DAILY BREAD, PLUS: Gayer-Nicholson has won a following in the Twin Cities with her signature pastries.
The timing wasn't the greatest—think January in the Twin Cities—but Michelle Gayer-Nicholson couldn't resist the offer to take over Franklin Street Bakery early in 2004. It had been her dream to run the show, and she quickly put her stamp on the 20,000-square-foot Minneapolis facility, luring in sugar junkies with such dreamy confections as chocolate meringues, green tea ginger cake with lemon cream filling and white mascarpone frosting and "cupcakes for adults" in varieties like milk-chocolate truffle, orange-vanilla bean with candied pansies and chunky carrot cake. A division of Cuisine Concepts—which also runs well-regarded local eateries such as Tejas and Goodfellow's—the bakery also supplies breads to restaurants, retailers and hotels from Montana to New York. Gayer-Nicholson's reputation—Bon Appetit crowned her pastry chef of the year a few years back—is built on her creativity and insistence on using only the best ingredients, a passion honed during two stints with Charlie Trotter and a turn with La Brea Bakery's Nancy Silverton. Trotter, who has called her "a poet," enlisted Gayer-Nicholson's input as co-author of Charlie Trotter's Desserts. RH's Megan Rowe recently chatted with the pastry chef about her evolving career.
I understand your mother loved to bake. Was food a big deal at home when you were growing up?
It was a big deal, but it was never made into a big deal. It was always there, we always had dinner together, we always had desserts, there were always cookies and bars and something "dessertesque" around. It was just there.
When did you decide you wanted to be a pastry chef?
I knew when I was 18 and working on an associate's degree in liberal arts that it was not for me, and I knew I loved to cook, it was very interesting to me. About halfway through culinary school I chose pastry. Back then, schools didn't have just pastry classes; now you can go for a pastry degree. But I'm kind of glad in the long run that I've done it all, because the more knowledge you have, the better.
What's your favorite junk food?
I guess thin-crust pizza. We don't do junk food. I'm trying to be weight-conscious and teach my daughters (they're 2 and 4 years old) good eating habits.
A demanding job and those two young ones must keep you running all the time.
You bet. I work from 5 a.m. until 2 p.m. When I get home, they're waking up from a nap, so I get to spend time with them. That's huge for me. That's one of the reasons I like working in a bakery.
Have you ever experimented with a recipe and surprised yourself?
I experiment every day; actually, I have a hard time making something the same way twice. My struggle is to be consistent. I always want to learn something or do something differently, whether it's changing the chocolate percentage, or adding more vinegar, whatever.
Doesn't that pose a problem when something you make has a big fan base?
We have certain things that we make consistently for sure. If we change something and someone says "I want it this way," I go out and let them know what I've done to it and try to talk them into it.
What do you consider your greatest strength in the bakery?
My spontaneity and creativity.
What's your favorite gadget?
A mini-offset spatula. You can frost a cake, fill a tart, caramelize some pineapple and flip the pineapple with it, turn something in the oven, it's just a good tool.
If you weren't a pastry chef, what could you see yourself doing?
I would love to be professionally entertaining in my life—throwing parties at my house. Baking and cooking and making crafts all day—that would be my thing. I always say that being a pastry chef is just coaching me to be a great entertainer. On the other hand, I kind of like to be around a lot of people, so I might miss interacting with people.
Who are your role models?
Charlie Trotter, definitely. He was my mentor and still is. I love him dearly. I just think he's good people, and I admire his commitment to grand cuisine and excellence, his attention to detail, his compassion, his relentless energy, his striving to be better and challenging himself. I also really love Nancy Silverton. When I met her, she was a mom who was doing it—baking — then she sold her company for millions of dollars. She's awesome.
What do you do to blow off steam?
Just hang out with my daughters and do the girl thing. I just love that. I feel really blessed. I can't wait to get home, take them to the park and have a picnic.
How do you get inspired and stay fresh?
I get ideas and inspiration from anything from a picture in a magazine to remembering a childhood favorite of my own. Sometimes it's from sitting and talking about food with coworkers.
What kind of meal do you enjoy most in a restaurant?
I like to try different things, especially what the chef recommends—anything they've particularly made with love. I love to do ethnic foods and try new places.