Thurles native Paula Stakelum will fly the Irish flag at the C3 Valrhona championships in Brooklyn in October
A Thurles pastry chef will be hoping for sweet success when she flies to New York later this year as one of eight finalists in the worldwide Valrhona patisserie competition.
Thirty-two year old Paula Stakelum, who is the Executive Pastry Chef at Ashford Castle, beat stiff competition from hundreds of other talented confectioners at the regional C3 Valrhona championships in France last month to earn to place at the grand final in the US this October.
Stakelum, who trained in professional cookery at Cork IT and later in culinary arts at GMIT in Galway where she specialised in pastry, is the first ever Irish entrant to reach the final of the C3 (chocolate chef competition) event.
The talented chef wowed the judging panel with her unique take on the Mayo landscape, using the grounds of Ashford as inspiration for the desert which combined foraged ingredients including pine tips, sloe berries and rare crab apples sourced directly from the historic estate.
“I go running every morning and I remember being hit with the smell from the pine trees and I knew I had to incorporate it into a dish so I researched it and found a way to use the pine tips to create an oil. I love using foraged ingredients that tell the story of the estate in turn creating something you can only taste at Ashford Castle,” she tells the Tipperary Star.
With a five and a half hour window, Stakelum felt the heat of the Paris kitchen as she competed with top chefs from around the world to create eight plated desserts with molded chocolate bonbons.
“It was intense and at times I felt I wasn’t where I needed to be on my list but it all came together in the end,” she says, adding that her training schedule for the competition saw her practice her signature dish every day for over two months.
Pic: Paula's winning chocolate bonbons featuring pine oil made at the Ashford estate
While the former Ursuline student says she had originally intended to pursue a career in accountancy, a work experience placement at Hayes Hotel changed the 16 year olds career trajectory resulting in the Thurles native becoming one of the most sought after chefs in the country.
“I was always creative but it wasn't until I worked in Hayes that I thought about a career in food,” she says.
While studying in Galway, Stakelum took up a job at the renowned Ardilaun Hotel where she combined her practical experience in class with her creative flair for innovative flavour combinations.
Her attention to detail quickly caught the eye of Ashford Castle and after five years in Galway, Stakelum was headhunted to take up a role as executive head pastry chef at the estate.
“I can't wait until the next stage of the competition and I'm already trying to think up new ideas. We'll be given a brief soon for the final and I'll have to come up with something to impress the judges. I love what I do and I'm extremely grateful for the support given to me by the team at Ashford,” she adds.