Meet London doughnut (and bread) maestro Justin Gellatly

Jane Willson
15 January, 2015

Justin Gellatly is headed to Australia to share his wisdom on bread, doughnuts, and the joy of a good sourdough starter.

Baker Justin Gellatly’s doughnuts are no secret in London anymore. They developed a following when he first turned them out at St John Restaurant in 2003, and their fame has only grown since he opened his own place, Bread Ahead, in Borough Market, a year or so ago.

When he joined the kitchen team at Fergus Henderson’s restaurant way back in 2000, Justin thought he might learn a thing or two about offal. But the bread called. Literally. “The bread and the crackling of the crust just didn’t stop singing to me.” He quickly learnt the ropes on his days off and ultimately took on the role of head baker and pastry chef for the Michelin-starred restaurant (which had grown to include a stand-alone bakery when he left).

Search online for his doughnut recipes, maybe take a lesson or two, and certainly prepare to be tempted. He says one of his keys to success is weighing the water. He does this when making both bread and doughnuts because it is a lot more accurate than a measuring jug.

I caught up with Justin (whose name you might also recognise as co-author of Beyond Nose to Tail with Fergus Henderson) ahead of his visit to Australia for the Melbourne Food and Wine Festival. He will appear at the festival artisan bakery and bar, as well as taking masterclasses in March.

Q: Tell us about how your career began. Is it fair to say that you fell into baking?

As with a lot of chefs, I started washing dishes in a small restaurant and the head chef there showed me the ropes. But the baking side of it all started at St John Restaurant [in Clerkenwell], where I joined as a chef. They had a small in-house bakery where I started work on my days off and soon switched to baking as my full-time job.

Q: So there was a turning point?

One of them was when I did my first bake at St John and took my first bread out of the oven. The bread and the crackling of the crust just didn’t stop singing to me. I hung up my chef apron and put on a baker’s one – and never looked back.

Q: How was it working for Fergus?

It really was the most amazing 13 years of my life; the encouragement and generosity from Fergus knows no bounds.

Q: And the path since leaving there – at your own place, Bread Ahead, in Borough Market – how has it gone? Beyond expectations?

Initially I really missed the whole St John family (13 years is a long time), but it’s good to break away and do your own thing as well. It’s been an amazing first year; the massive plus side is working with Matt Jones, a fellow baker, and the best bit is my wife Louise works in the bakery. She spends most of her time helping run our bakery school, which is next door to the bakery. Both are going from strength to strength.

When I did my first bake at St John ... the bread and the crackling of the crust just didn't stop singing to me. 

Q: What does a typical day involve? Hit us with those bakers’ hours …

Well, I’m normally up around 9pm and I head to the bakery on my motorbike for around 10pm. I get changed and get the kettle on (I love tea). I sort out the product for the shift and the rest of the bakers start arriving between midnight and 2am.

We start baking 2am, right through till about 10am. Most of the doughs have an overnight prove so there is no hurry to get the mixing on as the doughs are ready to be shaped for baking. We do around 12 breads from sourdoughs to ciabattas and, of course, lots of doughnuts.

My day normally finishes between 11am and midday, and I try to be in bed by about 3pm.

Q: Do you have a favourite and/or most acclaimed recipe?

Favourite is my madeleines, but most acclaimed are my doughnuts [Justin's classic flavours include: custard, jam, lemon curd and apple cinnamon. But his most fought-over creation is perhaps the caramel custard with salted honeycomb sprinkle, pictured].

Q: And someone else’s you return to/have improved upon?

I always follow my mum’s mincemeat recipe for Christmas mince pies and also for her Christmas pudding, which we make a year in advance to deepen the flavour. The only thing I’ve changed is there is a bit more booze in them.

Q: A super good looking ginger cake with a cider and caramel sauce is one of the first recipes of yours that I found online. You write, modestly, that it’s both the best in the world and one of your best recipes. True story? What’s the trick?

Well, first, it’s so simple to make. I used to make it at St John and everyone who had it pretty much said it’s the best in the world. Also, since my book [Bread, Cake, Doughnut, Pudding] came out, everyone who has made it says the same thing. I think the key is the mix of spices, which gives it a lovely, warm depth of flavour. Plus the pieces of stem ginger. It also has a great shelf life.

Q: And what about ingredients, do you have a favourite right now?

Sprouted grain.

Q: Food/restaurant/ingredient/talent discovery?

Lyles Restaurant, in Shoreditch. I worked with [chef and owner] James Lowe at St John Bread & Wine and his cooking always impressed me, so fresh, tasty and beautiful. But since Lyles it has just got better. One of my favourite restaurants in London.

Q: Who would you most like to bake for – and what would you bake?

I sort of have done it twice. I baked the bread for William and Kate’s royal wedding, and I also did my custard doughnuts for the world’s top 50 restaurants and chefs.

Q: What do MFWF masterclass participants have to look forward to?

Lots of delights, including a doughnut masterclass. Also to see what we are baking at Bread Ahead. And I’ll be encouraging people to start their own sourdough starters. Plus lots of great baking; I’ll be doing massive cathedral loaves, pictured. We had a sourdough starter blessed at the Southwark Cathedral – hence the name.

Justin Gellatly bread

Q: And, lastly, have you sorted your dinner/doughnut plans for when you are in Melbourne? It does both pretty well.

Still in the planning!

Justin will be appear at the Melbourne Food and Wine Festival on 7-8 March as part of the Chef MasterClass sessions. You can also catch him at the Festival Artisan Bakery & Bar.  Book tickets here.

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