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My life on a plate: California-based Wexford chef Gemma Stafford reveals how much she misses sausage rolls

The California-based Wexford chef tells Katy McGuinness about her passion for Irish sausage rolls

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Gemma Stafford

Gemma Stafford

Gemma Stafford

Gemma Stafford is originally from Wexford but moved to the US to work in restaurants and is now the host of online cooking show Bigger Bolder Baking. Her videos have been viewed 350 million times and she has five million online fans. Gemma lives in Santa Monica with her husband, Kevin Kurtz, and their four-month old son, George. 

Did you grow up in a family where food was important?

My mother, Patricia, was (and still is) a great cook while my father, George, worked for Heineken and as a wine merchant. I have five siblings and we came together as a family around good, home-cooked food.

What's your most vivid food memory from childhood?

My mother always made pavlova for dinner parties - I thought it was the fanciest thing ever. She'd ask me to stand beside the mixer and every 30 seconds I'd add a teaspoon of sugar mixed with a little corn starch to make the meringue. I'd be standing there for ages. I still love a good pavlova.

What was the first thing you learned to cook?

I used to help my mother make apple crumble - a child's small hands are perfect for rubbing the flour, sugar and butter together. It was the first recipe I learned by heart. Afterwards, she'd give me a slice of sour Bramley apple covered in sugar.

Did you always know that you wanted to be a chef or work in food?

It was the only path for me - I struggled with some subjects in school but at home, if I wasn't baking, I had my nose stuck in a cookbook.

Who has been the biggest influence on the way that you cook?

My mammy.

What's your signature dish?

I make a mean chocolate chip cookie. It's my most popular recipe; I adapted it from one that I used when I worked at Spruce, a Michelin-starred restaurant in San Francisco. The secret is ageing the dough - I age mine for as long as I am willing to wait for the cookies. And I use really good chocolate.

Is there any ingredient that you hate?

I have an aversion to synthetic food dyes - in baking, they are over-used. I've created my own natural dyes using beetroot and turmeric.

Is there anything you love to eat that you'd prefer your friends didn't know about?

It sounds so boring, but plain vanilla ice-cream complements everything.

What's the strangest thing you've ever eaten?

The strangest but also one of the nicest was candy cap churros flavoured with candy cap mushrooms at a resort in Indian Springs. They taste like maple syrup.

What's your guilty (food) pleasure?

Sausage rolls. Sausages in the US are different - in Ireland they are fattier and more delicious. Whenever I'm home I have to hit up a Centra and get three for a euro, or whatever they cost now. I eat them in the car.

What kitchen gadget could you not live without and what's the most over-rated?

I use the microplane every day for everything from garlic to chocolate. I was brought up in the school of using my fingers dipped in a jar of buttermilk to glaze the top of scones so I can't be bothered with pastry brushes. I hate having to wash them.

What current cooking trend do you dislike the most?

On TikTok there's a craze for pancake cereal, with the batter made into tiny pieces and served in a bowl with maple syrup and butter. Some people add milk.

What's your desert island cookbook?

The Ballymaloe Cookery Course by Darina Allen. I cooked my way through it before I did the 12-week course there in 2005, after studying at Cathal Brugha Street.

What three things do you always keep in your fridge?

Salted caramel sauce for dessert emergencies - just add to bananas and vanilla ice cream - because it keeps for ages; sriracha sauce because I cook a lot of Asian food and I like spice; and eggs. You'll never go hungry if you have eggs in the house.

What's your go-to store-cupboard meal?

Spaghetti with a big knob of Kerrygold butter and salt and pepper, no cheese. Preferably eaten on the sofa on my own in front of The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills.

What was the last great meal that you ate?

Cassia in Santa Monica, near where we live, serves South East Asian fusion food that I love. It's a place that you go for a special treat. One of my favourite things is the Vietnamese-style pig's tail; they also do great roast escargots and amazing cocktails.

What's your favourite restaurant in the world?

Little Fatty in Los Angeles does wonderful Taiwanese noodle dishes and has a great farm-to-fork ethos.

What do you think the long-term impact of Covid-19 is going to be on restaurants and food in general?

It's heartbreaking. If I still worked in restaurants, I wouldn't have a job. I think places that were already struggling will close, and it will be very tough for many others, as margins are so small. On the positive side, people have discovered a new love for food and for cooking from scratch. Our website used to get three million visitors each month before the pandemic, now it's 10 million. People are making their own sourdough and seeing how much fun it is.

What chef do you admire the most?

José Andrés, a Spanish chef who worked at El Bulli and brought small-plates gastronomy to the US. He's an amazing humanitarian and through his World Central Kitchen charity he provides meals to people in the wake of natural disasters.

Do you eat breakfast?

I bring home Flahavan's oats every time I go to Ireland. My husband has his own and stays away from mine; he knows they are special. I eat them with maple syrup and bananas.

What are you going to have for dinner tonight?

We have an Italian wood-fired pizza oven in our side yard and I'm experimenting with sourdough bases at the moment, I'm not sure about toppings yet.

And what will you drink with that?

We're in California, so it has to be rosé - it goes with everything.

Weekend Magazine