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A day in the life of Executive Head Pastry Chef Paula Stakelum: ‘I’ve never questioned whether I’m in the right career or not’


By Amanda Cassidy
15th Aug 2020
A day in the life of Executive Head Pastry Chef Paula Stakelum: ‘I’ve never questioned whether I’m in the right career or not’

In 2018, Paula was ranked one of the top eight pastry chefs in the world.  Fondly known as Paula Pastry, now she is responsible for creating and making the exceptionally delicious desserts across the 5-Star Ashford Castle Hotel and estate. Amanda Cassidy sat down with her to discuss her motivations, advice for aspiring chefs, and that chocolate room.


“It wasn’t a career I grew up aspiring to be in,” explains Tipperary native Paula Stakelum. “However, after a work experience in a local hotel in Tipperary during transition year at school, I knew it was the career for me.”

Paula, from Thurles, has worked hard to achieve her rankings among the world’s best. She says that once hooked, she  never wanted to do anything else.

“I was instantly drawn to the amazing energy in the kitchen and the teamwork involved. I went on to study professional cookery in Cork IT. When I moved to Galway, I continued my studies with a B.A in Culinary Arts specialising in pastry at GMIT.

 

Focus

“I have only recently realised the importance of the tiny “aha moments”

In 2010, I joined Ashford Castle as Head Pastry Chef, and since then I have become Resort Executive Head Pastry Chef. I lead the pastry team and design all the dessert menus and sweet dishes across the estate.

To be honest, I’ve never questioned whether I’m in the right career or not, I know I am! I have only recently realised the importance of the tiny “aha moments”. I have lots of notebooks for writing down recipes from work and at the start of every notebook I write a quote that has significance to me at the time. I recently found my first notebook from when I started in Ashford almost 10 years ago.

The quote from that notebook is in my current notebook “to create with the intent to inspire” – this is how I know I am in the right career. The “why” has never changed.

So is life as a pastry chef as delicious as it sounds?

“I may be biased, but I think being a pastry chef is the best job in the castle,” Paula laughs. “It’s not always chocolate and Instagram stories but it’s creative and fun and I wouldn’t change it for the world.

I’m very lucky that the Tollman family trust me, they give me the freedom to be creative so that we can create moments for our guests that they will cherish forever. I’m surrounded by people who think like me and share the same values in life and in work.

Paula says a standout moment in her career was three years ago when she entered a prestigious pastry competition…and won.

“In 2017, I took part in the Irish Valrhona Pâtisserie Championship and won first place. The following year, in 2018, I decided to take part in the C3 Valrhona international patisserie competition. It is a very challenging competition and one that elite pastry chefs from across in the world take part in each year. I ended up winning the Paris heat, which placed me among the top eight pastry chefs in the world.

Representing Ireland on the world stage in New York, was incredible and these competitions changed me as a chef. While I may not have won officially, I came back more determined and focused than ever before and that is better than any medal or title for me.

“In high season we make 10kg minimum chocolates every day”

A typical day

I’m always in the kitchen before 9am. The first thing I always do is greet everyone in the three kitchens. I will then check the bookings in all the restaurants and outlets, cake orders, amenities, and special requests for the day ahead.

I check in with the morning pastry chefs and Chef Philippe (Executive Chef Phillippe Fairneau) And then it’s time to make chocolate! We have a chocolate room with a tempering machine in the Castle, the chocolate is always tempered by 9.30am. In high season we make 10kg minimum chocolates every day.

By 11am I am back in the pastry kitchen where we begin mise-en-place for the restaurants and outlets. The pastry shifts are divided between each restaurant or section. Everyone has different tasks, however, we work together to make it happen.

Service begins in our two casual restaurants at 6pm and our fine dining restaurant, The George V, at 6.30pm so there’s very little downtime, but we have fun along the way. There are always plenty of treats to taste-test.

“Remember, the goods days always prevail”

Is it a tough industry to break into?

“If you want to be at the top of your game, you will have to work hard but it’s worth it,” says Paula. “Have a clear vision and a goal of what you want to achieve in life and just go for it. There will be days that break you, and there will be ones that make you. Remember, the goods days always prevail.

Niall Rochford (General Manager) once told me; “It is not how hard you fall, its how fast you pick yourself up again,” so on the bad days, try to remember that challenges can make you stronger, you just have to keep going, pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and keep going.

Image via Paula Sakelum

Read more: A meal that changed my life