Ranked as one of the top pastry chefs in the world, Paula Stakelum has taken the luxury desserts at Ashford Castle, in Mayo, one of the top hotels in the world, to new heights.

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Having known from a young age that she wanted to be a chef, Paula studied Professional Cookery at Cork Institute of Technology, before setting her sights on pastry and honing her skills further at Galway Mayo Institute of Technology. 

She came to Ashford Castle as the head pastry chef around eight years ago and since then, she has created exceptionally delicious desserts across the whole estate. We sat down with Paula recently to find out more about her career so far and what motivates her creativity.

Read more: Once in a lifetime stay in the “best hotel in the world” in County Mayo

On her time at Ashford Castle

"I grew up as a pastry chef here. When we started, there were two on the pastry team but now there are 13 of us across the whole estate. I design all the menus and flavors, which we change with the season. At the Castle, the George V Dining Room is the main restaurant and in the Lodge, we have Wilde’s, so I always start with those two first when making menus. We have some core dishes on the menus, like the crumble, which changes flavor according to the seasons but it will always be on the menu, but there's always room to create more. 

In the Lodge we focus on flavor, we use a lot of retro-style desserts and the guests love it. In the Castle, everything is very refined and sharp. Everything has a lot of meaning behind it, it’s not just about how it looks or tastes. Everything has to have a great story behind it.

About seven years ago, our general manager said ‘Let’s make peanut butter’ and I didn’t want to, but we did in the end. Over the years, I’ve changed the peanut butter a lot and he always tells me that it’s perfect, but I have to keep telling him that it’s not, that it will never be perfect. Everything has to keep progressing. There’s always a story and sometimes we don’t tell it, but it’s how I connect to the food and to the waiters. They’re able to tell the guests the stories and then that’s how they connect to the food too.

I wouldn’t change a day of anything I’ve done ever. What we do here is actually magical. There are moments when you see the reaction in a guest’s face and that’s so fulfilling and rewarding. That one moment makes the long hours and hard shifts just disappear. You chase that moment."

On her motivation and drive

"It makes a difference to the guest. We spend a lot of time creating something different that you won’t find anywhere else. Someone told me that they wanted to leave the industry to do something more fulfilling but I think you can change people’s lives through desserts by creating something meaningful and special for them. What’s more fulfilling than that?

I was lucky when I first came to the Castle that I was so persistent. The head chef said no a lot to me, but I would go home each night, determined to make the dessert the next day and make him love it! He was always right, but I would always work so hard to turn it around for him. His need for perfection inspired me.

I’m surrounded by people that have the same values and beliefs as me and when you’re in that environment, you want to do better all the time. I learn a lot from my team, if they’re inspired by something they’ve seen online, we’ll work together to try it out. It’s an open environment here, everyone is free to create and experiment.

I noticed about two years ago that I was having a high turnover of staff and I realized that I needed to change how I was leading and managing people. That’s something they don’t teach you in college, that you need to be a great leader. I could have all these skills but I need to be able to lead my team and have people look up to me. I started to develop as a leader and everything started to change and now our work environment is really creative and amazing. We have to make mistakes to be able to change, we have to fail before we can create and innovate.  My team wants to keep going and impress all the time. I want to try to keep them motivated because, without them, I wouldn’t be where I am now."

On Irish ingredients and inspiration

"I try to use only Irish ingredients in my desserts, I hate using passion fruit or mango because we can’t grow them here. People don’t come here to eat a passion fruit that’s been flown 10,000 miles. I forage a lot on the estate, just this week I foraged pine to use in our chocolate throughout the next year. We like to think about what we won’t have in the winter and make sure we preserve some of what we have on the estate to use them. Because of the weather and climate, everything is coming at different times so we’re ready to forage at any time.

When I’m creating something I usually have an idea in my head of where I want to go, but then I get inspired by what we have available and see where it goes. It’s very rare to have something in your head and then get it right on the first try. It could take a week or so until I’m happy with it. I’m not happy until it’s perfect, but then a few weeks later I’ll be ready to try something new again. 

Working in Ashford is different to anywhere I’ve ever worked, it really is like a family. There are good and bad days everywhere and it’s high-pressure here of course, but if you aren’t having a good day here, someone will notice and help you out. It’s so much fun and we really have a great time.

I really believe in progression and I have a plan for everyone that I help steer them towards. As long as people want to learn and work, you can teach everything else. You can inspire change in people."

Read more: Visit the home of the Quiet Man Cong County Mayo

* This article was originally published on our sister website, FOOD&WINE Ireland.