Durangoans may recognize pastry chef Jocelyn Skill from her Skillfully Decadent food truck at the short-lived Cha Cha’s Food Truck Corral on north Main Avenue, or perhaps as the woman who made their wedding cake. Now established with a commercial-grade kitchen in Hermosa, Skill creates custom cakes for weddings and other special events.
Her journey to Durango, though, was a long one, leading her around the world and connecting her with the rich and famous.
Skill is originally from Windsor, Ontario, across the Canadian border from Detroit. She has always wanted to cook.
“I knew from when I was a small child that this is what I wanted to do,” she said.
After receiving her culinary degree, Skill apprenticed at the Banff Springs Hotel, the first of many luxury hotels she has worked at over the course of her career. She apprenticed with master pastry chefs and chocolatiers, but eventually, she felt the need to pursue her other passion: travel.
HitchhikerSkill’s journeys began humbly, hitchhiking across England, Ireland and Scotland with a boyfriend. Hitchhiking was a great experience, she said, meeting people in pubs and camping on front lawns. It also gave her one of her first encounters with a celebrity, she said.
“I am convinced to this day that Brad Pitt picked us up,” she said, recounting an experience in Scotland. “It was pouring rain like I have never experienced in my entire life, and I thought ... what the hell am I doing? This is the worst experience ever. We’re soaked ... tired, hungry, you name it. And next thing you know, this car pulls up and this guy – my mouth fell open.”
“I looked at Malcolm, and I said, ‘That was Brad Pitt,’ and he goes, ‘I think it was.’”
After the British Isles, Skill traveled to mainland Europe. “And then I got the real bug,” she said. “And I just never stopped after that.”
Dive boat chefSkill used her culinary skills to facilitate her globe-trotting. Her visas would only allow her to work at a given place for three months at a time, so she would spend those months working and then one month traveling before moving to the next place. She says she got lucky, moving from high-end kitchen to high-end kitchen in countries like New Zealand and Fiji.
In Cairns, Australia, Skill found herself the chef on an exclusive dive boat. This presented a unique set of challenges, she said. The boat trips, costing around $8,000, called for labor-intensive meals like steak and risotto. But she would sometimes be forced to cook them in horrific storms in the middle of the Coral Sea where she wouldn’t see other boats for days at a time, “hoping to God that the 65-foot boat doesn’t capsize,” she said.
It also led to one her most tragic experiences: losing a crew member because of a problem with his rebreather apparatus. Skill described it as an intense, spiritual experience. “It was the biggest kick in the teeth you can imagine,” she said.
Cooking for moviesAfter Australia, Skill returned to Canada to cook for a casino in Windsor, but was headhunted to cook for her first movie, “Shanghai Noon,” starring Jackie Chan and Owen Wilson.
Skill describes the job on set as a tough one. As the pastry chef, she’d start cooking and setting up tents and tables between midnight and 3 or 4 a.m., then help serve breakfast, clean it up and start cooking lunch.
“I would have sometimes between 100 to 300 crew that I’m feeding out of a 5-quart KitchenAid,” she said.
The job typically required 16-hour days, and sometimes, she’d have to suddenly pick up and move while in the middle of cooking something. It was worth it, however, because of the “obscene amount of money you can make” and the chance to meet interesting people, she said.
Chan, she said, “was really cool to meet because he’s so humble, but just incredibly talented.”
Skill worked on a number of films after “Shanghai Noon,” including two of the “Night at the Museum” movies, “Hot Tub Time Machine” and two of the “Twilight” movies.
Her favorite person that she met during this time, she said, was Dick Van Dyke, who appeared in “Night at the Museum.”
“You could not meet a nicer person,” she said. “He was so thankful for what I had done, in terms of laying out a dessert buffet. He couldn’t believe that that’s what movie sets were like these days.”
Between films, Skill worked for a company called Canadian Mountain Holidays, which specialized in heli-skiing and heli-hiking trips. This was a fantastic experience, she said, because the company’s chefs had access to whatever ingredients and equipment they needed and got to enjoy the company’s services in whatever free time they had.
Skill met her husband, Jeff Weiss, who by then was living in Durango, when he was a guest at one of the lodges she was working at. After alternating between cooking for films, heli-skiing and traveling for 12 years, she decided to move to Durango about 6½ years ago.
Baking in DurangoA year after moving here, she got her food truck, but only kept it for about a year. Between the heat of the truck, maintaining it and the difficulty of finding a place to rent space in Durango, truck-based cooking turned out to be harder than she imagined.
“You can’t do cakes out of a kitchen that’s 110 degrees. It just doesn’t work,” she said.
People trying desserts from the truck began to ask if she could do weddings, though. Eventually, Skill realized that Durango was a destination wedding location, and she could make a living doing just that.
Skill finds cake-making fulfilling on a basic level.
“I want to make beautiful things that taste really good,” she said.
Skill tried baking at the fairgrounds for two years before she and her husband decided to build a licensed commercial-grade kitchen at their home. She now runs her business, Skillfully Decadent Desserts, from there.
It’s as intense a business as any Skill has worked on, she said. In addition to baking and decorating cakes, she has to transport them across the mountains to places like Purgatory and beyond. And at the end of the day, the cakes still have to be perfect. Skill said she has yet to meet any bridezillas.
Though she sometimes misses traveling the world, Skill is happy with her current profession, she said.
“I love to make people happy with food,” she said.