Jaleesa Mason couldn’t believe the bread could taste so good.
Growing up in Spanish Harlem with a single mother, Mason had never tasted fresh bread. Nor, for that matter, crème brûlée, pastry cream, meringue, truffles or sweets.
But there she was, a bakery and pastry student at the prestigious Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, eating her first roll of fresh olives.
“It was still hot,” Mason recalls. “I remember opening it and steam was still coming out. I could smell it and I was getting so emotional. I couldn’t believe it. It’s not the packaged bread I bought at the grocery store.”
Today Mason, 28, a mother of two and Bloomfield resident, is no stranger to fresh bread, fresh croissants and homemade custard. Not only is Mason a professional baker who co-owns with her husband, Mohamad Al-Kassen, Mo & Jay Pastry, a small sweet bakery in Little Falls, but she is also an award-winning pastry chef. She recently won Food Network’s Spring Baking Championship, which comes with a $25,000 prize.
“I still can’t believe it,” Mason said. “I’m so, so proud.”
She beat 13 other competitors by baking, among other things, her husband’s favorite birthday cake, a chocolate cake with Nutella buttercream – “The three judges were speechless. They loved the taste” – and producing an elaborately decorated wedding cake with three different flavors. : rosé, biscuits and cream and blueberry. “I love piping and I’m really good at it. So I went to town.”
Mason has always loved baking. She started baking cookies and cakes with her mother when she was nine years old. When his mother, who suffers from depression, quit, Mason became the family baker. “I really enjoyed that.”
But she never thought of it as a career. She wanted to be a surgeon – until freshman year of high school, when she interned at a rehabilitation center.
“It clearly wasn’t for me,” she said. ” I panicked. What was I going to do? »
She was advised to do “what makes you happy,” she said. Baking, she knew, made her happy, but how was she supposed to make money out of it?
“No one in my family is into food. No one in the industry knows me. It seemed too difficult.”
She decided to give it a try anyway and applied to the Culinary Institute of America.
“If I had to, I wanted to go to the best school,” she said. “I grew up in a tough neighborhood and my mother let me know that education was everything.”
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She and her mother took all the money they had to pay school fees.
“She still has loans. I still have loans.”
She learned a lot. “It was the greatest experience,” she said. “I was trying things that I had never been exposed to before – foods, flavors. There was all this knowledge around me. It was a whole new world.”
After graduating in 2014, Mason worked in the bursar’s office at Maison Kayser, then in Carlstadt, where she met her husband. They got married, bought a house in Bloomfield and then had a son.
In November 2020, they opened Mo & Jay, an 800 square foot boutique that sells bespoke eclairs, macaroons, croissants, pies, cookies and cakes. The bakery was doing pretty well when a global health crisis turned everything upside down.
“It was tough,” she said.
Then in June 2021, two months after giving birth for the second time, Food Network called.
At first she thought it was a scam. “So I ignored him,” she said. But after repeated calls and texts, she finally answered. And soon enough, she found herself flying to Knoxville, Tennessee, for the competition. “I told them I was going to pump breast milk and if I can’t, it’s a breakup.
She shipped frozen breast milk home and her mother watched the children during the day.
“I was anxious,” she admitted. “I was worried about the house, my kids, the job. Besides, I was rusty. I was on maternity leave. I hadn’t been in the kitchen for seven months.”
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Nevertheless, she succeeded, even if it was sometimes very difficult.
“I made mistakes,” she said. “It was not a walk in the park.”
She had to redo her puff pastry, her madeleine wouldn’t rise. She even had a panic attack on air.
In the last episode, she braced herself for a loss. “I didn’t want to cry,” she said. “When I heard my name called, I couldn’t believe it.”
Today there are queues at Mo & Jay. “People from all over are coming now,” she said. “Kids who are bakers come. They know my story. They know I’m vulnerable. They know you can make mistakes and it’s okay.”
The other week, she gifted her husband’s favorite cake to the shop, the same cake that left the judges speechless. The lines were super long.
“I’ve never baked so many cakes. I ran out of sugar.”
And to add: “I am impressed that all of this has happened. I am so happy.”
Esther Davidowitz is the food editor of NorthJersey.com. For more on where to dine and drink, please register today and sign up for our North Jersey Eats newsletter.
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