Her chocolates are a hit with breweries, chefs, and, er, with me. Her salted caramel is the stuff dreams are made of. Her sculptured Christmas trees and even her Easter eggs are too good to eat. Well, almost.
From working market stalls and selling her chocolates direct to moving online, Jessica O’Keefe’s chocolates are proving a hit not only with the public, but with venues across the city.
She supplies Palate in Chorlton, Epicerie Ludo, Cheshire Smokehouse, and creates cakes for places like the Nonsense Store in Prestwich.
It’s been a journey of expansion, going from truffles to vegan chocolates, to learning how to screen print chocolates for that more individual look. Yet she still does all the work herself from a small kitchen in Hulme.
I sat down with this whirlwind and self-confessed chocolate geek for a chat over a brew and – yes, you guessed – some of her chocolates.
So how did a Michelin-trained pastry chef make her way from the kitchen into the world of chocolate?
“It was at the Chester Grosvenor, which is where I fell in love with chocolate and pastry. As an apprentice I was everywhere in the kitchens. It wasn’t my plan to be a pastry chef. I went from Harvey Nichols to the Chester Grosvenor, and my plan was to go into the main kitchen, but they needed someone to cover pastry as a stop gap until they got somebody else in. It was only supposed to be about six weeks, and after the six weeks the head pastry chef said he couldn’t let me go.
“I wanted to move into the main kitchen, but he told me to stop being daft, I was clearly meant to be a pastry chef and to not waste my time in there. I agreed.
“I worked on the Simon Radley section. I ran that section, which was the fine dining section. Pastry would look after every section – afternoon tea, the brasserie, banqueting and Simon Radley – which is what I did. It was where the petit fours and chocolate came in. I’d had the experience at Harvey Nichols, but I’d never really had the level of training that I got at the Grosvenor. It’s where the obsession began.
“I really really enjoyed it. The perfection of the petit fours was something that I could have a lot of fun with.
“It exposed me to stuff that I’d only ever seen superficially, which I then suddenly needed to know everything about. I’m generally a bit geeky. If I know one thing about it, I need to know everything about it. I think I can make it better if I know everything about it.
“As an apprentice it was very much ‘this is what we do, do this’, whereas at the Grosvenor it was very much more in depth. I got out of it as much as I could put in. When I’d go home, that’s what I’d read about. On my days off, I’d look into recipes, techniques, so I could go back to the kitchen full of ideas.
“Wherever I worked, I’d bring the chocolate into the kitchen. It was part of my repertoire. And then I met Jason, my partner. He sensed my frustration creativity-wise and my perfectionist nature were making me unhappy in the role I was in. And he just suggested we have a go – pushed me to take it from a side project into what I do now.
“It’s continually growing. Things like the collaboration with Adam Reid at the French. I used to work with him at the Chester Grosvenor. He approached me, he knew my style, knew how I worked, and he just asked if I could bring some samples in. We sat down, discussed ideas and recipes.
“It’s that kind of word of mouth and that understanding that I can make exactly what they want, I can tailor it to them, that means we’ve grown so fast.
“I have a unique understanding of how a kitchen works. There are not a lot of pastry chefs out there. We’re quite a rarity, and even if you do get them, in a busy kitchen, chocolate work is not the easiest thing to work on.
“It’s very temperamental, it likes very specific things done in very specific ways, it has to be kept at a certain temperature and worked with at another. Even if they have a pastry chef, there’s no guarantee that they will have the time to work with it, or even have the conditions to work with it.
“In my kitchen I can control all of that, to exactly what the chocolate needs.”
You can buy Jessica’s chocolates online or visit her on her open day on 23 December.
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