Jessica Prealpato, The World's Top Pastry Chef, Prefers Guilt-Free Desserts
Her desserts are often not at all sweet and she couldn't care less if people complain they don't look great on Instagram. But that did not stop Jessica Prealpato from being named the best pastry chef on the planet on Tuesday by the World's 50 Best Restaurants ranking.
The 32-year-old French woman, who is about to have her first child, is the creator of a new genre of guilt-free patisserie. The subtle and sublime creations she turns out at the three-star Michelin restaurant of the Plaza Athenee hotel in Paris are a rebuff to the sugar-rush burn of food porn.
For Prealpato, it’s not about how a dessert looks, it's how it tastes—and the feelgood glow afterwards. Yet, even she has not dared to have her father—a patissier forged in full-on sugar worship of French tradition—taste her creations that match strawberries with pine shoots and lemon with seaweed.
"He would not understand what I do at all," she told AFP.
Prealpato has eschewed the sugar high for what her boss at the Plaza Athenee, French super-chef Alain Ducasse, calls "naturalité"—or naturalness—bringing out the full range of flavours an ingredient already has.
What Prealpato also does is use ingredients that would never normally make it onto a dessert trolley. So, you have malted beer sorbet with barley crumble and hop galettes, cherry olive vinaigrette or vanilla Jerusalem artichokes with truffles.
Sugar as seasoning
"We shake people up," Prealpato said with a laugh. She has already produced a book of 50 of her desserts called Desséralité, including her All Rhubarb, where the often astringent plant is served roasted, raw, fermented, grilled and poached. "I love to use vinegars and try every style of cooking so that I get the most flavours out of a product," she explained.
One of a tiny number of female patisserie chefs working in three-star restaurants, some of her peers have criticised her for the unfussy way she presents her food, claiming that it’s not sophisticated enough for such an upscale establishment.
But four years ago, when she was starting out at Alain Ducasse at the Plaza Athenee, she said that the famed chef left her in tears when he refused to taste one of her first fruit-based desserts.
"I can see why now," she said. "I had presented it like a patisserie chef usually would, with lots of mousse, cream and a tuile. "For him, a dessert didn't have to be about these things."
So Prealpato "took everything away", adding that today, she rarely ever works with chocolate or coffee. Instead, her desserts play with sourness and acidity, and she uses sugar as others would salt, for seasoning.
Pretty isn't everything. "I understand why some clients may not like that," she said. Initially hurt by such negative feedback, Prealpato has become used to it. It also makes being crowned the world's best pastry chef all the more sweet. "I am amazed. It's enormous for me. I never would have guessed that my patisseries would go that far."
With a frankness rare at the top of her profession, Prealpato admitted that they aren't exactly beautiful to look at. "They may seem very simple but a huge amount of work goes into making them," she said.
On average it takes a month to create a new recipe and her dessert menu changes with the seasons.
Nor does the Earth generally shake when she shares them on Instagram—unlike her Parisian rival Cedric Grolet, who won the title last year and has more than 1.3 million fans who eagerly share his visually stunning creations.
"My poor 20,000 followers!" Prealpato joked. Unlike Grolet—who, like her, is something of a sugar sceptic—she said she doesn't have the time to make her desserts look good by putting them on a white background.
Point is, she dosen't have anything against traditional French patisserie, which she loves—she just doesn't want to spend her life making them.
"I came here (to work with Ducasse) because I was sick of doing chocolate pistachio and cherry almond all the time. Some of the classics "are so good I don't see how you can revisit them," she said.
Even more surprising is that none of the members of her Franco-Italian family of cooks and patissiers has tasted her latest creations.
"When I go home we don't talk about my work, and my parents don't really know what I am up to, which is fine by me.
"We love to sit down together and eat food you can share— it's often not fancy at all."