Long ago, the proper term for female bakers was “bakesters,” similar to the way female weavers were called “websters.” Although we’ve reached an age where language attempts to reflect a more civilized, equalized society, a society where we are becoming “gender neutral,” it still can benefit us to glance back, if only to see how far we have come.
Since the levee failures in 2005, we have seen a continual rise in local bakeries around New Orleans, especially bakeries owned by “bakesters.” We offer a glimpse into what drives some of these women into positions of flour-laden power and the steps they took to get there.
Cara Benson, Tartine
While working on her degree in Political Science (and bartending at Fat Harry’s), local chef Cara Benson realized her ambition to be a lawyer was not meant to be. “I didn’t think I could sit at a desk all day. I wanted to do something creative with my hands.” This artistic urge drove Benson to the French Culinary Institute of New York where she studied Pastry and met her future husband Evan, who was also attending the Institute. After graduation, she landed her first job as a chef at Rene Pujol, a now-defunct French bistro in the Upper West Side.
After two years and a horrible blizzard in the Big Apple, Benson wanted to come back home. “Evan might have stayed in New York, but I just couldn’t do another winter there. So I was like ‘Look, I’m going to go home. You can come with me if you want.’” The couple returned to New Orleans where Evan secured a job as sous chef at Cafe Degas and Benson landed a job at catering company Partysist.
When the levees failed in 2005, Benson spent a month-long evacu-vacation at the Four Seasons in Hawaii, but all the while she desperately missed home. Upon her return to New Orleans, Benson was hired as Pastry Chef at Muriel’s Jackson Square. For over three years she stayed at the French Quarter restaurant where she made bread and desserts for regular service, as well as for banquets and other events held there.
It wasn’t until she had her son Teller that Benson realized that her position at Muriel’s was no longer feasible. “I came back from maternity leave, my son was 8 weeks old, and it was right back to six days a week, 10 to12 hour days. I used to have to go pump [breast milk] in the bathroom three times a day.” Benson related, “I knew that [opening] Tartine would be just as many hours and hard work, but at least it would be mine.”
Benson also knew she would have help. When she opened the French-style sandwich shop Uptown on Perrier Street with her husband, it was the perfect combination of talents coming together. Benson believes her greatest influence and inspiration for Tartine came from her grandmother who lives in St. Francisville, but hails from Luxembourg, France. “She would make traditional French food whenever we’re there.” Benson smiles, “In the morning, we would have tartines for breakfast with the toast, the [home made] jams, cured meats and butter.”
Megan Forman, Gracious Bakery
A graduate of Newman High School, a college preparatory school in Uptown New Orleans, Megan Forman had the world at her fingertips. She went on to pursue a double major in English and French at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee. “I was in my last year of college and everyone was making plans to do stuff,” Forman says, “I was getting into cooking at home, cooking for my friends and that’s when I saw something on CNN about culinary school…about the New England Culinary Institute and how they were transforming their curriculum.”
A woman to follow her passions wherever they led, Forman headed to New England where she spent two years studying the culinary arts. Since there was no specialization in Pastry at the time, Forman took a job as an assistant pastry chef at Park Avenue Cafe in New York City. “I thought it would help round out my experience and then I realized how much I liked it.” Forman explained, “It was more reasonable in terms of physical exertion and hours. You’re not tied to dinner service every night and burning yourself out.”
Forman left Park Avenue Cafe for a position at Payard Patisserie & Bistro, going from an American-style of baking to all French. “I helped open a restaurant on 7th Avenue, close to Madison Square Garden, and it gave me a taste of what it was like to open your own place and how hard it can be.” After a while, Forman returned home only to find that fate had already found a place for her at Bayona. “It seemed really fortuitous that Susan [Spicer] needed a pastry chef and I was coming back. I adored that job.” she said smiling, “I remember thinking to myself as I was going to work ‘I can’t believe I get paid to do this.’”
Forman stayed with Spicer for over half a decade, until she was offered the unique opportunity to help open the popular Magazine Street confectioner Sucré. It was while working as assistant pastry chef to Tariq Hanna at the Sucré commissary in Mid City, that Forman was inspired to open her own place. “I realized that this [Gert Town] was such an emerging neighborhood and there was really nothing around,” she said excitedly, “…and then I saw this building going up and a new space was really attractive to me.”
Working with Woodward Design architectural firm, Forman was able to lay out the bakery of her dreams . . . a clean, simple space with the display cases as the main focal point. Although Forman comes across as exacting and particular, she takes great pride in the creativity and warmth of her staff. “I would say we are all contributing on a constant level.” she relates, “I think it’s really important with a small business like this to give your staff some kind of ownership, trust them and allow them to be creative and really be a part of the whole.”
Lisa Barbato, Rivista
“One day I realized I was working all the time, but I wasn’t enjoying what I was doing. I read this book called What Color Is Your Rainbow? At first I thought ‘This is crazy!’ but I finally ended up doing my own thing.”
When Lisa Barbato realized her job as an accountant in a Seattle software company was not where she wanted to be, she immediately took action. While working as a waitress full time, Barbato attended the Culinary Art Institute of Seattle and graduated from a two-year program, in both baking and pastry, in only a year and a half. During school, she did her externship at Christina’s, a high end restaurant she loved in the San Juan Islands.
After graduating, Barbato had the choice of returning to her job in the San Juan Islands or finally making it down to New Orleans, a city she’d been interested in for some time. Obviously, she chose to come here and made the move in the fall of 1998. “I thought I was going to be here for 9 months!” she said smiling.
Barbato’s first job in New Orleans was at Mr. B’s Bistro, one of our city’s classic Creole institutions. It was also where she met her husband, Chef Chris Barbato who now works at Cafe Adelaide. “He interviewed me and didn’t want to hire me.” she laughed. Because of Barbato’s resume showed her bouncing back and forth between Christina’s during the spring and a caterer in the off-season, Chef Chris didn’t think she would stay. “Luckily Chef Michelle [McRaney] hired me anyway.”
Although she started as a line cook, the pastry chef approached her one day asking if she’d like to take over for a few weeks while she went out of town. “He came back again, but then he ended up leaving, so I just kind of took over. That’s where I found my niche and where I found I actually liked it.” Plus, at the time there seemed to be a lot of job opportunities for pastry chefs.
Barbato left Mr. B’s for the now-closed restaurant Peristyle where she worked closely under award-winning Chef Anne Kearney. Even though Barbato gained experience from several great chefs in the city, she feels that Chef Kearney was the most influential and what she learned has now become Barbato’s own motto. “Her attention to detail and just caring…caring about what goes into it, not being like ‘Oh, it’s okay, send it out.’ If it’s not right, it’s not right.”
When Peristyle closed in 2004, Barbato took a little time off before being approached by the Crescent City Farmers Market who asked if she would be willing to participate in a charity event. This acquaintance grew into Barbato becoming a regular vendor at the Saturday market downtown. “I liked working for myself and the farmers market, but I was working out of my home and it was growing too much, so I figured this is a good time to open Rivista.”
“I call myself the ‘anti-baker,’” she laughs, “I don’t measure anything, everything I free-hand cut.” With this unusual, rustic style, Barbato has been amazing customers with her delicate pastry, especially items like hand-rolled croissants, turnovers and danishes. Barbato and her husband hope to open Rivista sometime in April of this year.
*Article originally published in March 2013 on NolaWoman.com