I first met Brian Campbell in the kitchen at Hip Group's Britomart dessert bar Milse, three weeks before opening. He pulled out draw after draw of glossy handmade chocolates for me to try - basil, earl grey, caramel - my taste buds instinctively tingle at the memory; each mouthful was the exact essence of the flavour described, totally fresh and pure, unlike any artisan chocolate I'd ever tried.
Milse's intricate tiled ceiling was still being installed at this point, and dust sheets lined the floor, but Brian was completely ready, his enthusiasm for the myriad of flavour potentials ahead of him palpable.
Two years later, and the pastry chef is ready for a new challenge. He is driven by newness, which a quick glance of his Instagram page indicates. Each day a new sweet and magical creation is dreamed up in the Milse kitchen, with the help of a team of chefs Brian treats like family. "I don't like the boss/employee dynamic' he explains, 'instead I nurture the younger chefs to get them to a level where they can stand on their own two feet.'
It's no surprise that half the team cried when Brian broke the news he was leaving, but after 14 years of being a pastry chef in some of the world's best kitchens (3 michelin star restaurants in the USA, UK and Spain amongst them), he's excited about the freedom working for himself will give him, starting with a series of pop up dessert degustations.
On February 16th and March 2nd, Brian will take over the kitchen of Auckland restuarant Merediths, with his wife and Ima Cuisine host Roselle Campbell running the floor to present an evening of sweet creations inspired by Michael Meredith's style of fine dining. Three courses will be served, with the option of an additional fourth for those inclined, as well as a selection of fine wines and sodas.
If the idea of four courses of rich desserts is off-putting, be reassured, as (and this may come as a shock) Brian confesses:
'I don’t have a sweet tooth whatsoever. With everything I make, I dull the sugar right down to make the flavours sing out, so whilst there will be sugar on the night, the menu won’t be overly sweet'.
He explains that planning a sweet degustation is just like planning a regular savoury one, in the sense that each course requires a different level of intensity of flavour that gradually builds to a crescendo in the final courses. In savoury degustations this crescendo comes in the form of a rich, meaty dish, but for Brian, dark, chocolatey dishes are built up to from lighter flavours and dainty, tangy starters. 'The key is to find balance. It's something I've done for a while so I'm confident it will be great.'
The hospitality community is confident too, and since announcing the pop-ups at Merediths earlier this week, Brian has received plenty of invitations by other restauranteurs and chefs, keen to share their kitchens with him in the name of adventurous dining. The idea is to reflect the atmosphere and food philosophy of the hosting restaurants, so Brian envisages delicious ice cream sundaes and shared desserts at more casual venues.
The new approach comes with a different set of challenges, as Brian explains: 'When we change the menus over at Milse your hands will struggle to find everything, as we ususally have a draw for each dish. Your motor reactions need to be retrained. Popping up in different kitchens - ideally three or four times a week - will mean my hands will probably feel quite lost. The more I think about it, the more scared I am, but that's a good thing!'
I finished the interview with a question I couldn't resist asking. After 14 years of being surrounded by exquisite gateaus and handcrafted chocolates, when was the last time he bought a chocolate bar from a dairy? 'I love Whittakers chocolate, but not the milk, it's too sweet.'
Brian's first Dessert Pop Ups at Merediths take place on February 16th and March 2nd. Tickets cost $45 for three courses, $54 for four. To book, visit his facebook page. You can follow Brian on Instagram to keep up-to-date with other dessert pop up events, or visit his website.