By Priya Krishna | Illustration by Zoe van Dijk

THIS ARTICLE BROUGHT TO YOU IN PARTNERSHIP WITH PACIFIC SALES. 

Sally Camacho almost didn’t become a pastry chef.

Camacho, who is now a powerhouse of the American dessert scene and a partner at the modern L.A. spot Tesse, went to culinary school in San Francisco determined to become a savory chef. After graduating, she took a baking and pastry course on a whim.

As it turned out, the Los Angeles restaurant world was eager for reliable pastry chefs. Camacho (now 38) took her first job in the pastry kitchen at the glitzy Four Seasons in Beverly Hills, where hundreds upon hundreds of sweets are churned out every day.  She took the job assuming she'd eventually end up back on the line, cooking savory food; instead, she became a protégée of the Four Seasons’ renowned pastry chef, Donald Russell, working under him for almost six years.  

In that fast-paced pastry kitchen, Camacho excelled whether she was making lavash or croissants. “Everything I learned, I thought, how can I do this faster, cleaner, more efficiently?” she says. If she could do it faster, she could train someone else to do it faster, and the more sweets she could add to her repertoire. “It sounds easy,” she adds with a laugh, before turning fully serious: “It’s not.”  

Realizing that she liked the high-volume, multidimensional aspect of hotel pastry kitchens, she sought out even bigger challenges. She worked at the Wynn in Las Vegas, and then Caesars Palace, where she worked under the celebrated chef Bradley Ogden, and then her first executive pastry chef role at the luxurious Turnberry Isle in Miami. “Doing a hotel makes you much more well-rounded [as a chef]," she insists. “You’re doing restaurants, room service, banquets, amenities. Doing all that is very fun for me.”

Around the same time, Camacho was participating — and making history — in the grueling word of international pastry competitions. In 2007, she was asked, at the last minute, to join the very first all-female team to compete in the National Pastry Team Championship. She also helped Team USA win the gold medal at the International Exhibition of Culinary Art (also known as the “Culinary Olympics”) in 2009. Three years later, she earned third place at the Valrhona Chocolate Chef Competition (C³) in Spain, the highest any US pastry chef has ever placed.

Throughout her career, Camacho has always been grounded by her heritage. As a Filipina-American woman in an industry dominated by white men, Camacho sees her role blazing a trail for increased representation in her field. This not only means incorporating the flavors of her childhood into her pastry (at Tesse, she’s working on a soufflé made with ube, a sweet purple yam frequently used in Filipino cooking) but being a mentor and ambassador for other Filipinos. She remembers going to Manila to present at an event, “and when I landed, people were asking to take photos of me. They were like, ‘You're chef Sally Camacho! We have been following you! You are speaking for us!’” she recalls. “That meant so much to me — being female and Filipino in this industry, you don’t realize how many people are looking up to you.”    

After years of hotel gigs (and some time spent teaching at various culinary schools), she’s settled into the significantly smaller — but even more ambitious — pastry kitchen at Tesse. There, she works with chef Raphael Francois on serving breezy, contemporary bistro cuisine, which includes her fanciful sweets, like duck egg crème brûlée and a dish called “chocramel” with milk chocolate, honey, caramel, and peanuts. Camacho and Francois will soon open a pastry-centric Tesse Café inside L.A.’s iconic Fred Segal boutique. 

People often ask Camacho if she would ever go back into savory cooking — it is, after all, where her training lies. But at this point, she feels too strong a kinship to the sweeter side of things. “I have put so much of myself into pastry, and I still feel that there is so much bad pastry in the world,” she says, resolutely. “I still feel that I have to spread more pastry love. Pastry needs [it].”

Camacho's key to an effortless night of entertaining?  Can't go wrong with Champagne! 
 

 

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