Photography by Esther Sun | Words Chandara K. Phanachone
As a four-time Food Network Challenge all-star winner, master cake artist and pastry chef James Rosselle is no stranger to the world of sweets. Born and raised in the Southern California city of Whittier within the sprawling suburbs of Los Angeles county, Rosselle is the middle child—the only boy in a family with two sisters. Rosselle’s earliest memories of food began during his childhood and was largely shaped by his bicultural roots—he grew up in a French-Mexican household. “My grandmothers were both strong influences.
Given their rich heritage, I learned how to appreciate good food,” Rosselle fondly recalls. “Whether it was during holidays or birthdays, I can still remember the spread of albondigas and chalupas, to name a few. On my mother’s side, my grandmother had 8 children, while my great grandmother had 16; so you can only imagine the size of our family gatherings. [For this reason], the holidays, especially Christmas, was always very big for our Latin families, and I loved being surrounded by all of them!” These elaborate family gatherings nurtured Rosselle’s fondest memories of confectionary sweets. My grandmother always made these apple biscuits (very similar to scones) and her signature rum cake that I now always feel the need to make around the holidays. It contains the simplest ingredients of butter, rum, flour, and eggs, but it truly is delicious,” he says. Baking is as much an art as it is a science. But for Rosselle’s grandmother who never saw much for the need to measure, baking was purely an art. “She had this thing about not measuring her ingredients, but instead, using just a coffee mug as a measuring cup,” Rosselle recounts, laughing. “But her rum cakes turned out perfect every time; that has always fascinated me.” During his youth, Rosselle attended a Catholic preparatory school and always dreamt of becoming a veterinarian. But it was also during this time that Rosselle unknowingly became infatuated with the pastry world. “It was the late 1980s and I remember watching Debbie Fields—more commonly referred to as the famous Mrs. Fields—on the Food Network channel. Her presence definitely influenced me towards pursuing a career in the culinary world,” Rosselle professes. “Debbie, much like Julia Childs, did things her own way. Her show always appeared seemingly unscripted and she would handle the challenges in the kitchen as they came her way; there was no right or wrong way to work, and that really resonated with me—the idea that you can come into your own in the place that makes you feel at home and in your element,” he explains. “I also appreciated that she was simply baking traditional down-home cookies and pastries; nothing fancy or completely over the top.” When it came time to apply for college, Rosselle parted ways with his childhood career aspirations and chose to follow his heart by attending the California School of Culinary Arts in Pasadena, California. At the time, the school did not have a pastry division, so Rosselle enrolled himself into its culinary program and later specialized in the patisserie program. During his first baking module, he knew that he had found his true calling in life. “We were baking traditional blueberry muffins and pound cakes, but at that moment, I knew instantly that this was what I was meant to do.” It was also during this time that Rosselle would find himself frequently tuning into the Martha Stewart shows on television. On one episode, he vividly recalls Martha’s special guest: a New York-based pastry chef by the name of Ron Ben-Israel. “I was so fascinated by his edible art; it was so visually stunning!” After the show, I immediately shot Ron an email (to which he actually replied) and offered to meet him in New York, working for free for a couple of days, and prove to him that I had what it took to work with him.” On a blistering winter in December, Rosselle found himself in New York City working in the kitchen of Ron Ben-Israel. At the end of the second day, Ben-Israel offered him an internship that was slated to begin the very next month. “I didn’t know anyone in New York, didn’t even have a place to live, but I knew one thing for sure: I was young, motivated, driven, and nobody was going to stop me!” recalls Rosselle, excitedly.
“I love getting to travel and teach new menu items and techniques to my team members,” says Rosselle.
Read more in Issue 05