Almost unbelievable phone call announces award win

July 31, 2023

When Amie Irwin’s cell phone rang, she couldn’t quite believe what she heard. “You have won the Apprentice Pie Maker of the Year,” said the caller.

“I convinced myself that I’d heard wrong, and I really didn’t do much about it until the next day when it was official,” laughs Amie. “I thought I couldn’t possibly have won, and I was sure that I’d heard wrong. When my husband found out he went absolutely crazy on Facebook and I got lots of congratulations. It was a very exciting time.”

Through Competenz Te Pūkenga, Amie is in her second year of a New Zealand Certificate in Trade Baking (Level 4) – Pastry strand, working at The Clareville Bakery in the Wairarapa near Carterton. She entered the NZ Bakels Apprentice Pie Maker competition with a pie filled with slow-cooked lamb shoulder with rosemary, white wine, caramelised onion, and vintage cheese.

“The idea for the filling came from what I cook at home. I was thinking about what I would like to eat on a cold winter’s day – a nicely cooked roast lamb with rosemary that I’d allow to cook in the oven for ages, slowly.” Amie says she also wanted to re-create memories of yesteryear, of being at a grandmother’s house eating cold roast lamb with pickles and cheese for lunch. “Just nice comforting memory-type food.”

When it came to the cheese, she wanted a strong flavour that would come through and complement the richness of the lamb. “Lamb is quite a sweet meat, and you’ve got the wine coming through, so you really want a nice salty, strong cheese, and the aged cheddar appealed to me.”

After tweaking the recipe to ensure it would work well in a pie, it got the tick of approval at The Clareville Bakery to go on sale, and it’s proved very popular.

Bakery owner and Amie’s baking tutor Mike Kloeg says: “It’s going really well for a brand new flavour, we’re doing about 40 pies a day. We’re very happy with that, and the customers seem to be very happy with it as well.”

With a former career as a chef, Amie was keen to experiment with different flavours before finally settling on the slow-cooked lamb. As well as the filling looking inviting, tasting good and working well in the pastry, one of the considerations was in developing a recipe that had to be relatively producible compared to other things that might get a bit messy. “Sometimes too fancy is just too fancy.”

Amie says the competition has really helped her with her apprentice learning and she’s glad she took part.

“I’ve just started my second year in pastry, and this was a really good opportunity to spend a bit of time on pastry and really work out how it works and how to make it work in this situation for a really awesome pie. So I feel like I’ve gained a whole lot of knowledge just simply from this competition.”

Competenz Te Pūkenga Training Advisor Tony Gunby said Amie has a passion for baking and is taught by people with the pedigree for creating award-winning pies.

"Amie's dedication to her craft makes her a deserving winner. With the support of her employer Mike Kloeg, a former recipient of the prestigious Bakels Supreme Gold Award in 2014, and the guidance of Foreman Mitchel Cordery, Amie's organised and determined approach has paved the way for success in her apprenticeship."

A requirement of the competition is to make your own pastry. Amie spent time tweaking pastry recipes and the folding process to get the best result. Eventually, she came up with a pastry formula that she really liked and felt confident would work well with the filling.

With that much research and practice into creating her pie, Mike took the next step by ensuring it arrived for judging in perfect condition.

“We hand delivered it. My mental capacity to handle not knowing what state my products arrive in or even if they do arrive at all, is not great, so hand delivery is the cheapest insurance I can come up with for the product to arrive in its best possible form. Speaking to the effort that Amie went through to produce what she produced, and the other apprentices, as well as whenever we enter a competition, it takes time and effort, it’s physical and emotional when you’re trying to produce something that you’ve got in your mind what you want it to look like, and there are multiple factors that need to be taken into account. It’s a very emotional time, and for us, it’s nothing to spend $500 on flights to make sure that the product arrives safe and sound,” says Mike.

“When you’re entering a competition it’s a bit like entering the Olympics. You put your heart and soul into that particular product for a particular time with a lot of extra care and time spent on making something as beautiful as possible,” says Mike.

Amie says that when it came to choosing which strand to study first for her qualification, it was a hard choice because she liked the idea of the bread strand as well, but with another apprentice studying bread, she felt pastry was a good strand to complement the business. It’s turned out to be an exciting choice, with Amie also helping with the entry in the iconic Baking New Zealand Custard Square/Vanilla Slice Competition which The Clareville Bakery went on to win.

“We’ve just entered the custard square competition in which we made beautiful puff pastry and we went on to win best in New Zealand,” said Amie.

The Clareville Bakery offers a large selection of pastry products, from croissants, danishes and canelés to crackers, cronuts and, of course, award-winning pies. Its most famous pie, the lamb cutlet and kumara mash, won the Bakels New Zealand Supreme Pie Award in 2014, so it seems fitting that Mike is passing on his skills to the next generation of bakers. Another of his apprentices, Amy Bryant placed fourth in the Apprentice Pie Maker Awards with a braised beef, streaky bacon, kumara mash, and cheese pie.

Amie says working in an industry she loves doesn’t feel like work. She has a young family and being a baker fits in well with family life.

Mike says: “The likes of Amie and Amy don’t come around every day, and having them on our team is great. One of our mottos in the bakery is, ‘always try to better your best’, and that’s something that we try to keep at the forefront of all our products and include in our culture. Always be challenging and critiquing our products. Everyone in the bakery, whether an apprentice or a baker, should be allowed to comment, critique and discuss our products with the idea of constantly challenging ourselves and what we are doing. When Amie and Amy take that onboard, and they understand that idea of how can we do better than we did yesterday, when they grasp that it is one of the things that contribute to their success.”

They also need to have a love of food and a willingness to learn, and Mike says that makes the job a lot easier in terms of motivation.

It has been very satisfying for him to see Amie and Amy do so well in the Apprentice Pie Maker of the Year competition. And as their teacher, he says his goal for all his staff is that they become better than he is.

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