An Interview with Gesine Bullock-Prado, author of CONFECTIONS OF A CLOSET MASTER BAKER
Broadway Books, Fall 2009
1: What makes your book different from other memoirs, and different from other cookbooks?
I’m not a recovering drug addict and there’s not one pasta dish included.
And it’s more than just a memoir about baking, it’s about finding out what I wanted to be when I grew up when I was already a grown up. Who says we have to be just one thing in our lifetimes? What’s wrong with becoming a lawyer and then running an entertainment company and then transforming into a master baker and a writer? There are plenty of things wrong with me but that’s not one of them. And I’m a better and happier woman for it.
2: Is writing a book at all like baking?
Putting the obvious and sadly inedible component of writing aside, it’s all about practice and screwing up, learning from mistakes and editing out bad habits. Baking is fiendishly precise, though. Writing can be a little more loosey goosey. But I have to say the discipline I’ve gleaned from baking professionally has helped enormously in writing. I take my time over the process. In baking, if I screw up I get right back in and approach the recipe with more patience and understanding. With writing, I do the same. I’ll edit and massage the same sentence until it’s right. It’s just not as tasty.
3. What advice do you have for readers who, like you once were, are trapped in jobs that don’t suit them?
Be fearless but also be excruciatingly honest with yourself. As a home baker, I was clueless when it came to running a food business. So what did I do? I opened a pastry shop with ZERO experience. I’m an idiot. You don’t have to be. Arm yourself with experience in the trade you think is your life’s work. Say you want to open a bakery like I did. If I’d been sane, I would have volunteered as a bakery slave on the weekends just to get my feet wet in commercial production. Any experience is better than none and it’s essential to have a decent grasp on the business side of the venture. It ain’t just sugar and butter. There’s payroll, taxes, permits, food handling issues. Lordy, sometimes hairnets are involved. I thank the pastry gods that despite my utter inexperience, my unrequited love of baking prevailed notwithstanding some boneheaded moves in my early days. But there’s something to be said for just jumping in. If you can survive and still love your chosen path, you’re golden.
4. Be honest: how did you adjust to that super-early-morning routine? Were you always a morning person?
I can’t wake up at 5am or 6am. Just can’t. Not without the assistance of a forklift and vat of coffee. But for some reason, 3:30am works for me. No problem. I’m not even going to try and figure out the woo woo reason why.
5. You write poignantly about your mother. How was your understanding of her transformed after you became a professional baker?
I don’t think that if my mother had survived cancer I’d be a professional baker. In losing her, I got a kick in the ass. Life’s too damn short to complain about being unhappy and do nothing about it. At first, baking was my way of communing with her. Of working through my grief at losing her and finding myself lost in LA. Some people pray; I bake. The gift that came from my flour dusted meditation was the revelation that I wasn’t just baking; I was a baker. Which brought it’s own sadness because I wanted so badly to share that with her. She was damn good baker herself. But for all I know, she’s opened her own swinging pastry joint just inside the pearly gates.
6. How did you decide which recipes to include? Any chance that you’ll write another book featuring the recipes omitted from this one?
I originally wrote the book without recipes. I know, go figure. The book had a rhythm to it that dictated which recipes would just comfortably slip in.
The same holds true for a second or third book. More stories and more recipes that spring from my tales of growing as a woman through sugar and butter.
7. You produced beautiful descriptions of your relatives’ baking. Where is the artistry in baking? How have you found room to be creative, despite the constraints of customer demands and measurements in recipes?
Well, my philosophy is pretty much “my house, my rules.” So in my shop, I baked what I loved and my customers got on board. This only works if what you’re making is tasty, of course. But I also took inspiration from customer requests. You notice I said request. I don’t respond well to demands. So you want a coconut cream pie. I can do that. But I’ll do it my way and make it better than you expected.
And that’s artistry to me, to mine joy and creativity from constraints.
8. Did running a production company prepare you at all for running a confectionary? What did both careers teach you about creating a great workplace?
It didn’t prepare me for bubkis. It’s such a niche, Hollywood. On the other hand, it did give me perspective on what it means to treat everyone with respect. Not just the A-listers, everyone. I learned a great deal by watching my sister honor the contributions of everyone on a film, from the grip to the director. Everyone’s working towards the same goal.
9. You’ve lived in many parts of America, and overseas. Where do you feel most at home?
With my husband Ray. If he’s around, no matter whether we’re sacked out on the couch at our home in Vermont or on a rickety train barreling through Poland, I’m home. There are those few places in the world that really speak to me, though. Vermont’s at the top of that list. Bavaria is too.
10. What’s in store for you now?
I sold the storefront in Vermont and Ray and I packed up the dogs for a few months to consult on the opening of a place called Waltons in Austin. Ray did coffee. I did pastry. And now we’re back in Vermont looking at part two. Or is it part three now? I’ve stopped counting. But I’m looking for a new space to bake. Just a little commercial space where I can churn out goodies and ship them around the country to anyone who needs a lovingly made treat. And I’m taking time to travel around the world to visit with the great master baker’s who can teach me a few new tricks.
From the Hardcover edition.