Cathy Cleary has always had a knack for bringing people together. In 2001, at a time when Haywood Road in West Asheville housed mostly appliance stores, she opened West End Bakery, which she co-owns with Krista Stearns and Lewis Lankford.
“Haywood was not a place where people hung out,” says Cleary. “My partners and I really wanted a community gathering space, and West End Bakery was immediately that. People were coming in to meet or make friends. It was so cool to watch.”
Now, Cleary is celebrating and reinforcing the community she’s created with the publication of The West End Bakery Cookbook. In keeping with her inclusiveness, she enlisted her friends, neighbors and customers to taste and tweak the recipes.
“I love to collaborate, and I love other people’s feedback,” says Cleary. “Part of the reason the cookbook was difficult was that it felt like I was doing it by myself. So, I opened up the testing to friends.”
The testers dived in. Their feedback helped Cleary make the recipes friendly for home kitchens. “It also made the recipes clearer and more well-rounded,” Cleary says. “One person said that she added crystalized ginger to my granola after she pulled it out of the oven. That was a great suggestion. And some people would comment, ‘This recipe takes forever. Can you streamline it?’”
The testers also affirmed the versatility of many of the recipes. Henry Read, for instance, adapted the recipe for black-eyed peas and collards, replacing collards with Swiss chard, and oregano with thyme. “It was nice to find out that I could make substitutions and still have it come out,” says Read, who grew up eating Cleary’s food. His dad and Cleary were classmates at UNC Greensboro, and remained good friends. “Cathy’s had a role in creating my cooking style,” says Read. “I like that she takes traditional Southern cooking seriously.”
Kimberly Masters, another college classmate of Cleary’s, also loves the freedom in the recipes: “Cathy wants to use what’s in season and local. So, she gives you the confidence to play with the recipe a little bit, especially with the soups.”
Masters has been testing Cleary’s recipes for at least two years: “She wanted help in reducing the restaurant recipes to manageable sizes for a home kitchen. I tested the lentil dahl, the pumpkin chili and muffin recipes like the pumpkin chocolate chip. I’ve made the lentil dahl about 20 times because I love it so much.”
An ad lib quality has always been a part of Cleary’s cooking style, except for baked goods that need more precision. “I like to be inspired by my ingredients,” she says. “If I’m trying to come up with a new salad, I open my fridge and take an inventory of what needs to be used and what can be combined. It’s very creative for me.”
Such creativity began early for Cleary, who wrote her first cookbook when she was 9 years old. “I filled up a little notebook, which I still have,” she says. Her stay-at-home dad, retired from the military, was her cooking teacher. “He didn’t know what to do with a little girl,” says Cleary. “But he was a great cook and let me help him. I made my first loaf of bread when I was 4.”
For Cleary, the cookbook’s importance lies in the stories behind the recipes. “I’m excited to share those stories with people who come to the bakery every day. And I’m excited for them to take the recipes home and make them, even if they don’t live in Asheville. Part of what I live for is to get people cooking.”
The cookbook includes more than 75 recipes and photographs by Asheville photographer Paul Jackson. It will go on sale at the bakery for $19.99 plus tax during a launch party 7-9 p.m. Friday, Dec. 12. The party is open to all.
A percentage of the book’s proceeds will benefit FEAST, a nonprofit organization Cleary cofounded with Kate Justen in 2009. Its mission is to promote healthy eating through hands-on cooking classes in the schools.
“We teach kids who have never seen a pear and who have no idea what kale is,” says Cleary. “When we come back for the second in a series of classes, the kids are jumping up and down, asking if we brought kale.”
Cleary’s friends and testers show as much enthusiasm for Cleary’s ventures as the children do. Says Masters, “She’s fed this community for 13 years, and the cookbook celebrates that. “