FOOD&WINE interviews Paula Stakelum, executive head pastry chef at Ashford Castle in County Mayo
What’s your earliest food memory?
When we were young, we used to go to Tramore on our holidays. On the way, there was this apple and strawberry truck on the left side of the road. I can still see the big red apple on the side as you drove up to it. We always stopped for strawberries – I would have them all eaten by the time we got to Tramore.
What was the most valuable lesson you have learned on your career path?
You have to learn to be a great leader. You can have all the skills and passion to create the most amazing desserts but you need to have the team behind you, who support and trust you. Great teams are built on trust. When you have this, anything is possible. And don’t be afraid to fall, it will only make you stronger.
What is the best thing you ever cooked?
It’s quite rare that I’m 100 per cent content with desserts I create. Of course, I will be happy at the moment, but I’ll always be trying to move further, to reach the next level. It’s a limit that has no boundaries, which makes being a pastry chef so exciting and frustrating. I would say the dessert I created for the Valrhona pastry championship this year is among my all-time best –a Guanaja chocolate with pine and sorrel foraged on the Ashford estate. I’m working on a chocolate dessert right now that has even surpassed this dessert. For me, it’s about always moving forward.
What is your pet peeve in the kitchen?
Plates, perfectly polished plates. They have to be perfect on top and underneath.
Which kitchen tool could you not live without?
A step spatula, I’d be lost without it.
What is your current ingredient obsession?
Currently, I’m obsessed with the estate, trees in particular. I especially love pine trees and have been picking pine at different locations and times on the estate. I’m infusing and preserving these different aromas of pine and I’m creating a dessert that captures ‘moments’ of the estate over one year. The guests will experience Ashford through ‘Pine 2017’.
What/who are your biggest influences?
People. I work with people who think like me; we have the same vision. Our executive chef Philippe Farineau and our general manager Mr Rochford trust me, and it is their belief in what I do that drives me to be my best.
What was your most memorable meal?
Honestly, I’m very hard to please with desserts when I eat out. But last year, I had afternoon tea in The Lanagham, it was superb.
What’s your guilty pleasure?
Jellies. I’ll always taste the jellies for our private 32 seat cinema in Ashford, just to make sure they are fresh.
Dream dinner party guest?
Massimo Bottura to dinner with a few close hotel and chef friends. Imagine the concepts we would create. And brilliant craic!
What are your favourite eateries at home and abroad?
When I’m off, its Dough Bros in Galway for lunch with the most perfect pizza. In London, I love Pierre Marcolini – his éclairs and praline is the best.
What/who inspires you?
People, place and ingredients.
Let us in on your top foodie tip…
Never miss a Monday run. Be a leader; not a follower. Do what you feel is right and what you create will be amazing.