The First Woman to Win World’s Best Pastry Chef Comes to London: Jessica Préalpato
The talented Jessica Préalpato is the first woman to be named World’s Best Pastry Chef. Her recipe for success has been a bit of serendipity mixed with complete dedication.
Born into a family of French bakers, she began working in her parent's patisserie at a young age but decided to study psychology at university. Alas, the pull of the pastry was too strong and she committed to training at the prestigious Hotel School of Biarritz. After getting her culinary degree, Jessica became a dedicated disciple of the renowned Michelin-star chef Alain Ducasse, working with him at the iconic Plaza Athénée.
Since then, Jessica has become well known in her own right for inventing her signature style “Desseralité,” a mixture of the words dessert and naturalité. Jessica preserves and enhances the entirety of the whole fruits, without compromising the key ingredient and its natural taste. In other words, she makes patisserie without using refined sugars, by extracting the natural sugars and flavors. Cue awards here––the aforementioned World’s Best Pastry Chef in 2019 and the coveted "Pastry Chef of the Year" by Gault et Millau in 2020.
Now Jessica is taking on England. For her first residency outside of France, she has boldly reinvented the English tradition of Afternoon Tea at the newly renovated five-star Carlton Tower Jumeirah in London’s fashionable Chelsea neighborhood. Drawing her inspiration from Kew Gardens, “In France, we don't have this tradition of afternoon tea. And for me, you don't touch the traditions of a country. As a French pastry chef, I have to respect it,” she told me at a recent event to preview the new tea service. Working with seasonal, locally sourced produce, the new menu explores and celebrates the best ingredients available in England. Her six-course Afternoon Tea experience is truly mind-blowing. Here’s more of our conversation.
I read that you were born into a family of French pastry chefs and bakers, what was your first job?
My first job was helping my mum in the shop. I was a cashier and I put cakes in boxes. I loved it. But my real first job was as a pastry clerk at "Les frères Ibarboure" in the French Basque Country.
Did your family encourage you to become a pastry chef?
At first not really. My father kept telling me that it was a difficult job in the restaurant business with very strict hours and discipline. But that didn't really scare me. On the contrary, I was just afraid I wouldn't be able to reconcile family life and work, but I manage quite well if I organize myself.
What steps did you take in your career to end up working with the legendary Alain Ducasse?
I worked with the right people at the right time. I always followed my feelings and they led me directly to Mr. Ducasse. When he first told me about Naturalité I thought it was totally crazy and incredible. Today it's trendy. It's amazing to work next to someone who is constantly ahead of the curve on the future of food and eating.
Who has mentored you or been most influential in shaping your career?
All the people I have worked with have inspired me in my baking. But Mr. Ducasse remains the most inspirational for my new patisserie. No or very little sugar with taste in the center of everything. It has swept away my beliefs in terms of pastry and I am having more and more fun with my creations.
You were the first woman to win the coveted World’s Best Pastry Chef title, what did that feel like?
It was an amazing year for me, I was pregnant with my daughter and then this title came along and brightened up my life even more. A real chance and a real example that the difference in the vision of desserts pays off. I was very proud of my teams who accompanied me every day and of my chef Romain Meder who has supported me for the last 5 years in each of my creations. It was a real team effort, so a real team trophy too.
Do you feel you faced challenges as a woman in this traditionally male-dominated part of the industry?
No, I don't separate men and women. I am lucky to have built up a strong and independent character in each of my experiences in the kitchen. I am a chameleon as they call me. I study each environment and adapt. I never let go of my goal to do different things while conceiving the freedom to create.
What changes would you like to see for women in the industry?
Many people confide in me. But there are as many women as men. Like many other sectors, the profession is changing and evolving but there are still unacceptable practices. Some people talk to me about macho language, a way of constantly putting people down, and long working hours. You really must adapt your style to a new era. Kindness, respect for private life and work, and well-being is essential in this post-covid world.
The Worlds Best Pastry Chef is awarded to innovative creators––previous winners included the renowned Pierre Hermé (2016), Dominique Ansel (2017), and Cédric Grolet (2018)––where do you draw your inspiration from?
Naturalité pastry is innovative in its own way. Being inspired by fruits, understanding them, getting the maximum taste and material from them, respecting them, and putting them forward is a different way of creating pastry. The inspiration is nature. It "is our garden" (quote from Yann Arthus Bertrand) and it is true. Herbs, plants, cereals, and fruits are all around us, we just have to respect them to get the best out of them.
How do create such delicious and beautiful creations without using refined sugars?
I have developed different techniques to extract it naturally from the fruit. And of course, ripe fruit doesn't need added sugar. You just must enhance it and find the perfect balance so that it doesn't lack anything.
What was the most challenging part of creating an Afternoon Tea service? Was it intimidating to attempt this English tradition as a French woman?
In France, we don't have this tradition of afternoon tea. And for me, you don't touch the traditions of a country. As French pastry chefs, we have to respect it. So it's a real team effort. Each one of us used our London experience to try to respect the customs while bringing a touch of creativity and uniqueness.
Do you see what you are doing with fewer ingredients and without refined sugars as the start of a trend? Do you see other chefs doing this now too?
No, it's not a trend. For me, it's really in the air. You can't go back once the palate has adapted to less sugar. But it's a wonderful thing for respecting our bodies. Today we want to know what we are eating. Transparency allows us to remove every harmful product (such as additives or coloring). This is an incredible future for better eating and wellness.
What other trends do you see coming up?
I would say that people are listening to themselves more and more. So we have more and more lactose and gluten allergies or intolerances. This is a new playground to explore to meet the expectations of these people so that the experience is the same but adapted to their intolerances.
What personality traits do you think are most important to be a successful pastry chef?
Creativity and tenacity. The road is long and full of bends. You have to keep your goal in sight. Creativity allows us to express ourselves and have fun.
What advice would you give an aspiring pastry chef?
To explore. I love mixing flavors and tastes. Cherry and watercress, strawberry and nettle... you have to explore and not be afraid to change recipes and see what happens… A bit like yoga, get out of your comfort zone and explore the unknown.
Shifting gears, you have over 92k followers on Instagram, and your photos and videos are beautiful. What is your social media strategy and how do you handle it?
I manage it on my own whenever I have time. I would love to have some help on it but for now, I haven't found my gem. So I show my teams, our creations and I go on like that - slowly and simply and it suits me.
Food trends are all over social media, coming from novices to trained experts like yourself, how do you stay relevant?
I watch very little social media. I don't really know. I stick to what I believe in, eating well, and doing what I love to introduce customers to new flavors.
What are your top tips for others looking to grow their social media presence?
Good luck 😊
Who inspires you right now?
I am an admirer of Yann Arthus Bertrand and his daily fight to defend nature, people, and animals.
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Thank you, Jessica, we look forward to following your career and eating more of your wonderful creations!