The Sweet Life
In these pastries, creativity is the main ingredient
By Bridget Callahan
Photos Oksana Shchelgachova
Pastry Chef and chocolatier Oksana Shchelgachova remembers being a child in the kitchen of her family’s restaurant in the Ukraine, soaking up the aromas and textures of bread and pastries being prepared. At five, she began learning what she calls the foundations and nuance of the craft of baking, starting what would become a lifetime passion for the young artist.
Any dessert chef will attest to the difficulties of pastry. Light years beyond what most of us will ever attempt in our home kitchen, true pastry art requires deep knowledge and experience, an encyclopedic understanding of timing and consistency, and a near obsessive attention to detail. Oksana didn’t pursue pastry right away, graduating first from the National Art Academy in Kiev.
“But it didn't take long for my passion for baking to bring me back to pastry. I obtained my second degree from the Australian Patisserie Academy in Ryde, AUS, where I studied under world-famous pastry chefs. These masters exposed me to the rigors of creativity and how to demand perfection from my work,” she says.
While Oksana agrees that her extensive traveling has not only influenced her style, she finds herself very happy in the Highlands area. At the urging of her private clients, she started Sweetlife Highlands in 2017, and in 2019 partnered up with Midpoint Highlands, where her petits gâteaux (small cakes) have shown like jewels on display and garnered the young pastry chef a lot of attention.
“Are there many pastry chefs in larger metropolitan areas with possibly farther-reaching exposure? Maybe. But, there is so much to be said about such a wonderful close-knit community as Highlands where everyone knows everyone and such loyal and long-lasting relationships can be formed,” Oksana says.
“There is no better testament to my efforts than when friends tell me how wonderful and special my pastries make them feel. My goal is ultimately to create a work of art that not only impresses with beauty but also with taste right to the very last bite.”
To that goal, Oksana is constantly learning and experimenting, even though sometimes the custom orders of customers have to take precedence.
“The key is to understand the classic principles of the process first and then build on them. That is where the creativity kicks in,” she says. “I once laughingly told someone that my dessert creation for me is like having a baby. You know it's in there, but you don't know exactly what it looks like until you see its face for the first time.”
The constant common denominator in her work, though, is that everything is 100% pure and 110% edible. She stays away from chemical powders and artificial ingredients, and with one or two exceptions, most of her creations have no extra sugar and are gluten-free- just the finest chocolates in the world, lots of cocoa butter, and hours of thought.
“If you give me a single simple ingredient, my mind automatically goes to all the exciting combinations that can complement this one ingredient. If you say ‘peach,’ I think hazelnut, orange, pear and verbena. If you say ‘apple,’ I think of basil, dill, lemon and honey,” Oksana says. “I really like the combination of sour and sweet in the same project. Texturally, both delicate and crispy is one of my favorites. When I am fortunate enough to combine all four of these elements in the same project, then it's a guaranteed success.”
Her Boletus Mushroom dessert, currently her favorite creation, is an excellent example, featuring crunchy pate a sable, red currant confit, white chocolate, mascarpone mousse, dark chocolate mousse, black currant compote, heavy cream bisquite and a dark chocolate dacquoise with almonds.
“The common thread for me is that I love to allow my imagination to run free, and I do not like to rush as that can kill inspiration. There is no such thing for me as a clear recipe. Just where will my imagination take me next,” she adds.
For now, Oksana is quite happy to stay where she is, with no plans beyond trying to keep up with the ever-increasing orders.
“We believe that every single order, whether it be from the daycare down the road to the most elevated corporate client, is as important as the last order and I dedicate the same amount of attention and detail as I believe each customer should experience the same satisfaction and enjoyment out of the work that I do. This is what motivates me.”