Eyes on the pies - The Pie Room by Calum Franklin
Published 06 October 2020

From humble hot savouries to intricate artistic inventions, our favourite comfort-food bake is having a moment in the sun thanks to a talented chef, writes Jimi Famurewa

Calum Franklin may be a bonafide Instagram phenomenon these days – a man whose photographs of intricately wrought savoury pies have attracted more than 110,000 followers – but his social media career began with hesitancy. ‘Because of the way social media was going at the time, I didn’t think there’d be an interest at first,’ says Calum, of the dormant Instagram account he revived not long after starting as executive chef at London’s Holborn Dining Room in 2014. ‘It was all about brightly coloured dishes, things cooked in red cabbage and squid ink. It just wasn’t my style. I thought brown food was never going to have [the same] interest, but then we began doing it and it blew up.’

‘Blew up’ is putting it mildly. Since establishing The Pie Room in 2018 (a separate, copper-hued pastry kitchen and workshop), this southeast London-raised chef has taken the British pie – that paragon of functional, lumpen comfort – and turned it into an internationally acclaimed vehicle for beauty and immense gastronomic skill. There have been lovestruck reviews from critics (The Financial Times’ Tim Hayward quipped that Calum’s artistry made him ‘a Pie-chelangelo’); Michelin-star titans such as US chef Thomas Keller have sent members of their teams to learn with Calum; and guests have flown in from as far as Australia, with the express purpose of sampling one of the geometrically precise pâtés or burnished pithiviers they’ve seen racking up likes online. He has even had to acclimatise to strangers sending him pies moulded into X-rated shapes. ‘I’ve accepted that a fact of my life is I don’t get sent rude photos of people, I get sent rude photos of pies,’ he chuckles.

Now, Calum’s first cookbook – also called The Pie Room – arrives resembling both an approachable recipe compendium and a celebratory victory lap. Announced at the height of lockdown, when the chef and his 30-strong team were either furloughed or making pies to raise money for the NHS (‘I did a week of Netflix and then was like, "I need to do something,’ he laughs), the 80 recipes skip enticingly from prawn thermidor vol-au-vents and haggis Scotch eggs to glazed apple tart and a Desperate Dan-worthy beast of a venison and bone marrow pie. Although the book has its share of showstoppers – the comprehensive beef Wellington recipe springs to mind – one of Calum’s chief aims was to make these dishes feel within the grasp of most home cooks.

‘We’ve tried to make it accessible,’ he says. ‘And it was really important that everything we tested I did in my home kitchen where I’ve got a pretty rubbish gas oven.’ That said, The Pie Room’s appeal seems curiously well-suited to a cooking landscape reconfigured by lockdown and the continued, housebound uncertainties of the pandemic. For one thing, there’s the fact that so many home cooks seemed to embrace expansive baking projects throughout lockdown. ‘There was that wave of banana bread and then that wave of sourdough,’ he notes. But, also, Calum’s hearty meats and vegetables encased in golden-brown pastry seem to be in step with a broader shift towards comfort eating. A time when the artful blobs and tweezered microherbs of fine dining seem to have been temporarily supplanted by high-end pizzas, roast chicken and burgers. ‘I went through a period when I thought fine dining was the be-all and end-all of cooking and looked down on the sort of thing I do now,’ he says. ‘But over time, I realised there is an honesty to simple food and there’s also nothing to hide behind.’

Of course, simple is not how you’d describe some of this self-described pastry deviant’s more Wonka-esque constructions (this, let us not forget, is a man who spent two months devising a way to put a clock face design in a sausage pâté en croûte, varying its boudin noir centre so the time changed as you sliced).
And, as his now reopened restaurant kicks back into gear – and he delves further into piemaking history following a collaboration with the British Library in 2018 – he’s adamant that The Pie Room marks the start of a journey, rather than a closing chapter. ‘I feel like we’re still at the beginning of this story,’ he says. ‘We’ve got so much more to do.’

The Pie Room (Bloomsbury) is out now.

Published October 2020