Flour, eggs, butter and sugar may seem like simple ingredients, but for Paula Stonoga it’s a recipe for transformation.

The pastry chef at Kirk Market delights in sharing her skills and recipes with the community, as well as inspiring the next generation.

Photos: Stephen Clarke

“Baking is my passion, and there are so many people who would like to bake as a profession but can’t afford to study,” she says. “That’s why I want to empower them.”

She holds grassroots baking and cooking sessions for free on her days off, supplying all the ingredients for her made-from-scratch recipes.

“I teach them how to bake breads, cakes or desserts in their home, using their own oven and utensils,” she says.

Paula helps the women in her classes not only gain practical skills but also confidence, with some earning money by selling baked goods in their community.

“People need some encouragement,” she says. “[Many] of us come from big cities, but here it is very local. Some have never left the island – and they are proud of their stories. It’s amazing to me.”

Rotary is looking to support Paula’s community baking project, which she wants to expand to include groups such as the Pines Retirement Home, where she would hold baking demonstrations and share the results with residents.

Chef Paula Stonoga, Melissa Bachet and Tanessa Charlery get creative in the kitchen.

Mentoring youth

Paula also mentors at an after-school culinary programme at John Gray High School, sharing a variety of recipes that students can recreate at home.

“We cook together, and eat together,” says Paula. “I invite other chefs as well.”

Paula assisted with a cupcake competition earlier this year, helping to prep John Gray students in the semi-finals.

“She’s very creative and very open to our ideas,” says John Gray student Melissa Bachet, 15, who took part in the competition. “She also has a lot of patience. It’s nice to be able to create something from such simple ingredients – and it’s always fun to share the food you make with others.”

Fourteen-year-old John Gray student Tanessa Charlery hopes to follow in Paula’s footsteps by becoming a professional baker.

“I grew up around a lot of people who cooked – my grandma, my dad, my mom, so it just became something I wanted to do,” she says.

That opportunity might present itself right here in Cayman, as Paula has another passion in the pipeline.

“My plan in the future is I want to open a little school of baking,” she says. “That’s my goal.”

Ongoing education

Originally from Brazil, Paula studied at a pastry and baking school in São Paulo and has 34 certifications as a pastry and cake designer.

Among the qualifications are vintage cake design, French macaroons master chef, French croquembouche chef design, petit fours and entremets, advanced fondant techniques, and royal icing cookies design.

Baking for more than 20 years, Paula travels overseas annually to upgrade her skills and spends two hours at the end of each day testing recipes and techniques, as well as researching and practising new trends in cakes and desserts.

Her passion for her profession is evident in her work: Paula’s heavenly cakes and pastries are edible works of art.

“I’m learning in my profession every single day,” she says. “You need to love what you do – you need to be passionate.”

Outside the kitchen, Paula serves as an ambassador for the Cayman Islands Crisis Centre, a shelter for victims of domestic abuse. About seven years ago, she left an abusive marriage and is grateful for the shelter’s assistance in helping re-establish life for herself and her son.
She encourages others to be brave – even if it is a struggle.

“You have to believe in yourself,” she says. “Nobody is going to knock on your door and give you a job. You need to make it happen.”

Paula has called Cayman home for more than 13 years and considers herself fortunate to be able to give back to her community through baking.

“God gave me the opportunity to learn, and we need to share our knowledge,” she says.

“When I share with friends, it’s like a community.”