see cocoa powder as only useful for a brownie or for dusting over a fork as garnish.
What advice can you offer aspiring pastry chefs to help them push the boundaries when working with cocoa powder?
Straight away get rid of the misconception that cocoa powder is solely used in baked products. It can be used in cold applications - a semi freddo, an ice cream, a whipped ganache etc. It can also be used to enhance your fresh produce. Strawberries roasted in cocoa powder, for example, adds a wonderful flavour layer to a dish. Start treating cocoa powder in the same way you would use chocolate.
What's your favourite recipe using cocoa?
I would say that the 100% Cocoa Tart which I created around Easter 2022 would have to be up there. The whole item - from cremeux to sable to whipped ganache - were all made of cocoa butter and cocoa powder, without any chocolate being used.
What’s the secret to perfect macarons?
The main thing with macarons is consistency and getting every stage right. Whipping the egg white to the right consistency, leaving the macarons to rest for long enough before baking, there are so many variables which can affect your macarons and every one has to be spot on to create the ‘perfect’ macaron.
Your new book is dedicated to the use of cocoa and is the first of its kind. Why did you decide to write it?
I thought it would be nice to step away from the generic tradition of writing a recipe book based on what you do and so took on this project as a learning curve for myself also. Although the classic ‘encyclopaedia of recipes’ style books are great, I think there is room in the market for a new style of book – just like Bachour’s new release ‘Buffet’ and Richard Hawke’s ‘Adapt’ which is based around vegan and gluten free patisserie. I want my book to be seen as one of those ‘specialist’ books as opposed to just showing what we create within the patisserie.
How will you be using cocoa in your creations this Christmas?
Inside the shop we have a few items which incorporate chocolate, but more importantly we have some social media which we shot with deZaan showcasing their products in some of our Christmas selection – our Mint Christmas Tree, for example, which uses cocoa both in a sponge and the mousse. We always have a selection of items which include cocoa powder, such as our macarons, our chocolate bonbons in which cocoa powder is used in some ganache recipes and, of course, in our petits gateâux.
Chocolate is a known aphrodisiac and therefore a key ingredient for Valentine's Day. Can you suggest some inspirational ways of using it specifically for this most romantic of days?!
There are many different ways, it isn’t something that we would do within the patisserie, but a chocolate fondue for example is a very traditional sharing dessert which is perfect for a date night! Cocoa could come in very handy here – as opposed to just melting down your chocolate, you could use cocoa powder and cocoa butter as an alternative, with the option of adjusting the fluidity, acidity and even emphasising specific flavour notes, if you wanted a fruity flavour for example.