A former personal trainer finds sweet success in the bakery business.
Jenny Peterson—owner of Paradox Pastry, Charlottesville’s go-to place for show-stopping wedding cakes and pastries—is herself a contradiction in terms. The source of her bakery’s unusual moniker? Over the last 26 years, Peterson has helped hundreds of people lose weight as a fitness instructor while also nurturing the love for baking she developed as a child in her mother’s West Virginia kitchen. “It was always such a running joke with my clients and everyone I met. How could I, with a clear conscience, do/be both?” Peterson smiles.
Incongruous or not, Peterson, 49, who studied at the prestigious Pastry School at the Cordon Bleu in Paris in 2003 under Nicolas Bernadé (the 2004 Meilleur Ouvrier de France recipient for best pastry chef), used both skill sets to realize her dream of opening a fresh take on the classic European bakery. “I built this business very methodically over eight years,” Peterson explains. She worked for a short time as an assistant pastry chef at the Boar’s Head Inn in 2004 when she first came to Charlottesville but returned to personal training at a local gym in order to network for her baking business in her new town. It worked. Soon, her training clients were ordering cakes that Peterson made in her home kitchen.
Five years later, she converted her basement to a commercial kitchen and began building a reputation for ingenious wedding cakes like the elegant fondant-covered butter cake she created for a pair of her training clients. Layered with fiori di sicilia (a highly fragrant citrus extract), mousseline buttercream and lemon curd, the cake was covered in traditional white fondant and featured six intricately hand-sculpted pastillage peonies cascading down four tiers. Last year, when the revenues from wedding cakes finally exceeded her personal training income, Peterson opened her 2nd Street shop. “I always, always, always think you should do what you love. Just do it!” effuses Peterson, who also serves treats like her Virginia Peanut Butter Mousse Torte, a super-rich peanut butter mousse stacked on a layer of chocolate ganache resting on a bed of crushed peanut crust, in addition to savory soups, sandwiches and local wines from the open kitchen of her roomy café.
But here is a warning: There is nothing low calorie offered at Paradox. Pastries, like the Almond Pave, a moist spongy almond flour cake that deliquesces on contact with the tongue, are unapologetically loaded with real butter and sugar. And Peterson’s creations are not short on whimsy, either. She has the most fun with groom's cakes (see sidebar). “Lots of people get really excited about the groom’s cake,” she says. Among some of her more inventive male-oriented confections is a cake in the shape of a cooler, complete with realistic looking ice cubes and real Miller Lite bottles.
One bite of Peterson’s pastries, and I am reminded why I have to exercise daily to afford my passion for sweets. Peterson understands. “I was a personal trainer and a pastry chef,” she laughs. “But, you know, it works. The two go together exquisitely.”