The pinnacle of kitchen perfection, the patisserie that populates our social media feeds and restaurant menus is often in equal measures exacting and exotic, a kaleidoscope of colourful creations made magical with mango, a plethora of pomegranate seeds or dribbled with the nectar of passion fruit.
Paula Stakelum, the Executive Pastry Chef at the five-star Ashford Castle, Cong Co.Mayo, prefers to take a more local and natural approach however.
While on the dessert menu at the George V Dining Room you’ll find touches of timut pepper, cacao nibs, and sesame these are just subtle accents that allow the intricately designed desserts to sing loudly about the likes of locally grown bramble apples and rhubarb, wild wood sorrel and hand-picked flowers that daintly decorate the tiered Afternoon Tea.
“Most mornings I run or cycle around the estate and go foraging,” says Paula on how she takes advantage of the sprawling 350 acre estate. “It’s such a beautiful place and I definitely take a lot of inspiration from my surroundings.”
“Many of my dishes are based around ingredients from the estate. It makes them just that little bit more special. There are some ingredients that you can’t buy and that’s what makes the difference for our guests.”
Her style was showcased in her winning dish at this year’s Valrhona Patisserie competition.
Her interpretation of this year’s theme of ‘Classic Revisited’ resulted in a stunning ‘Guanaja Chocolate Bavarois’ which she designed to incorporate three types of Valrhona chocolate but also sorrel and pine collected from around the Ashford Castle estate.
Designing the dish was a process that Paula describes as “almost like capturing moments that I have experienced on the estate and putting them into a dessert.”
“When the judges tasted it they were almost tasting what I taste when I go foraging on the grounds of the castle.”
Audibly passionate in her description it’s clear the competition was a challenge she thoroughly relished, so it comes as little surprise when she says “making chocolate” is her favourite part of the job.
With a dedicated chocolate room and chocolate machine Paula has a chocolate playground at her disposal, and uses anywhere between ten and twenty kilograms of chocolate per day to create everything from petit fours, to the chocolate shards studded with nuts that accompany every tea and coffee served across the estate.
Speaking to her on what was the hottest day of the year, Paula was planning to retreat to the air-conditioned Chocolate Room for the rest of the afternoon – somewhere she’ll spend a lot more time over the next few months as she reveals Ashford Castle are developing their very own blend of chocolate.
It was sunny summer days just like these that changed this confectioner’s career path in fact. “I had planned to do my TY work placement with my dad’s accountant, but he was on holidays at the time, so instead I worked at the local hotel in Thurles.”
Undertaking a culinary arts degree in Cork, Paula learnt about every aspect of kitchen, sweet and savoury. But it was when on a placement at The Ardilaun Hotel in Galway that she really became consumed by confectionary.
“At the time they bought in all their desserts, and I thought why would we buy it when we could make it ourselves? Luckily a new head chef had just started and he had the same frame of mind as me.”
The plucky and passionate 20 year old took control of the pastry section and paved the way for a pastry legacy that continues at the hotel today.
Spurred on by this success, on her days off she undertook a part-time degree in GMIT specialising in pastry. Her ambition and flair didn’t go unnoticed, and in late 2010 she was headhunted by Ashford to take on the role of Head Pastry Chef.
When the Red Carnation Hotel group took over Ashford Castle in 2013, investing €70 million in the property, they created a new position for Paula, Executive Pastry Chef, to acknowledge the increased responsibility that came with the hotel’s expansion.
“The pastry kitchen now supplies eight different outlets; the fine dining George V Dining Room, the bistro-style Dungeon restaurant, the recently reopened Cullen’s at the Cottage, Afternoon Tea in the Connaught Room, in-room dining, the Billards Room, the spa, and a retail unit. So there’s a lot coming from the one section!”
Along with the hotel’s diverse dining options the pastry team too has grown from three to eight chefs since Paula started. “Some of the guys have come on board at a very junior level and they have progressed hugely. We have progression plans for the whole team. They grow with me and the castle.”
Paula says she too has developed as a chef. “From when I started in Ashford, to now, I am definitely not the same pastry chef as I was.”
She credits much of her progress to the former head chef at Ashford Castle Stefan Matz. “He is German, so he was very sharp and precise. Everything had to be perfect. I got my obsession with straight lines from him!”
Although Chef Matz has moved on, Paula says she is very fortunate to now work with Chef Philippe Farineau who is a huge support to her and the pastry team.
And although she says she doesn’t have one signature dish, Paula’s signature straight lines can be seen across all of her creations.
“For me it’s all about being sharp. Anyone can put something on a plate, but it takes a certain skill to be able to get it exactly right.”
So, while she may not have ended up dedicating her life to numbers, Paula says her ‘creative’ career choice involves no less precision and accuracy – with Paula admitting to being a perfectionist.
“You have to be. It’s not like the main kitchen where you might add an extra pinch of salt to make a dish taste better, if you add a pinch of salt to a bread recipe it could be ruined.”
This dedication to designing desserts without default is something that continually drives her and the team at Ashford Castle.
“We are constantly reviewing things and asking how can we make things better. We never stay the same, it’s a constant evolution.”
An example of this process is her Peanut Parfait, the most popular dessert at the restaurant, which she says has taken over ten revisions to perfect ever since it was first requested by Mr Niall Rochford, the general manager, on Christmas Day seven years ago.
A staple on the menu ever since, Paula has seen the dish develop alongside her own career at the Castle. “Even when we look back at the pictures it really shows the progression we’ve made.”
“It was only about two months ago that we decided it was finally right and that we wouldn’t make any more changes.” In its current and final form the peanut butter parfait is served with banana sorbet, salted peanuts and a cremeux using Bahibe chocolate sourced from the Dominican Republic.
“That dish has a great story behind it, and although it wasn’t intentional, all of our desserts have a story. It really helps the guests connect with the dish”.”
While events like these often stimulate her creativity, she also looks to other pastry chefs for inspiration like Cherish Finden, the formidable multi-award winning former Executive Pastry Chef at The Langham, London, and Bake Off: Creme de la Creme judge, who Paula describes as “a great role model for female pastry chefs.”
Though when pressed on that topic she disputes the preconception that pastry chefs are predominantly women. “It’s actually the opposite! A man can be just as creative as a woman and here in Ashford we have a good balance of males and females”
On current pastry trends she says you only have to scroll through Instagram to notice the craze for colour. “Everything is very visual. People are being far more creative than before, challenging norms. There is a lot more colour being used.”
“But for me while it has to make an impact visually first, it all comes down to taste.”
“But we are working on a new Afternoon Tea menu at the moment that does have a few colourful surprises. It’s going to be on another level.”
I seek her opinion on the grossly indulgent croughnuts that have swept social media and has seen the opening of dedicated stores across the country.
“I believe when you create something it should tell a story and make sense in your surroundings. However, we listen to our guests and will always create their preferences, so someday we may be creating the Ashford Croughnut”.”
“People travel to Ireland and come to Ashford to taste our food, so for me everything should be specific and unique to where it’s created.”
Paula’s desserts do exactly that, capturing Ashford Castle on a plate, and she says it’s down to the support of the Castle that allows her to achieve this feat.
“Anything is possible. Our general managers Mr Rochford and Mrs Tollman, president and founder of Red Carnation Hotels, have great trust in me, and that allows me to be creative as I can be. If I have an idea I can bring it to life very easily. If it’s going to make the guest’s experience better than they give me the resources to do it.”
With the confidence of her colleagues behind her, Paula Stakelum is free to indulge her love of local ingredients, and straight lines. While other female leaders have been said to rule with an iron fist, at Ashford Castle Paula reigns with a rolling pin and a ruler in hand.
For more information on dining at Ashford Castle visit www.ashfordcastle.com.
Erica grew up with a baker and confectioner for a father and a mother with an instinct and love for good food. It is little wonder then that, after completing a law degree, she went on to do a Masters in Food Business at UCC. With a consuming passion for all things food, nutrition and wellness, working with TheTaste is a perfect fit for Erica; allowing her to learn and experience every aspect of the food world meeting its characters and influencers along the way.