Recently I sat down to give my "about" page a bit of a refresh, and somewhat unexpectedly (because I had been intending on doing this for a long time, and generally stared at a blank page until losing focus) a whole story poured out. I don't think I've ever done this before: wrote about my journey and influences, taken a step back to reflect on how I ended up here and what shaped my interests and passions. Suddenly, it was all on the page and I thought "well, duh." But maybe not "duh," because I don't always share about these things, and the older I get, the more divorced from my beginning I become. I'm sure much of this will ultimately make it's way onto the "about" page, but since it turned out that I actually had something to say, here you go!
Old-world techniques, Modern innovation
My love of baking has been a lifelong journey— but for the sake of brevity, let’s say that it started back in 2007 when I attended Johnson & Wales University for baking & pastry arts. I didn’t know it at the time, but this classical French pastry education completely rebuilt the foundation of my ever-growing love affair with baking, and I learned more than a few things that have stuck with me through the years. Classic formulas, timeless flavors, and a mastery of the main components that comprise nearly all desserts. Above all, I gained an understanding of the science behind baking, the reasoning behind the rules, and the inclination (and ability) to selectively break them. While attending school, I worked as the lead cake decorator for an all-vegan and gluten-free bakery, where I learned innovative and uncompromising ways to accommodate special diets, and again rethink the rules of classical pastries. This juxtaposition of old-world techniques and modern ambitions carries through so much of my work today, but it wasn’t until after I had graduated that I realized where my heart belonged in all this sugar.
Food begins with Farmers... and so I became one (kind of)
In school, I had one chef in particular that impressed on me an idea that grew into an entire approach— quality begins at the ingredients, and the ingredients begin with farmers. Our work, our art, is inseparable. As I moved on from college, this idea took root, and all the sudden I had a new set of interests and curiosities. After graduation, I moved to Bar Harbor, Maine and spent a season making (100+) pies every day, shaping bagels, and climbing mountains by the sea, but I knew that I still had so much more to learn and yearned for a new adventure. Still nearly at the beginning of my journey, I took over a year-long sabbatical from professional baking and began interning on farms. I traveled to Ireland and spent the full-length of my visa living and working on an organic family farm. When it was time to move on (or so said the stamp in my passport), I headed to Spain and spent a brief but impactful time working on an old-world olive orchard, serving as both a farm hand and a personal chef to the family and guests. I harvested produce from a modest garden patch, turned it into meals to share with others, and I found what it meant to create food with love. If I had to pick a single moment, this is why I do what I do.
Food is community, Community is Food
Back stateside, I found a new home in the Pacific Northwest, in Astoria, Oregon. Working at an organic bakery & cafe, I saw my first real example of what it looks like to run an ethically-guided bakery. Our purchasing decisions were intentional, and we worked as a collective, employee-owned business. Happily back in the kitchen, I finally had the opportunity to work alongside farmers to create our menu items. A restless curiosity and adaptability took me into nearly every department of the cafe— from barista, to line cook, to pastries, and ultimately to reviving and running their cake program. For the first time, I truly felt a part of the community that food fosters. I found a new family in my work, and spent my days off volunteering on local farms, foraging for mushrooms, and learning about seasonal produce and the specialties of the PNW. Ultimately, it was time to move on, and I bopped around Portland for a few years, working as a pastry chef, falling in love with eating flowers, and tending my own home garden before finally relocating to Bellingham. Here I started my first fully-edible flower garden and Gathered was born. I had seen glimpses that there was a better way to do things, and set out to do just that.
While still in constant evolution, Gathered embodies all of this— classical French pastry techniques, modern innovation, botanical inspiration, sustainable sourcing, and community support as the compass guiding business decisions. I put my whole heart into my work, and hope to never stop learning.
If you want to learn more about the farms and farmers that I work with to create Gathered goodies, check out my sourcing page and keep an eye out for an upcoming post, all about the language of food politics and my attempt to navigate those waters without feeling like a hypocritical fraud. Yikes!
Over my years as a cake designer, I’ve had a growing love affair with flowers. It’s probably my favorite way to adorn desserts, be it with a sprinkling of dried petals, pressed into a shortbread cookie, or an elaborate floral sculpture atop a cake. Along the way, I’ve learned a thing or two about identifying flowers and knowing what can and can’t be paired with your desserts. In my last post, I went over some of my favorite edible flower varieties— you’ll see these sprinkled into my desserts as often as possible!
Now the less fun part: flowers that should keep some distance from your food. These aren’t necessarily the most poisonous plants, but they are all very popular in arrangements, and unfortunately varieties I’ve seen used to decorate food over the years. With wedding cakes, this often happens when a florist decorates the cake after the baker delivers. I get it— coordinating cake flowers to match the rest of a wedding can be tricky. Floral designs are often dictated by trends, color palettes, and seasonal availability, but your favorite centerpiece flower just might not be suited for desserts. Despite the frustration, using only edible varieties guarantees that your beautiful and delicious dessert won't send you to the hospital!
Sorry in advance for spoiling these beauties...
and if this list leaves you feeling disheartened, head on over to my last post all about the flowers that you CAN eat!
This one makes me really sad, because I flippin’ love these flowers! They bloom in the late winter when everything else is far out of season, they are fascinatingly beautiful and come in the most wonderful shades of muted purple, pink and green. They are also CRAZY poisonous, like don’t even get it near your plate poisonous. The roots are the most potent, but the toxins are found all throughout the plant. While the level of toxicity has been reported in varying degrees, some have reported skin irritation just from physical contact. As much as it pains me to say it, these guys fall in the “don’t even let it touch your plate” category. In fact, the name “hellebore” comes from the Greek “elein” meaning to injure, and “bora” meaning food… so basically, it’ll hurt you to put this on your food.
Anemone & Ranunculus
I’m grouping these two together for a few reasons: they’re both in the Buttercup family (Ranunculaceae), they are both very popular choices for wedding arrangements, and I see them all the time in cake designs. Nearly every member of the Ranunculaceae family is known for containing at least some level of toxicity, and these varieties are no exception. As it turns out, people don’t seem to be getting regularly ill from the frequency that these flowers are used in cake designs, but for me they fall in the “better safe than sorry” category, especially given the number of times I’ve seen a brazen child or a goofy uncle pluck a few petals off the cake for a taste.
From Wikipedia: "All Ranunculus species are poisonous when eaten fresh, but their acrid taste and the blistering of the mouth caused by their poison means they are usually left uneaten." Ack!
Okay, to be honest I’m mostly including this one on the list because it’s a great example of how NOT perfect I’ve been over the years. As it turns out, ONE variety of hyacinth is edible- grape hyacinth (also known as muscari). It looks a good deal different from the other varieties, making it easy to identify. But a few years ago, I mistakenly assumed that because I knew this one kind of hyacinth was edible, that the rest must be as well. While I did sample several hyacinth flowers without any negative repercussions, they have since been relegated to the “lessons learned” category in my mind. They're clearly not as toxic as some other types of flowers (given my continued health,) but this did teach me an important lesson about making assumptions and verifying information about these sorts of things.
These are by no means all the flowers you ought to watch out for! Read more here about poisonous flowers, and always do some research if you're at all uncertain about a flower's toxicity.
Photo credit: Thanks to Pozie by Natalie and Wild Rye Farm for lending their beautiful flowers for this post.
Further reading & resources:
Between wedding cakes, baking production, and humble gardening ambitions, there's constant experimentation, growth, and a never-ending learning curve. Follow along to see what I'm up to.