Welcome to ‘one cookie at a time’…my weekly post about my journey from college girl to pastry chef to business owner. I will do my best to make the ‘journey’ part of the story as fast as possible, because the true point of this weekly post is to hopefully help, inspire and advise anyone interested in sugar as a business.
I am often asked how long I’ve been in business, and how I got into baking in the first place. I talk a bit about it on my website, but I’m always happy to talk about it a bit more. I believe in my heart that I was meant to become a pastry chef. From a young age, I have enjoyed perusing cook books, testing recipes and techniques in the kitchen, and the joy otherwise known as giving someone a treat to enjoy. I contemplated going to culinary school, but at the time, decided a more traditional education would be the best place to ‘start’. As it turns out, this education led me to my first baking job, so in a way, I guess college did make a difference.
It was my final semester, senior year, at UVM, and I was bored. I looked through the paper and saw that a local bread company was hiring retail staff. I applied & got the job. On my first day of job, I was briefly introduced to the pastry chef, who barely acknowledged me with a nod. As she turned her back on me, I scanned the pastry room, and was mesmerized by everything…the work tables covered with flour, a machine I would later find out was called a sheeter, a bookcase with cookbooks, containers of nuts, a wall covered with utensils. It was a large square room with high ceilings, lots of rolling racks, pots, pans, and thick wood tables. I learned that the pastry chef worked by herself, and she was a production machine. Within a week or two, I started to try talking to the chef- asking questions & (stupidly) bringing in recipes that I thought maybe she would enjoy making. In retrospect, I am amazed that I was so clueless that it did not occur to me that said chef would ever be interested in anything, let alone a recipe from a newly hired young nobody. But, clueless I was, and since the chef was a solo deal, she had nowhere to hide from me. After about a month of listening/ignoring my one-way conversation conducted from just behind the doorway to the pastry room, the chef finally offered me a deal: she would talk to me & answer any question I had in exchange for me coming into work when she arrived (3am) and washing all of her dishes. I immediately accepted her offer, and that very next morning, at 3am, my life forever changed.
I ‘worked’ with this chef for two weeks. In those two weeks, she showed me how to use a mixer, how to measure ingredients on a scale, how to make croissant dough, how to use a proofer, how to use a sheeter, and finally, how to bake. I learned how to make biscotti, cookie dough, scones, croissants and muffins. I became best friends with the three bay sink. I always woke up before my alarm went off at 2:30am, and always showed up to work before the chef.
And then, exactly two weeks after I started my training, I sat in my car outside the bakery at 2:45 am, waiting for the chef to show up, but she never did. I wouldn’t find out until the next day that she quit, and that all of the specialty cake orders hanging on the board mysteriously disappeared too. At 3:30 am, all I knew is that she wasn’t showing up, and I was beyond anxious. There was no one there but me, and if I didn’t go inside the bakery and start doing what I barely knew how to do, the bakery would have to open that day without any fresh pastries to sell. I got out of my car, unlocked the door to the bakery, and walked toward the pastry room, my new home.
The owners of the bread company offered me the job of ‘head pastry chef’ one week later, and from that moment forward, I became a
‘pastry chef’ (baker) as well as a ‘manager’. I continued to bake, I learned how to count inventory, I hired staff, and I worked around the clock. I was lucky enough to be able to hire people from NECI (New England Culinary Institute), and one girl in particular showed me how to do things the original chef didn’t show me. I learned how to make Italian Meringue Buttercream and different flavored mousses, how to bake a cake, cut it into layers, and how to frost it. I learned how to use a pastry bag & tips, how to glaze a cake with ganache, and how not to glaze a cake with ganache. There was a lot of trial and error, a lot of burns on my arms, lots of baking nightmares, lots of long days spent in that kitchen. All told, I worked for that company for approximately three years, and by the end of those three years, I finally felt like I knew what I was doing in that kitchen.
What happened next could take pages upon pages, (and lots of burning bread), but I’ll make it fast: I moved from Vermont to Massachusetts, opened a bakery (Nashoba Brook Bakery) in West Concord with my now ex-husband and another business partner, had babies, worked more long hours, and by 2004, was a single mother of three, no longer an owner of a bakery, and unsure of what kind of career an ex-pastry chef could pursue. To show you just how far away I was from continuing on with pastry, there’s this story: an acquaintance of mine who owned an insurance company thought I might be great at selling insurance, and because I had no clue what I might be good at now that I no longer was a pastry chef or a business owner, I decided to go for it. I signed up for a class and tried to find something interesting about the insurance business (no offense to anyone out there in the insurance biz…). I made it through until day two, lunch, at which point I turned in my book and left to go home to brainstorm career #3.
On my way home, I got a call from an old customer from my Nashoba Brook Bakery days, wondering if I might be able to make her mother a birthday cake. I thought to myself, sure…of course I can, but where? How? What would I charge for it? But, before these thoughts made it from one part of my brain to the other side, I said ‘yes, I would be thrilled to make her mother’s cake’, and I realized as I hung up the phone that I wasn’t going to have to look too hard to figure out what to do when I grew up.
I officially started babycakes and confections in 2005 and worked out of my kitchen at home until 2010, when I built my current home for babycakes at the Stow Minute Man Airport.
Come back next week to find out why I’ve decided to call this weekly post ‘one cookie at a time’…