Costa Rica native Roxana Jullapat initially set out to have a career in journalism but rerouted to the kitchen after reporting on what became a life-changing story. She attended the Southern California School of Culinary Arts in South Pasadena and got her professional start at Figaro in Los Feliz before reeling off increasingly high-profile (and high pressure) posts at Campanile, Opaline and Lucques/A.O.C. She taught for a year at Kitchen Academy and moved to Portland to work at clarklewis before returning to Los Angeles. Jullapat enjoyed a pair of short stints working at The Cabbage Patch and Clementine, taking a break in the middle to help friends write The Big Sur Bakery Cookbook before landing at AMMO. We recently met at the bar of the Hollywood restaurant during Sunday brunch, where Jullapat shared insights about her background and approach.
What is it that inspires you about pastry?
Everything I do is probably very ingredient driven, as opposed to technique driven, although every now and then, especially the more experienced I’ve become, there will be a technique that years ago seemed daunting and now that I have more miles and more world experience, that I probably feel that it’s time to tackle.
What’s an example of a technique that took awhile to tackle?
A perfect example would be strudel. Let’s not call it the Mount Everest, but the Kilimanjaro of pastry. Something that sounds very daunting and perhaps that only a European chef with years of experience would do, especially on their own. Then one year I just said to myself, “Maybe it’s time,” and I did it.
What’s the key to a great strudel?
To get your dough light and to get a light stretch on it. I read a lot about it and by the time I actually got to do it, I felt like the temperature of the room helped a lot. A warmer room is better than a colder room, and of course you feel like doing that kind of project in the winter, so I put the heater on.
What originally motivated your interest in pastry?
It was sort of like a series of unfortunate events, or fortunate, I’m not sure. My goal was never to be a cook. I got a B.A. in Journalism, and in my last year of school, part of my writing projects was to write a newsletter for a few associations and one of them was the National Chef Association. I was like, “What, people put on those hats and work in kitchens? Really?” I started to crack down the phenomenon, little by little, and by the time I went to cooking school, my intention was probably to cook, like a full on chef, and I did train fully. My intention was to find a job in a kitchen, train in pantry and work my way up, and somewhere down the line, somebody suggested I take on more pastry duties, and once you start, you get good at it, and now you want to work for people who are really good and can mentor. And once you work for Nancy Silverton, it’s all done, you’re a pastry cook forever.
Where did you get your journalism degree?
I went to a very small private school in Costa Rica. It’s called Universidad Federada.
Do you feel like your journalism degree helps you at all in what you do?
Very much. Especially the more I embrace managerial projects…I chip in a lot in promoting our Sunday Roasts. We send out an e-mail blast once a week, and I take a lot of time and pride in writing it. So yeah, all that training and skill in being a good writer and a good communicator has been really good. It also helped me tremendously when helping my friends from Big Sur Bakery. They wrote their cookbook and asked me to test the recipes and write the recipes. That helped me tremendously. It was three months of recipe testing and really fun to get to sit down and say, “Okay, how do you communicate this recipe eloquently so that somebody who doesn’t have my training can execute it just as easily?”
Was Campanile your first pastry related job?
Actually, it wasn’t. It was Figaro. I used to live two blocks from there. It was under construction. Have you seen it? It’s a beautiful bistro.
Yeah, on Vermont. At the time, I’m like, “Wouldn’t it be great to walk to work?” So when they were under construction, I walked by and one night and left my resume under the door. Somebody called me the next day and they said, “There’s a crazy French dude and he’s the chef. Do you speak French?” Very little. They were like, “Okay, come at five o’clock.” I worked with him for a little bit, and he taught me how to make soufflés and all that jazz. It was three months into it and I guess by the time I left, I knew I needed someone a little more professional with more mentorship skills, so that I could excel.
How did the Campanile opportunity come about?
I knocked on their door for like three months, and they wouldn’t hire me, and they wouldn’t hire me, and they wouldn’t hire me. And eventually they did. I started for seven bucks as a plater, and I would get yelled at every night for many, many months until I got it, I guess. It dawned on me that this is serious and I should put a lot of effort into it. I guess you have to decode it, in the sense that if you’re serious about it, it does involve a lot of sacrifice. You will not hang out with your friends. I was 25 at the time. You won’t have the life of a 25-year-old, and you will burn yourself a lot, you will cut yourself a lot, and you won’t ask for holidays off. And you will work 10 – 12 hour days, and you will make very little money, and if you like it, and you can live with those rules of the game, that’s it.
When did you know you’d be a pastry chef for a career?