Culinary Canvas

‘I’m no celebrity, I’m just a chef’

Chef David Vidal on becoming accidentally Insta-famous and learning to love the sticky precision of pastry.

Words by Sophie Miskiw. Photography by Johan Ståhlberg.

A quick scroll through the ornate desserts on David Vidal’s Instagram and you’d naturally assume he'd spent his 20-year career working with pastry. So it’s a surprise to learn that until just five or so years ago he’d never so much as tempered chocolate.

“No-one believes me but it’s true! I worked in the hot kitchen for fifteen years and so I didn’t need to know how to do it.”

The need to learn only arose when the hotel where David works in the west of Sweden asked for his help reorganising the cold kitchen. Estimating it would be a six month job, he took up the challenge - and has never looked back.

“Pastry just never appealed to me as much as the hot section did. You have to weigh everything and it’s so messy all the time, and sticky! But now, when I think about it, it sounds stupid because I enjoy it so much.”

It may seem like a sudden and fairly seismic shift but pastry is clearly part of David’s DNA. Born into a family of bakers, as a youth he would often help out in his uncle’s bakery in Malta. At the time it felt like a chore, a way to earn some extra pocket money, but something about being in the kitchen appealed to him enough to later enrol at culinary school.

Several years later, while working at a hotel in Gatwick, David first met his Swedish wife. The couple had planned to settle in Malta but fate had something different in mind. They relocated to Sweden and by 25 David had been promoted to head chef at a restaurant in a fishing village. He was later hired as a sous chef at Laholmen Hotel in Strömstad where he continues to work today.

When five years ago the hotel asked David to steer the re-organisation of the cold kitchen, he was keen but admits he felt out of touch. He'd briefly covered pastry at culinary school and had picked up the basics in the family bakery, but there had been 15 years in-between.

“I hadn’t done this since school and didn’t want to be really ‘old style’. I started looking at Instagram for inspiration to see what other chefs were doing. Then I’d go to work a bit earlier every day and train myself to do it too.”

Turning to Instagram, YouTube, and plenty of books, David was able to brush up his knowledge. But simply knowing how to do something doesn’t guarantee success. An evidently natural flair for pastry aided his progression, but there were still some practical things he struggled to master. Tempering chocolate being one of them.

“I tried to do chocolate decorations like people do at home by putting them in the freezer - but it doesn’t hold. I thought if I was really going to commit to this, I needed to know how to do it right.”

David offered his services to a pastry chef in nearby Stenungsund, trading free labour in the hot kitchen for lessons in tempering chocolate. Afterwards, he went back to the hotel, bought all the equipment he needed, and knuckled down.

“You train and train until you get it. Now I enjoy doing it so much that nearly every dessert has something with chocolate.”

Although David had initially turned to Instagram for inspiration, he soon began sharing his own creations on the platform too. If he ever questions his decision to transition to pastry, his growing body of followers - there are currently around 400,000 of them - would no doubt serve as validation.

While David is keen not to be known solely as ‘an Instagram chef’, his social media success has opened up many doors for him. Through Instagram, he met the captain of the Culinary Team West of Sweden, with which he has since competed, and he now runs pastry masterclasses around the globe. Despite this, David still doesn’t consider himself a “real pastry chef” and feels he learns almost as much from his students as they learn from him.

“I think of myself as a chef who likes pastry. If I’m doing a masterclass somewhere in the world and someone asks me why I do something a certain way, I say ‘Why not? As long as the end result is good’. And if you’re open-minded, you learn yourself.”

David’s open-mindedness is a quality that allows him to find inspiration where others might not. After many years in Sweden, he’s adopted the Swedish habit of foraging and has become passionate about using seasonal produce - something he admits probably wouldn’t have been the case back in Malta. It’s here - with asking what’s available right here, right now - that David’s creative process usually begins. Living in Sweden, the answer can sometimes be “not much” but what you do have to work with can be far more interesting and even exotic.

“It depends on the season, in summer we might have a lot of raspberries. Right now, I like sea buckthorn a lot. So I use a lot of sea buckthorn, pecan and maple syrup for example. You get the sweetness and sour. But in two months, I know it won’t be the same because it’s a different season.”

David might not have envisioned a career in the pastry arts, but he's fast becoming a household name nevertheless. Despite this, the success doesn't seem to have gone to his head - even when he finds himself faced with starstruck fans.

“I tell them I’m just a normal person. I’m no celebrity, I’m just a chef.”

"Pastry just never appealed to me as much as the hot section did. You have to weigh everything and it’s so messy all the time, and sticky!"

Words by Sophie Miskiw. Photography by Johan Ståhlberg.