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A taste of sweet success

/ 08:56 PM February 14, 2012

When it comes to desserts, there’s nothing sweeter for Chef Sally Camacho.

She is, after all, a pastry chef surrounded by yummy desserts every day.

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As executive pastry chef for Wolfgang Puck in Hotel Bel-Air, Los Angeles, life has been sweet to this 32-year-old Fil-Am. Lately, Camacho has been receiving a lot of attention for her savory and sweet desserts.

Camacho was unsuccessful in becoming the first Filipino-American to win Bravo’s reality competition, Top Chef: Just Desserts season 2.

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However, recently she represented the United States in Madrid, Spain and managed to finish in the top three for Valrhona’s Madrid Fusion pastry competition.

Though Camacho didn’t win any of those large pastry competitions, she earned a lot of respect from many of her peers and fans, who believe that she still deserves to be called a Top Chef.

“I thought I was going to win it,” Camacho told the Asian Journal, about finishing second in Top Chef: Just Desserts.

“I came into the competition wanting to win. You don’t go there to show up. You go there to win… I go to every competition wanting to win. Sometimes that doesn’t happen and it didn’t happen in this case but in my heart of heart I feel like I won, like I came out on top.”

As for being a Madrid Fusion finalist, she said: “I placed third, not really what I wanted to achieve, but, that’s how the cookie crumbles.”

“I did win some prize money and got on the podium. It was an amazing day for pastry as three Asian females took the podium. I’m happy that I’ve done the best that any American has done in that competition,” she added.

“I did want to take it home. I really did. But I feel like I represented myself very well, but I also feel like I made a stand point for the Filipino people that if you work hard regardless of what everybody around is you saying you can do it,” she said.

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Hard work

In a span of one year, Camacho pushed herself to the extreme.

On April 2011, she competed for the USA title against five other pastry chefs in France and won to represent the US in the Valrhona C3 World Competition. She followed that up with a grueling competition and schedule, which left her couple months pretty much isolated during the taping of Bravo’s Top Chef Just Desserts competition.

In November, she helped open a restaurant at the Hotel Bel-Air, before leaving for Madrid, Spain to compete in the Madrid Fusion.

“I pushed myself a lot this year,” she said. “I did some things in one year that some chefs would do in five.”

If it sounds like she burned herself out, she may have. But if you know her, it’s all part of the hard work and dedication to her craft, instilled by her parents.

“Always do your best,” her father would always tell Camacho and her sister, while they were growing up.

“My extended family doesn’t understand. I don’t think they know how strong of an individual myself and my sister are, because of my parents,” said Camacho. “It’s because they sacrificed so much moving here and giving us [the] opportunity to have that American dream.”

“They didn’t want us to become a nurse or a doctor or a lawyer,” she said. “They wanted us to be happy.”

Camacho was born at Clark Air Force in the Philippines, where her father served in the US Air Force. Her father Ray is originally from Quezon City. Her mother, Bernadette is originally from Iloilo City.

By the time Camacho was 12 years old, she knew she wanted to become a chef.

“I would be at the counter waiting for my mom to cook. I would be so excited watching her,” she said.

Living a dream

From baking Nestle Toll House cookies, to Betty Hines cakes, Camacho had a knack for cooking and a desire to learn. She rented VHS tapes of Julia Childs, Emril Lagasse, and Jacques Pepin.

“I would just watch them and take notes. It’s crazy,” she said. “I would make Thanksgiving dinner and Christmas dinner so by the time I was 12 years old I knew I wanted to become a chef for a living.”

After graduating from high school in Rowland Heights, she enrolled at California College of the Arts in San Francisco where she received an AOS in the Culinary Arts and Baking and Pastry Program.

To hone her craft, Camacho bounced around the country working at The Four Seasons, The Wynn Resort, and the James Beard Award-winning restaurant Bradley Ogden before joining Wolfgang Puck.

In 1997, Camacho caught the competition bug. Camacho said she was part of the first all female pastry team to compete in the National Pastry Team Championship. Her team finished second, earning a silver medal and also won a Best Sportsmanship award.

The following year, representing the US, she competed in the Culinary Olympics in Germany where the US Pastry team received gold medals in hot and cold foods, according to her Bravo profile.

When asked why she loves competing, she said: “I like pushing myself and knowing that I can do it. And that I can handle the pressure and do it well. I have always been known as having the best flavor.”

What’s next?

Though Camacho said she’s planning to take a break, she’ll be back competing in no time. She wants to focus on adding to her repertoire.

While competing at the Madrid Fusion, she made a lot of international connections. She wants to learn from them, as well as get her name out there as one of the top pastry chefs around the world.

“Not many pastry chefs here [in the US] are known internationally,” she said. “Its a great connection to have.”

She said her goal is to have a cooking show one day and have her own shop, perhaps in the Philippines.

As for now, she’s going to take a break to “better myself as a pastry chef and enjoy life.”

Although she didn’t win the title of Top Chef, to many people, she already is one.

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