Several dozen small art galleries dot the towns and cities of Western North Carolina, hiding in plain sight as they display amazing multimedia works of vibrant color, rich texture—and mouth-watering taste.
The galleries are the pastry display cases of our many distinguished bakeries that proclaim their products are made “from scratch.” The bakers who run the small, busy kitchens that produce these pastries, cookies, cakes, breads, and croissants and assorted goodies agree that “from scratch” is the shorthand phrase that elevates their work from the ordinary to the exceptional.
[dropcap]“W[/dropcap]e use only all natural raw ingredients. We don’t use any mixes.” Laura Bogard, general manager of the Well-Bred bakery, explained the meaning of “from scratch,” and the pride that goes with it. “Everything we make starts from flour, butter, sugar, egg whites. Others use mixes,” she says, a touch of professional disdain creeping into her voice. “They’ll use a tub of frosting and cake mix like you get in a box.”
Well-Bred is one of several dozen artisan bakeries in Western North Carolina. From Boone to Brevard, from Chimney Rock to Cherokee, bakers are producing breads, cakes, and pastries that reach the highest levels of their craft.
On Haywood Street in downtown Asheville, Karen Donatelli designs her pastries in the classical European style, with the flair of an artist and the detail of an architect. She arrives at her shop usually between 5:00 and 6:00am. “But four o’clock is not uncommon,” she says. With her husband, Vince, and sons, Angelo and Vincent, baking is a family affair. They each take up their positions around the long counter-high work table and go to work assembling the day’s product. “I love the early morning quiet,” she says. “It’s the time that I spend with my husband and my boys. We joke around a little bit and it makes the morning go faster. It’s good.”
While she’s talking, Karen is assembling a small multilayered rectangular pastry, adding a fluff of chocolate in one corner, then squeezing a creative squiggle across the top. It appears she’s finished; the pastry looks great. But she’s not done. Not nearly.
She goes to a tall metal cupboard with 18 shelves containing trays of various decorations. She pulls a tray of chocolate cylinders, like thin straws, and then a tray of thin, flat shapes, and another of hard chocolate figures that resemble musical G-clef symbols. Continuing the conversation, her hands almost absently place the decorations on the pastry. With each addition, it looks complete, display-case ready. But she continues adding until all the pieces are arranged across the top in a spray of color and shapes that can be described as beautiful—and decadent.
After Karen finishes decorating the pastry, her husband, Vince, gives her a quick kiss and, “see you tonight,” as he heads off to his day job as lead instructor in the baking department at A-B Tech.
At the same early morning hour, Bill Tellman is in the kitchen of his Bracken Mountain Bakery in Brevard, where he is tending to an oven of bread, croissants, and scones. “A lot of scones,” he says. Bill and his wife, Debbie, are celebrating the 20th anniversary of their bakery, a venture he describes as “probably our most treasured accomplishment.”
And at Stick Boy Bakery in Boone, up in the High Country, bread baker Josh Wagner is putting the finishing touches on the morning muffins, buns, scones, and cookies. Pastry chef Brandon Kop will start work later in the morning, supervising his staff making pies, cakes, tortes, and other sweet creations.
Meanwhile in Hendersonville, Matthew Hickman is firing up the oven in the kitchen of his Underground Baking Company. Matthew and his wife, Lisa, opened Underground in 2009, and in only six years they have doubled their space and become a fixture in their neighborhood. Matthew endorses the “from scratch” concept and stresses that they use 100 percent organic grains in all their baking. He and Lisa have divided their kitchen into two departments: She does the pastries, and he handles the breads and other yeast products. Matthew laughs when he considers their signature product, calling it an accidental specialty.
“When Southern Appalachian Brewery moved into the neighborhood, the brewer and I became friends. He kept pushing me to bake some soft pretzels that he could put out at the brewery. Eventually they took off and became our top-selling product, both at the brewery and here in the bakery. We put some unique toppings on them, like spinach artichoke or fresh roasted jalapeños and cheddar cheese. We’ve become known for them.”
Back in Asheville, Sarah Resnick presides over a busy kitchen at City Bakery on Biltmore Avenue. The kitchen runs virtually around the clock, with bread chef Daniel Goodson mixing abut 1,200 pounds of dough every day to make more than a dozen varieties of bread, and Sarah producing the cupcakes, pies, and other pastries that are the stars of the display case. The Biltmore Avenue kitchen supplies the City Bakery store on Charlotte Street, as well as the supermarkets and restaurants that make up the bakery’s roster of wholesale clients.
The wholesale business is enough to make City Bakery’s retail operation the icing on the cake (pun intended). Ingles, Greenlife, and Earthfare are among several supermarkets that carry City Bakery breads, along with a Who’s Who of regional restaurants: Bouchon, the Lobster Trap, Chestnut, Zambra, the Admiral, and Limones, to name just a few.
“Wholesale is important to us,” says general manager Brian Dennehy. “We’re proud to be featured in the best restaurants in Asheville.” But he says they don’t push the wholesale side of the business. “We don’t have a sales person. Going out and getting new business is not something we do often mainly because we’re pretty well maxed out in our kitchen.”
Another busy kitchen is at Well-Bred Bakery. After 15 years in Weaverville, Well-Bred opened a second shop in Biltmore Village. The Weaverville kitchen supplies both stores, and that’s where general manager Laura Bogard spends most of her time. Sitting in the dining area on a busy weekday lunch hour, Laura expanded on the “from scratch” topic.
“You can taste the difference,” she said. “If I bite into an éclair here, it tastes right. We make the pastry cream from scratch.” Her pace began to quicken as she went on. “It’s a mixture of half-and-half, egg yolk, and heavy cream that we stir on the stove, and then we set it, and then we whip it and we fold it in, and then we pipe it into a shell and we dip it into a fine chocolate ganache. You bite into that and it’s authentic. A lot of places you bite into an éclair and it tastes like a vanilla pudding.”
That authentic taste is a basic requirement in Karen Donatelli’s kitchen. “The most satisfying part of what I do is when one of my pastries is eaten and enjoyed,” she says. “I love making things, coming up with something different, making things look beautiful and appetizing. I love it all.”
Karen has been baking since she got a part-time job at the age of 15 in Florida. “I was still in high school, and I started by making brownies and éclairs. By the time I was 16, I was being shown how to decorate cakes and a year later I was assistant cake decorator.” As she talks, she is decorating another pastry and interrupting her story to check on the items in the oven.
She continues her narrative. “I was working full-time before I graduated high school. At 18 I just knew this was the profession I wanted, but I wanted to learn more professionally. I always desired to go to college but it was just not in my path, so I went to the Breakers Hotel, where they hired me on the spot as an apprentice.”
It was at the Breakers where she met Vince, who was a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America. His career path is the more common among the bakers we met, beginning with a culinary college, and then working their way up in restaurants and hotels, until finally opening their own bakeries. And now Vince has come full cycle as the bakery instructor at A-B Tech.
[quote float=”right”]Tempered chocolate? “If you melt chocolate, it won’t have that glossy finish you want for candy or the coating on a truffle. You have to temper it, which means stirring it slowly over a low heat.Time, temperature, and agitation.”[/quote]On a recent afternoon, 20 students were rolling hazelnut truffles at the long work table that dominates the baking kitchen. Vince explained that they had been given a demonstration and lecture and, “this is a second-year group, so they should have a grasp of it.” They were on the final step of the process, rolling their truffles over a grate to create the spiky truffle texture. Vince explained the entire process, making it sound simple. “They make the filling, let it set, pipe it, round it, and then dip it in tempered chocolate.”
Tempered chocolate? “If you melt chocolate, it won’t have that glossy finish you want for candy or the coating on a truffle. You have to temper it, which means stirring it slowly over a low heat. Time, temperature, and agitation.” One can imagine the notation, “time, temp, agitation,” in the students’ notebooks.
Vince started the bakery program at A-B Tech 11 years ago, and he speaks with a quiet pride about the accomplishments of the entire culinary department. He explains that the annual college competition begins at the state level, and the state winners move onto the regionals. Finally, the regional winners continue to the culinary Final Four national competition. “We’ve gone to the most nationals of any school over the past 20 years,” he says. “And that includes the past three years consecutively.” The culinary team has won the state and regional competitions again this year and will compete in the national finals in July.
Back at the truffle exercise, the students are working quietly, concentrating on their tasks, as Vince keeps an eye on their progress. “I try to instill professionalism,” he says. “I run a professional kitchen. They all walk out of here with a portfolio of all they’ve accomplished. If they’re willing to work hard, they’ll find jobs.”
Many of them do find jobs right here in Western North Carolina. And that is one of the contributing factors to the prominence of fine bakeries in the region.
“The whole A-B Tech connection is awesome,” says Sarah Resnick at City Bakery. She goes on to list the other factors that contribute to the proliferation of bakeries here. “I think so many people like Vince and his wife are here because they want to live in this area. A-B Tech attracts the caliber of teachers that they do because they want to live in this area. Because they attract their teachers, they have an excellent program. Because they have an excellent program, they’re turning out students that know what they’re doing. And a lot of those students want to stay here. It’s just a great cycle.” And then Sarah notes the final—and perhaps most important—factor. “We happen to have the clientele that knows what they’re looking for, and they’re willing to pay for it.”
The continuing theme of Sarah’s statement is that people want to live here. The other bakers we spoke to echoed that sentiment.
Bill Tellman at Bracken Mountain bakery in Brevard came to the mountains via his own personal great circle route, beginning in Europe, moving to the wine country of California where he “managed to get written up in Food and Wine, Bon Appétit, and Gourmet magazines.” Those write-ups helped him find work in Charlotte, and after a couple of years he and his wife, Debbie, “started looking around for alternatives. We had to make a choice between the ocean and the mountains. We liked the Brevard area. We opened up on a shoestring, raised our two daughters here, and there couldn’t be a better place to raise kids.”
Brian Dennehy, the general manager at City Bakery, takes it a step further. “I think bakeries in general are kind of owned by the communities around them. That community interaction, seeing people in the morning that work in the neighborhood, is one of the real pleasures of this business. People want to be here. To me, Asheville has always been about quality. People are not here just for the money.”
Pastry chef Brandon Kop at Stick Boy Bakery in Boone was born in Hawaii and found his way to the high country after stops in Louisiana and Oklahoma. He says he can’t imagine living anywhere else. “I love Boone,” he says. “I’ve got five kids and another on the way, and this is a great place to raise a family.”
In separate interviews, the bakers agreed on most topics, none more strongly than the difficulty of the job.
“It’s not romantic.” The speaker is Laura Bogard at Well-Bred, but it could have been any of the bakers we spoke with. Laura continued with a vivid description.
“This is a production bakery; we do high volume. It’s fast and furious because there’s so much we have to get done.” With a staff of 12 in the small kitchen, she says, “we’re bumping into each other and fighting over access to the oven.” And the work is not easy. “Being in the kitchen all day every day is hard on the body. Piping the éclair shells, you have to squeeze the cone really hard, your hands and arms get tired. Making pastry cream, you’re standing there stirring as it thickens. Your arm gets tired, but you can’t stop. Frosting cakes, you put the frosting in a piping cone and squeeze it. And keep squeezing. The job is so tough that to cut down on the injuries we give everyone in the kitchen a free quarterly massage.”
Sarah Resnick laughs at the mention of physical stress. “It’s so not glamorous,” she says. “It’s not pretty. You’re going to be tired. You’re going to work every day when your friends are not working. You’re going to work early mornings or late nights. You’re going to haul 50-pound bags of flour. It’s hard work.”
Karen Donatelli adds her own perspective to the physical demands. “I’m on my feet hours and hours at a time. There was a weekend in May when I had so many wedding cakes that I worked a 40-hour shift, nonstop.” In addition to the kitchen work, Karen has the challenge of running a business. “I work seven days a week and 14-hour days. Between ordering, keeping track of receipts, bookkeeping, and banking, and all the other details of a business, it’s much more than a full-time job.”
Karen mentions her wedding cakes, which are an essential ingredient of her success. Before they came to Asheville, Karen and Vince and their three kids lived in Orlando, Florida. Vince was pastry chef at the Buena Vista Hotel at Disney World, and Karen went into business herself, first working out of her home, and eventually opening two retail shops. Along the way she acquired clients the likes of Wolfgang Puck and Delta Airlines, where she supplied pastries for their first-class passengers. But her specialty was wedding cakes. “There was such demand for my work that I would work a year in advance. If you didn’t let me know right when you got engaged, you probably weren’t getting one of my cakes.” She pulls down two big albums of wedding cake pictures, their covers showing a fine trace of flour dust. The photos show multi-tiered cakes, ranging up to six feet tall or more, and covered, top to bottom, with sugar sculptures of flowers, vines, decorative swirls, and whatever else the imagination can conjure from a sugar mixture she calls gum paste. “It’s like a dough. I taught myself how to form it into specific shapes.”
For all the physical stress, for all the long workdays with inconvenient hours, the bakers agree they wouldn’t have it any other way.
“I love to cook,” says Brandon Kop at Stick Boy in Boone. “If I ran into a bunch of money, I might just become a professional fisherman, but this is a great life. Beyond daydreams I can’t imagine doing anything else. I certainly wouldn’t want to go into a corporate office every day.”
Vince Donatelli pauses to consider the question. “I love baking and I love teaching. It’s a hard question. I’ve got a good combination right now.”
Sarah Resnick at City Bakery was quick with her response. “I love the satisfaction of being able to see what I did during the day. I can’t imagine having an office job where at the end of the day I may have been very productive, but all I’ve done is write a bunch of Excel spreadsheets. Being in the kitchen I start with butter, sugar, and flour, and I create a five-tier wedding cake. That’s awesome, and I love that.”
Matthew Hickman at Underground Baking Company in Hendersonville considered the alternatives. “I would go nuts. Every time I complain about my back pain or getting up at 2:30 in the morning, I think about the alternatives and…” His voice trails off, and he continues on a different tack. “It’s just that you’re wired for it. It’s in your genes. There are just those of us out there who live and breathe the business. There’s something about the person that keeps you in this business.”
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