Bloomfield resident and pastry chef Jaleesa Mason has won Food Network’s Spring Baking Championship and the $25,000 prize that comes with it. Jaleesa’s win, which was the culmination of a 10-week competition and aired on May 2nd, was secured with her creation of a spring wedding cake. Locals know Jaleesa as the co-owner and pastry chef of Mo & Jay Pastry at 44 Main Street in Little Falls, which she runs with her husband, Mohamad. Read on to learn more about Jaleesa, her exciting Food Network win, and all that she has accomplished thus far in Essex County and beyond.
Heating Up in the Kitchen
Jaleesa Mason was a junior in high school when she realized that the dreams she had of becoming a plastic surgeon presented a reality she wasn’t all that interested in. Though she asked herself a series of questions to try to figure out her life path, it wasn’t until someone recommended that she simply do what she enjoyed that she thought of baking as a career choice. That only prompted another series of questions: “How do I get started?”and “Who do I know that can help?” Jaleesa decided to enroll in the pastry program at Culinary Institute of America where she learned about chocolates, pastries, and sugar galore.
Jaleesa instantly felt the spark while she was in a cake decorating class. She was inspired by the creativity, and in the end, it was the confidence she needed to fuel the rest of her career. After graduating with her Bachelor’s Degree in 2014, Jaleesa went on to work as a pastry chef at Maison Kayser, a popular bakery and cafe with various locations around Manhattan. She developed a close mentorship relationship with the Executive Pastry Chef to whom she often turned for advice and guidance. Maison Kayser was where Jaleesa also met her future husband, Mohamad, who was the Executive Sous Chef there.
After two years, Jaleesa spoke with her mentor at Maison Kayser about moving on, and to her surprise, he wholeheartedly supported the decision to leave. She told us he said, “All the good ones have to leave.”
With a new sense of confidence, Jaleesa then worked in specialty cake shops around the area — most notably, Carlo’s Bake Shop — to gain more experience and further refine her decorating skills. Jaleesa and Mohamad also opened their own business, Mo and Jay Pastry, in 2016.
Mo and Jay, short for each of their first names, started out as a wholesale retailer selling baked goods to numerous cafes throughout New York and New Jersey. They specialized in French pastries like madeleines and eclairs, which the pair believed were missing from the local pastry scene.
After a few years working for others as a cake decorator, Jaleesa decided to open up her own custom cake business, Sweet Memories by Jaleesa in 2018, in addition to her work at Mo and Jay Pastry. Between growing two businesses and starting their family with the birth of their first son, Charlie, Jaleesa and Mohamad certainly had their hands full.
Brick + Mortar
At the onset of the pandemic in 2020, small businesses in the hospitality industry suffered, and unfortunately, both Mo & Jay Pastry and Sweet Memories by Jaleesa were not spared. To offset the decline in sales across their businesses, Jaleesa and Mohamad decided to open a storefront. It was something completely out of their wheelhouse but they were able to find a three-month lease at a kiosk at the Garden State Plaza mall for the summer. During that time, when they were able to practice running a shop, they became ready for a brick and mortar location.
After searching for an ideal location, even looking at a few spaces in Bloomfield where the couple was living at the time, Mo and Jay Pastry found its home in Little Falls, NJ. They still specialize in eclairs in addition to classical French and American treats like croissants, cookies, and, of course, cakes. The bakery is not a dedicated gluten-free facility but can make gluten-free cakes upon request. The macarons are also an entirely gluten-free treat. Give the cookies and creme eclair a try, it’s Jaleesa’s personal favorite.
Food Network’s Spring Baking Championship Winner
When a recruiter on Food Network reached out to Jaleesa via Instagram, she initially thought it was a scam. But after the recruiter contacted her repeatedly, Jaleesa decided to hear what it was about. After some convincing, she decided to apply. The application entailed a personal video and photos of the businesses, among other items. The process left Jaleesa in a complete whirlwind because, within just three weeks of submitting her application, she was chosen as a contestant and was on a plane to film the show — after just having given birth only weeks before.
Before deciding to compete, there was a lot to consider. Who was going to run the store with Mohamad? Who was going to watch the kids, the youngest being just 8 weeks old? And, to top it all off, how was she going to figure out if she was even ready for a competition given that she was in the middle of her maternity leave and hadn’t baked a thing in over two months? In all the madness, Mohamad stopped Jaleesa and asked, “All other things aside, do you want to do this?” She said yes. With the help of Jaleesa’s mom, they came up with a plan.
Jaleesa wasn’t initially able to share much about the competition; however, she shared that she found it to be very difficult at first. She was breastfeeding her newborn from afar, coming out of postpartum brain fog, and feeling a little rusty in the kitchen. After a little self-pep talk and video calls with Mohamad back home, Jaleesa was able to find her stride.
Now, viewers and fans have been able to celebrate the secret that Jaleesa had to keep for months on end — that she was the grand winner of season 8 and the $25,000 prize. She even had to keep this secret from her husband, according to Nj.com.
“The biggest thing that it told me was, ‘You cannot give up,’” Jaleesa told Nj.com, reflecting on her big takeaway from this experience.
Since the show premiered on February 28th, Mo & Jay Pastry has seen an increase in foot traffic and an uptick in sales. She foresees a larger commissary kitchen in the future and perhaps even a second location of Mo and Jay Pastry beyond that. Now that she’s won The Spring Baking Championship, those dreams have become even more possible.
Ultimately, Jaleesa wants her customers to understand all of the hard work and effort she has put into her business. Seeing folks enjoy her treats is what makes her happy and keeps her motivated day after day.