Paula Stakelum, Executive Head Pastry Chef, Ashford Castle

The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 16th May 2017

Paula Stakelum is the executive head pastry chef at Ashford Castle.

Originally pursuing a career as an accountant, things took a different turn when Paula Stakelum found herself working in the kitchen of a local hotel. Paula spent five years at The Ardilaun Hotel, which has one Rosette in the AA Restaurant Guide before moving on to become executive head pastry chef at Ashford Castle in Ireland.

Discovering her passion for food at an early age, it wasn’t until Paula spent time in all areas of the kitchen that she knew the pastry section was for her. After completing a degree that specialised in pastry, Paula found herself working at the Ardilaun Hotel working her way up to become head pastry chef before moving on to her current role at Ashford Castle.

The Staff Canteen spoke to Paula about where she finds her inspiration, how she's handling the chef shortage and why anything is possible within pastry.

Sheep's yoghurt, apple and hazelnut
Sheep's yoghurt, apple and hazelnut

How did you get into the industry? Had you always wanted to be a pastry chef?

I was always cooking at home from a very early age. Growing up I was very interested in numbers and wanted to be an accountant. You could probably say I fell into cooking, in a transitional year at school I found myself doing a placement in the kitchen at my local hotel. And it was only because the accountancy company I was to work in that particular week was on holiday. From that very first day I knew it was for me!

I did my Cert course at the time in CIT to be a chef, during placements I spent time in pastry sections as well as hot kitchens. It was during my time in Galway that I decided pastry was what I was going to do. I completed a BA in Culinary arts in GMIT specialising in pastry. The course was part time, so I used to go in on my days off as the course was very relevant to what I was doing in The Ardilaun at the time. I was able to use everything I learned in college.

The course was part time, so I used to go in on my days off as the course was very relevant to what I was doing in The Ardilaun at the time. I was able to use everything I learned in college.

Where did you work before Ashford Castle?

I started in my local Hotel, ‘Hayes Hotel’ in Tipperary while I was in school. I would work weekends and school holidays, doing everything from mashing potatoes to working with the chef on the pass in the evenings. I loved it, it was busy and I could see myself thriving.

During my college course, I spent a summer in the woodlands in Adare on the pastry Section.

I moved to Galway to do my final placement from college in The Ardilaun Hotel. I started as a commis and worked my way to become their head pastry chef. I spent five great years in The Ardilaun.

Info Bar

Signature dishes  

Peanut Butter Parfait Dessert

Ashford Estate Chocolate

Desserts with estate ingredients!

Desert island desserts 

Irish Strawberries

Shortcross Gin


Do a lot of your creations take inspiration from Ashford Castle’s history?

The Castle is so steeped in History, indirectly and sometimes unknown to myself I do take inspiration from the castle’s history.
One dessert I created, it was only when it was finished and I took a step back to look at it, that the design replicated parts of the castle!

Where else do you find inspiration, I bet your surroundings are quite inspirational?

Three things inspire me: People, Place and Ingredients.

Everything I create always has a great story behind it, but it’s not always intentional.

The Ashford estate is amazing and full of wonderful wild ingredients, it’s an amazing feeling to be out exploring the estate in the morning and find a special unique ingredient to work with. I will quite often watch ingredients grow and pick them at the exact perfect stage. And that is where it starts.

Each dessert starts with an ingredient, whether it be a wild strawberry I find on the estate or a chocolate that I have a connection to. For me, it’s about how I can best use that ingredient to get its best flavour, texture and create something new.

We currently have an ‘Ashford Estate’ chocolate which we will only create 1000 at a time. Sometimes I discover an ingredient on the estate and often it could be quite rare. I will only pick a small amount because It’s important to me that we support sustainable foraging on the estate, by leaving enough ingredients for the wildlife. With this ingredient I will use it in a way that I feel will capture and extract the best aroma to create a chocolate. When I capture this discovery and share it with our guest it encourages me to keep the voyage going.

People inspire desserts, I don’t do it alone! When you meet the person behind the product, it just makes it more special for me.
I’m very lucky that I’m surrounded by incredible people here at Ashford, Mrs Tollman, Mr Rochford and Phillippe are very inspiring and they ensure I have the resources to create and achieve what we do here at Ashford.

George V DiningRoom at Ashford Castle
George V DiningRoom at Ashford Castle

When Mrs Tollman visits we will often create desserts together. Mrs Tollman has her background in pastry so we really understand each other. She is amazing.

Phillippe will always push that little bit more, so we create the best. It’s really nice to have someone bounce ideas off and come up with something a bit different. We both share the same vision.

I will always give Mr Rochford credit for our peanut butter dessert on the George V menu, he inspired it! There is an incredible six-year story behind this dessert. It almost represents the journey I have taken here at Ashford so far and how he has inspired me to create this.

What are the biggest challenges in your role as head pastry chef?

Staff! I could tell you about how there is a shortage, everyone knows this! What’s important for our guests is that this never effects their stay. We believe this year we will overcome this challenge. I am committed to investing my time in each member of my team and for them to grow with me. For us going forward, it’s about giving them the best possible start we can. For me, some days it may turn out I have to work an exceptionally long day so that I can clear time for that person. But it’s worth it, my time with them is indelible! It works!

>>> Read more about the chef shortage here

What is it about pastry that you love?

Anything is possible. Yes, everything has to be exactly precise with a recipe and a dish, but that is when we have created it! The journey taken to create these recipes and dishes can be amazing. Yes, there are rules and guidelines in recipes but who said we can’t create these rules and guidelines!

Really it’s about the guests, and when you exceed their expectations, that feeling you get is hard to describe, it’s why I do it!
I love meeting guests and telling them the story behind the dessert, they love it too.

Oplays, rhubarb, shortcross, gin and Valrhona chocolate
Oplays, rhubarb, shortcross, gin and chocolate

How would you describe your food style?

Sharp. I’ve found myself more recently creating dishes that are exceptionally visually sharp. Yes, the beginning of a dish is about the ingredient, but it also has to look amazing too!

Are there any areas to pastry that you would like to learn more about?

Every area, I will never say I know everything. There is always that step further to go. You can be at the top, but isn’t that why they say ‘the sky is the limit’? I won’t ever stop learning.

Why do you feel pastry is such a specialised area?

Yes, it’s specialised but if you have the right person and they have the drive and want to learn, then that’s all they need.

Do you think there is a shortage of female pastry chefs at the moment?

No, I have an equally balanced male and female team in the pastry at the moment.

What are your plans for the future?

Who knows what the future holds. My future here at Ashford is certainly shining bright!

*A question from our sponsors Callebaut:

With special occasion dining being so popular, do you add special pastry dishes to your menu to allow your guests to celebrate, making their meal even more memorable?

Ashford Castle is a ‘go to’ hotel for celebrations, so we have diners in for special occasions every evening. If we know that a diner is celebrating a birthday or anniversary for example, we will extend what we call a ‘TNT’ or Tiny Noticeable Touch, which is my signature chocolate cake. Everybody loves chocolate, and everyone loves cake, so they’re always so happy to see the personalised plate heading to their table.

Are you interested in a career as a Pastry Chef? Find all the information and jobs available here

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The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 16th May 2017

Paula Stakelum, Executive Head Pastry Chef, Ashford Castle