Whether running their own business, hard at work in their kitchen or — more often than not — both, numerous female bakers and pastry chefs keep the Asheville area supplied with delicious baked goods throughout the year.
To help celebrate their accomplishments, Xpress spoke with Camille Cogswell of Walnut Family Bakery; Susannah Gebhart of OWL Bakery; Andrea Hasselbacher of Meadowsweet Creamery; and Cherie Pereyra of Annie’s Bakery to learn about what motivates them on the job and the lessons they’ve learned from their craft.
Who was your greatest female influence as a child, and how did they shape who you’ve become?
Cogswell: My mom, Margaret Couch Cogswell, who is an artist here in Asheville. Growing up being able to have home-cooked meals on the table every night and being in the kitchen with her helped grow my love of food and art. I appreciate her honesty, goofiness, creativity and organization. I notice reflections of her in myself all the time as I get older, which makes me happy because she’s been a great role model.
Gebhart: My loving mama was the salient female force in my childhood experience. Every day when I was a little person, she would set aside an hour or so of “quiet time,” in which I would stay in my room alone, left to my own devices. I’d say this was one of the most formative aspects of learning how to be quiet, to listen and be with myself without constant external stimulation, distraction or entertainment. I think often how that has helped me be present in both my craft and in the world, and to find direction from within.
Hasselbacher: Julia Child was the person who helped me fall in love with cooking. I loved how she made food her passion in life, and that helped give me permission in my 20s to leave a “proper career” in health care to work in a restaurant. Her jubilation in the kitchen helped me see how much baking was important for me, and how it was important for me to do work that made me joyful.
Pereyra: My mom, Cindy Halliger, was and still is my greatest female influence. She taught and encouraged me to embrace and follow my curiosity and passion with abandon.
Do you feel a responsibility to pass on similar inspiration to the next generation of potential bakers/pastry chefs?
Cogswell: Yes! It’s always super important to acknowledge and encourage the interests of the next generation. Staying true to yourself, speaking up for what you believe in, admitting your mistakes, following your passion and being honest about the times when your path hasn’t been easy or glamorous make all the difference. That’s all easy to say and it sounds quite idealistic, but it’s hard to actually stick with. And it’s also important to not put too much pressure on yourself. I think these things can be a good model for inspiring others to see potential in themselves.
Gebhart: It’s a little strange to me to consider “responsibility” and “inspiration” as related. I don’t suppose I believe I have a duty to ensure, or even have any control over, whether my actions or what I make is inspiring to other people. I feel moreover a responsibility to be dedicated and to “show up” as much as I can, whether that is to the craft of baking or to “running” a business or to being a teacher. I fall short all the time, but as many times as I could have given up or become bitter — which can happen easily in the hospitality industry — I’ve always come back to the table and just try to do so with an open and loving heart and to give as much as I possibly can.
I think what inspires people is so individual and ultimately comes from within, perhaps by asking the question, “How can I best serve what I am making or doing through my decisions, my curiosity, my experience and knowledge, and my skill?” If that includes looking to someone else and how they do it or learning directly from them, then that is an important part of anyone’s personal development/deepening, and that I celebrate and encourage.
Hasselbacher: Yes, baking is difficult but is full of freedom and joy if time and effort are put in. There are long hours on your feet and often difficult kitchen environments to work in — which is where you learn so much — and you have to have a little fire going in you to keep your chin up. I never had a formal background in baking, so I want others to know that you can start from anywhere. Telling these stories of our unconventional paths to become bakers can inspire people that would have been afraid to start out in the first place.
Pereyra: I do. I have two kids and I encourage them to follow and satisfy their curiosity and wonder. I don’t bake and cook for work only. I’m always in my kitchen at home making something yummy. They see me in my element, my happy place, creating. They are my biggest fans and critics. Sharing my passion with them and exploring theirs as we enjoy what I’ve made is creating ripples that I hope carry through to their friends and future.
What is the greatest challenge within your industry that an outsider would find surprising?
Cogswell: There are many challenges in the food service industry, but one that I think is extremely important to acknowledge is that there is often a huge gap in communication and transparency between employers and employees. Owners are often cagey about how the business end works: pay structure, food cost, profit and loss. But sharing knowledge and being honest with employees will empower them to care more and work smarter, as well as improve the health of the industry as a whole in the future as the employees become the next generation of restaurant managers and business owners.
Gebhart: Communication. As much as one can develop themselves independently as a baker or a chef, being in the “industry” is about a team working together to deliver something that takes a lot of coordination on the back end but feels seamless for the recipient. All of that hinges on communication. The communication patterns common in kitchens can be effective and unhealthy at the same time, but I think there’s a sea change happening that is trending toward healthier communication styles and workplace practices. All of that really comes down to individuals making a commitment to communicating thoughtfully and adapting quickly to the demands of the moment.
Hasselbacher: Current regulations within the dairy industry limit many of the things we can do. Many people trying to use local and sustainable ingredients run into roadblocks that limit their freedom — it’s extremely frustrating and can stop people in their tracks when trying to change how our food system works. Large food industries dictate how smaller food businesses can operate, not always with the health of people and the environment in mind. There needs to be a change to this.
Pereyra: The incredible variety of people that work in this industry. I’ve worked with plenty of lifers like me, but I’ve also encountered so many different people on so many different walks of life over the years. I could fill a book with snippets of life stories I’ve heard. Learning how to work with the variety can be as challenging as it is rewarding. The schedule can be brutal as well, but I don’t think that is much of a secret!
What is the best advice you’d give a young person just starting out in the bakery/food pastry business?
Cogswell: Seek out working for people who are hard on you and keep their standards high but who take the time to teach you, encourage questions and give you the tools to achieve those goals together. You’ll encounter a lot of bosses who are not like this, and no one is perfect! But those who are dismissive, disrespectful or unwilling to be there for their team are not worth sticking with. Learning what qualities make an ineffective leader can be equally as informative as learning how to be a great leader.
Gebhart: I’m going to make a bold claim: Half of baking is listening, and the other half is dancing. As such, it takes a tremendous amount of presence and diligence. To expound, the listening requires paying attention — to ingredients, process, the story aromas have to tell, the way combining materials and working them impacts their behavior. This is the intuitive and the scientific. Listening includes trial and experimentation, messing up and learning what not to do, and expanding knowledge through research. It means being able to squeeze some flour and “read” it.
The other half, dancing, is really about physical skill. You have to know your ingredients, but you also have to know your body, how to use gravity effectively and develop fine motor skills. This is the precision. It means moving with efficiency, working cleanly, knowing how to modulate pressure to fully extend dough in one pass of the pin or knit it in just a few motions into a taught package. It requires spatial and physical awareness, and it makes the difference.
Often, baking is romanticized, seems magical and even whimsical, as though a fairy might wave a wand and some beautiful confection appears from the ether. But I think it bears saying that to really get the most out of being a baker is that it takes a lot of time, a heap of devotion (especially when stuff doesn’t work!) and a great deal of physical training. Bakers have a long line of silent hands behind them, and every time we work a bit of flour with a fat or a liquid, we are not alone. We are not the first or the last to do what we do, but if we listen closely enough and if we work with clarity, then there may be something we learn about ourselves or life in the process. If that is what drives you, then I would wager you’ll be successful.
Hasselbacher: It isn’t important whether or not you’ve been formally trained in pastry, but your passion for the art of food. You can find the mentorship you need in unexpected places. There are so many talented pastry chefs, and it can be daunting to “compare and despair,” but we can all help build one another up. People will always need good food and community. There can never be enough of that!
Pereyra: Create, create, create! Study and learn the fundamentals but take your ideas and make them. Share them! Never stop listening or learning. Everybody has something to teach you, whether it’s what to do or what not to do. And never underestimate the power of a hint of ground cardamom and ground clove to elevate your sweet bread or dessert.