Self-awareness is a great quality, and highly acclaimed executive pastry chef Paula Stakelum has it in abundance. It takes time, of course, to attain such a level – years, in fact, but once you have it you can never lose it. Paula’s background, and her journey from back then to now, is an object lesson in the benefits of laser-sharp focusing. Interestingly, her early career ambitions lay not in the culinary industry but in accounting, but quickly enough she figured (what else?) that she would rather spend time shelling peas than working with bean counters. That decision was made after she had worked part-time in the kitchen of a local hotel – bye-bye numbers, hello food.
When Paula graduated with a Bachelor’s degree in Culinary Arts (from Galway Mayo Institute of Technology), the first step on her career ladder was as the pastry chef at Galway’s Audilaun Hotel. She is now (and has been for over ten years) executive pastry chef at no less an establishment than Ashford Castle. It has been, she admits, quite the journey.
“It’s only when you sit down to think about it that you realise how it has gone,” she says. “I’m the kind of person that likes being active. I find if I have to do some computer-oriented work or paperwork that I don’t really like it, so I’m definitely in the right career!” She has also learned over the past couple of years, that while being a pastry chef with all of the intricate skills required to create beautiful end results, “what is far more important is that I become a great leader and a great leader of my team. Without having the team I can’t do any of the other stuff.”
As in every aspect of life, not everything works out the way you want it to. Much as we might like, life and all of its constituent parts aren’t perfect. Mistakes are made, but what is admirable about Paula’s worldview is that if errors are made she doesn’t dwell on them. “What I’ve learned about myself is that I have great ambition to get back up straight away and become even stronger. I know at the time if something isn’t going well, that it’s best not to worry, that things will be fine if not even better. I’ve always had the desire to achieve, strive and progress. I always want to be better and always want to do better.”
The drive to excel stems, she says, from her early days at Ashford when the then Executive Chef, Stefan Matz, expected everything within his realm to be flawless. “When I joined I was good, of course,” remembers Paula, “but I wasn’t the best. Looking back now, I knew that I had a lot to learn. Stefan invested in me, and between that and other things, I had the desire and drive to get it right.”
The same level of drive, the same aspirations to shine, is what Paula aims to pass on to her team. In the way that she learned from her tutors and mentors, she wants people to learn from her. There are differences, however: when Paula was learning her craft, there were no social media platforms around to either put you under pressure or praise you to the rafters. And with regards to gaining information and knowledge, there was no swiping left/right or scrolling up/down. It was all about hitting the recipe books. “You learned by asking questions and watching, and if you wanted to know a recipe you had to go and get or borrow the book.” She does, of course, also want people to learn from herself, but fully recognises that it isn’t “just about what we create, it’s also about what we create as a team.”
End results are one thing, she implies, but it is what goes into coming up with the end result that makes something special, something important, something of worth and value. This is the mindset of a good leader. What does Paula think are her primary leadership qualities?
“It’s important to realise,” she begins, “that I don’t always get it right. As yet, I’m not the leader I want to be, I’m still on that journey, but I now have a team that are exceptional and who are exceptionally skilled. We’ve come to a point over the last year that we can have conversations about something not going right and then move on from them straight away. I’m always on the floor with the team. I spend a bit of time doing paper work either in the morning or at night so that I can spend time with them. I think it’s really important in these Covid-19 times, with everything that’s going on, what with the uncertainty, that they know they have my support, no matter what.” Several weeks ago, she adds, three pastry chefs were promoted into new positions. “They truly deserved it,” Paula says with no small trace of pride and respect in her voice. “It makes me proud to see them grow, and it’s important they progress.”
The best pastry chefs are renowned for their mix of patience and perfectionism, so I ask Paula what are the absolute requirements for a job that, in fairness, might not suit everyone? At the beginning of any job, she suggests, people don’t have all the skills or the knowledge. That’s reasonable, she allows, because they are things you can teach. What is crucial, however, are the person’s “work ethic and commitment, a desire to really move forward. Different people have different qualities, and I know not everybody wants to be like me or to be an executive pastry chef. At the end of the day, however, it’s all about the guests and what we create for the guests. If somebody has that desire, if they have the passion, then everything else is really easy.”
There is something quite extraordinary about Paula Stakelum. She genuinely wants to take things a step further, to progress. Such advancements seem crucial to her, so the inevitable question has to be asked: what does she feel she needs to do to be better tomorrow than she is today?
“The leadership aspects I’m focused on are about being patient and finding ways to be that person. I’m sure there are many pastry chefs and chefs who know that not everything is perfect every single day, and I’m very lucky at Ashford in that our general manager, Niall Rochford, is so supportive of what I do. He will often tell me that my perfectionism is sometimes to my detriment, and so I try to be more pragmatic!”
WRITTEN BY TONY CLAYTON-LEA
Journeys in Taste Interviews are Sponsored by Lexus Ireland