A portrait of the artist as a young man – the rise of a culinary star
Every generation someone comes along who breaks the mould in their chosen field – makes the uncool cool and re-writes the rule book.
Gloucestershire could well be witnessing the birth of just such a personality in the guise of Damien Wager, a pastry chef whose mesmeric sculptural creations are attracting tens of thousands of followers on social media.
Tattooed, passionate, articulate and his back story almost as fascinating as the wares he is now selling for the first time from a bricks and mortar shop front – his new Edible Art Patisserie business in The Courtyard, Cheltenham.
If you have a sweet tooth and need a reason to 'Think Gloucestershire', as the GFirst LEP campaign urges us all too - this is it.
For a business which relies on footfall, needs bums on seats and opened in a pandemic you might think even a good social media following was not enough to save him, but sales have smashed predictions as his creations and fairy cakes cast their magical spell.
“We got the keys on July 1 and opened on August 1 and it has been very good. When we opened, because word had got around, we have people queuing outside the shop” said the likeable Mr Wager, who has the energy of a young Jamie Oliver without any of the ‘blimey guvnor’, despite an eclectic background which includes a stint in Essex.
Some 79,000 followers on Instagram helps when you need to spread the word, all of them hooked into not his personality – which would be worthy enough, but which he keeps out of the social media – but the images of the creations of Edible Art.
Edible Art Patisserie Limited has been in business since 2017, an enterprise run alongside consultancy work he was doing for hotels – and which while almost at and end, the latter will see him travel to Amsterdam this weekend to complete his commitments.
It’s not a life of glamour – this is work. It will be the fifth time he has been there in the last 12 months year and a measure of the demand he has found himself in circles where his talents matter.
Lizzie Nicholas (picture above) is managing his Cheltenham operation, with chef Kacper (pronounced Casper - picture above right), aged just 20, a trusted and able right-hand man in the kitchen.
Ms Nicholas (picture above), who was born in Essex, had been working her way through A-Levels to university in the hospitality trade but has deferred, partly because of the pandemic, but also because of the journey Edible Art Patisserie is on.
Kacper is a young Polish chef his boss first came across at catering college in Crew and he is thrilled to have join the team.
Ms Nicholas is also handling his emails and social media. She has her work cut-out, he admits. On one day alone post opening he had 357 messages and notifications arrive on his phone alone.
It was the Instagram interest which led to his debut book, Edible Art, in October 2019 listing more than 40 recipes for delights from petit gateau, entremets, macarons to tarts and bonbons.
It sold out before its release, has sold in 43 countries and is about to be translated into Russian. Another book, Breaking The Mould, is due out next year.
A quick flick through his back story reveals someone whose life could have taken numerous contrasting routes, and includes fibbing about his age to start a paper round aged 11 to seeing poor eyesight shatter dreams of the army post school.
His energies instead took him through university to become a PE teacher, a route he paid for by working in restaurants, first washing dishes and by the time he complete his academic studies was beginning to realise he had found his calling.
“When I finished my teacher training I was earning the equivalent of £28,000 as a third service chef – about £8,000 more than I would have been starting on as a teacher,” he said.
Pastry, his passion was something he was drawn towards. He had studied and enjoyed art at school, and little by little realised it was his calling.
“It is not something a chef can really just dabble in. You have to go ‘all-in’,” he said, trying to describe how it has taken over his life and the focus it demands.
He tells his story at pace, with one eye on getting back to the customers at his new Courtyard headquarters.
“We make everything from scratch here at the moment,” he said. “Even with the covid restrictions we can still seat near a dozen.”
A range of merchandise is already on sale, hoodies and trainers for staff reference a clothing business he once dabbled with and gives the operation another sprinkling of cool style. His treats are sold in incredible packaging which he invested thousands developing and loves.
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It’s the end of our first proper week here @edibleartpatisserie. Thanks for all who came and showed your support, it means the world to me to see so many of you. We’re back on Monday with some new ideas but tomorrow - it’s a day off! ???? And these? These two boxes are mine! ?? ??
A good marketing person would find his story a joy to package, but he is not dressing it up just yet – preferring to be honest about where he has come from and how he found his calling almost by accident.
Cheltenham is an investment made possible by the proceeds from his book, and involved a relocation from Devon, a county he had moved to because of work after a spell of the same in Bath where he had also put in a year lecturing.
“If any chefs think their job is hard and being a teacher is easy by comparison, they are wrong,” he said, with utmost respect for his former peers in higher education.
The start of this year brought about the spell of bad luck which would ironically make 2020 the year that changed his life for the better.
“The catering company I consulted for went bankrupt in mid-February. I had a class in Amsterdam in March, and they were already wearing face masks thee then.
“So, I have been in lockdown since then,” he said, admitting he had found the blow of losing his job difficult and with the industry that fed him shutting down he reached a low prospects were few.
But then came the brainwave to launch his own enterprise, building on his social media following and book success – and he picked Cheltenham for its location and pressed ‘go’.
The Courtyard business will close briefly this weekend, while he fulfils his last commitment in Holland, before reopening the patisserie on Tuesday.
Every Monday thereafter it will be closed so he can stage classes teaching customers how to create their own chocolates and macarons.
“It sounds crazy, but there is already a plan to open another shop – probably in Oxford.
“I have a deal on the table with a supplier which serves the whole of the South West as well, so we could transplant all our cooking operations into a premises between here and Oxford, create more space in Cheltenham and grow from there,” he says, with a focus and energy that makes you think if anyone is going to pull off such an audacious move off the back of a pandemic it will be Mr Wager.
First published August 12.