Inventor of guilt-free desserts, Jessica Prealpato, is world's top pastry chef

Prealpato of the Plaza Athenee hotel poses for a portrait in her restaurant's kitchen.
PHOTO: AFP

PARIS - Her desserts are often not at all sweet and she couldn't give a fig if people complain that they don't look great on Instagram.

But that did not stop Jessica Prealpato being named the best pastry chef on the planet on Tuesday (June 11) by the World's 50 Best Restaurants ranking - the first woman ever to receive the honour.

The 32-year-old French woman, who is about to have her first child, is the creator of a whole new genre of guilt-free patisserie.

For Prealpato it is not about how a dessert looks, it's how it tastes - and the feel-good glow afterwards.

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.

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 marry strawberries with pine and lemon with seaweed.

"He would not understand what I do at all," she told AFP.

Prealpato has eschewed the sugar high to go for what her boss, the French superchef Alain Ducasse, calls "naturalite" - or naturalness - bringing out the full range of flavours that 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," laughed Prealpato, the fourth French chef in a row to pick up the top prize.

She has already produced a book of 50 of her desserts called "Desseralite", 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," said Prealpato, 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 it is not sophisticated enough for such an upscale establishment.

And four years ago, when she was starting out at the hotel, she said that Ducasse 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... today, I rarely ever work 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 sweeter.

"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.

"Her cooking is absolutely of the moment," said William Drew of the World's 50 Best Restaurants.

"The way she manipulates natural sugars without sacrificing flavour chimes perfectly with the cultural zeitgeist to cut down on sugar intake."

On average it takes a month to create a new recipe and her dessert menu changes with the seasons.

However, the Earth generally does not shake when Prealpato puts them on Instagram - unlike for 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!" the humble 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.

Nor does she have anything against traditional French patisseries, 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 classics "are so good I don't see how you can revisit them," she said.

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