Rachel De Jong has traveled the world and rubbed elbows with its best chefs. She earned her diplôme de pâtisserie from Le Cordon Bleu École de Cuisine in Paris. She learned hospitality from The Inn at Little Washington’s Patrick O’Connell. And she traded dessert ideas with Ludo Lefebvre at Petit Trois in L.A. But De Jong’s roots are in Charlottesville, and it’s here she’s returned to bake her own way. We recently chatted with De Jong about her new gig as pastry chef at The Workshop in The Wool Factory, the bakery she’s opening, and her illustrious young career.
C-VILLE: What brings you back to Charlottesville after eight years away?
RDJ: I was at Petit Trois, and I loved it—loved the work, loved my co-workers. But L.A. is expensive, and I found my work-life balance was out of whack. And there is a unique interest in food here. I found out about The Wool Factory, and I asked Brad [Uhl, of Grit Coffee] if he was interested in a pastry aspect.
What was it like working with a brash personality like Ludo Lefebvre?
Food is very much his passion. He loves developing the menu and the savory side, but he also has an extensive background in pastry. We collaborated well and had a lot of fun. Often he would come to me and say something like, “I love fraisier, can we do it?” Or I would bring him something, and we would tweak it. Everything we did there was so classically French.
He must have been a change of pace from Patrick O’Connell.
Patrick is just an incredible human. What I learned most from him was about true hospitality and how to take care of guests. He knew how to take something very simple and mundane to another place.
How did you get into pastry?
It started super early on. I come from a large family of five kids, and my mom is an excellent cook, but she doesn’t have a knack for baking. I had a sweet tooth, so I started making cakes and enjoyed it. When it came time to think about a career, I knew it would be in some creative realm. I think it was my dad who finally said, “Pastry can be a career.”
And your first job was at the Baker’s Palette right here in C’ville?
I started college at James Madison University but decided I wanted to get my hands dirty. That’s when Sheila [Cervelloni] took me on with no experience. She taught me all she knew. It was a huge help and eye-opening.
Then after a stint at Gearharts Fine Chocolates, you left.
I think everybody goes through a growth period where their hometown feels small. I was ready to be away from Charlottesville. But working at the Inn, I still had connections and kept in touch with those folks. I would come home for holidays and hear what was going on from family and friends.
Now that you’re back, what can people expect from you?
Technique-wise, I’m a traditionalist. I have always loved French pastry, and all of my work is grounded in that. When I was growing up, my mother and grandmother always had a natural and organic world—wild flowers and growing their own stuff. I like finding ways to bring those two worlds together and elevate classic French pastry, bringing to it a natural, organic, tangible, free style.