Showing a third-trimester fullness, her light hair still wet from the shower, Claire Ptak, 41, sat in the top floor seating area of her tiny Violet Bakery in East London on a late December morning as the fragrance of what was cooking in her downstairs open kitchen floated up a narrow staircase, like an olfactory tour of Ptak’s newest, fourth and best-known cookbook, “The Violet Bakery Cookbook” (Ten Speed Press).
Filled with recipes that are not quite British, not quite American, that call for organic everything, alternative flours, seasonal produce and display a decided partiality for taste over science, “The Violet Bakery Cookbook” is perfect for any Los Angeles farmers market habitué. Which isn’t surprising: Born and raised in west Marin County, she was a pastry chef at Alice Waters’ Chez Panisse. In the foreword to Ptak's cookbook, Waters swoons over Ptak’s “unerring sense of balance” in her flavor profiles.
Ptak moved to London in 2005. Four years later, she discovered a small, two-story stucco building just off London Field in Hackney and saw possibilities. Back then she was supporting herself as a food stylist, writer -- and, on weekends, by filling a stall at Hackney’s Broadway Market with cupcakes, cookies and scones she’d baked in her home oven.
Ptak's idea was to convert the former jewelry studio into a commercial kitchen and take advantage of London’s increasingly popular weekend markets by selling her baked goods at multiple stall locations. Then the locals started peppering her with “When-is-your-new-bakery-going-to-open?” questions. Thus the Violet Bakery was born.
Recently Ptak spoke of her love of British desserts, capitalizing on the U.S. cupcake craze and how she discovered that Londoners were her “cake people.”
Just how young were you when you started baking?
I was one of those kids who started baking really young with my mom. We had apple trees and blackberry bushes and when I was 14, this bakery opened up in our little village. It was called the Bovine Bakery. So I asked them for a job and they said, “You’ve got to be 15 to get a worker’s permit.” So I started in the front, selling. But within a year, they had me baking. It was always my Saturday job or my summer job.
I studied film theory at Mills College; I wanted to write and direct movies. I worked for a year as an assistant for a filmmaker, Erin Dignam. She grew up in the Palisades, then moved up to west Marin, where I’m from, to write. She made two amazing films. The stars of her films were, like, William Hurt and Sean Penn and Robin Wright.
So there’s a Marin County connection there?
Yes, [Sean Penn and Robin Wright] lived in Marin for a long time. I’d babysit Sean and Robin’s kids. It was an amazing opportunity [to work for Erin]. But after a year, I thought: “It’s a tough world. I’m much better at cooking.” So I got a part-time job making wedding cakes and working at a little boutique. One of the girls who worked there said to me, “Why aren’t you working at Chez Panisse? Everything about you -- your entire aesthetic -- is so Chez Panisse.”
As the story goes, you aced your Chez Panisse interview by bringing wild huckleberry tartlets and rose geranium cream that you’d baked.
I totally fell in love. Nowadays you go to restaurants like Noma or Fäviken and all the effort goes into the look and the techniques, which are amazing. But what’s special about Chez Panisse is that it’s so pure. It’s just about flavor and ingredients. It’s beautiful. It’s simple, simple, simple.
After three years there, you quit Chez to live in East London. You did short stints at Moro and St. John. Then you decided to open a Saturday bakery stall at Hackney’s Broadway Market.
Initially I thought I wanted to do restaurants more. All the restaurants that I wanted to work in, which were chef-led restaurants here in London, don’t have pastry chefs. It’s just the Michelin star places that hire a pastry chef.
Your stall was the launching pad for everything, so let’s rewind to your first day. What did you sell at your stall?
Interestingly, it was November and I brought an apple galette and ginger molasses cake, which we sell to this day. I made coconut macaroons, chocolate chip cookies, some coconut cupcakes and some savory tarts. That was it. What sold was the ginger cake, the cupcakes and the macaroons, that kind of stuff.
So your stall was a way for you to test-market your customer base?
Yes, it was perfect: You just put it out there, see what people like and adjust [your inventory] the next week. That’s how I realized, “Oh, they really want cake-y things.”
Do you remember the moment when you figured out how to merge the Chez Panisse philosophy with the world of traditional British desserts?
Alice hates cake. She just wants a tangerine at the end of her meal. She’s very supportive and loves what I do, but she’s just not a sweets person. I’d always be like, “Alice, try this!” and she’d say, “If I liked cake, I’d love this cake.” It was almost like trying to get that boyfriend who is never going to be interested in you.
So when I got [to London], it was incredible because there’s a whole fourth meal of the day which is tea. It was so gratifying because all my customers wanted to buy a wedge of cake for the afternoon. I found my people! My cake people! So I got to really explore that side of my baking and also bring a real California sensibility to it. There was a lot of stodgy, dry cake happening here too. I think the combination came together and I had an “aha!” moment.
Give an example of how you’d Chez Panisse-ify a British standard like mince pie, which contains chopped dried fruit, sugar, spices, distilled spirits and, often, suet.
The most important thing, for me, is that we make the candied peel that’s in our mincemeat. A lot of mincemeat that you get, the candied peel is shop-bought and it’s really waxy and bland; it has no flavor at all because it’s been treated and boiled. We do orange peel, lemon peel, citron, tangerine, and grapefruit -- and it has so much flavor, it’s transforming. But I also think the British have some of the best desserts in the world.
There’s the traditions of intensely flavored preserves. In America, we all hate fruit cake, it’s so gross. But here I’ve really gotten into raisins and dried fruits. [Back in the day], they didn’t have a lot here in the winter, so they’d make do with all these dried fruits and preserves. It was kind of like a delicacy, sent in from Turkey or California. They were really special. And they knew how to work with them.
There’s something called Queen of Puddings, which is spongy, jam and then meringue. Lots of meringue, but not so sweet because it’s crushed up with the out-of-this-world double cream we have here.
No one can say that the cheese, butter and cream in England isn’t head-spinningly delicious.
It’s incredible. You can’t get produce here. But what you can’t get in California is the dairy. Dairy is what made the biggest impression on me here. When I go home, I think heavy cream there is like fluffy air. I’d rather have something else. Here, you don’t even have to whip it up — it’s thick, luscious, beautiful and you can just pour it on top of things.
The first big splash you made in London was with your cupcakes. Were you just riffing on Magnolia Bakery and the “Sex and the City” cupcake craze? Did you just see a niche that you knew you could fill?
Totally. As I said, I had coconut cupcakes at my first stall. I love coconut cupcakes. And they’re easy to sell at a market because they are basically individually wrapped. The coconut cupcakes were the first thing to go. Then each week people would come back and say, “Do you have any other flavors?” And I just thought, “I would be stupid to ignore this.”
What set them apart from other cupcakes?
I approached the icing how I’d approach making ice cream at Chez Panisse -- a buttery or custard base with fruit purees or caramel or melted chocolate. The colors were all natural and incredible. For me, it was a way to use seasonality and natural color and flavor in something that people would buy. And they bought them! And it was great! And it helped me to save enough money to be able to open my bakery without having to get investment for anything.
One day you were baking truckloads of mini-cupcakes for parties thrown by profile folks like fashion designer Stella McCartney. Then, suddenly, the cupcake craze was over.
People here love to build things up, then crash it down. I started to notice certain comments that people would make.
I’d be at a party and no one would know that I made cupcakes [for a living] and they’d say things like, [deep, put-upon sigh] “Those cupcake people, they are taking over.” I started to realize that [cupcakes] were actually starting to offend people.
To be written off as a cupcake person. How in the world did that make you feel?
Secretly, I was happy. I felt like my stall was filled with cupcakes, and I had all these other things I wanted to make. So it allowed me to expand.
Speaking of expanding, how did you come up with the menu for Violet Bakery?
I wanted to keep it simple so that we could do it well. We tried a lot of different things over the years. But we’ve always had quiche and toasted cheese sandwiches. I’ve tried to offer big, beautiful healthy salads. But it doesn’t work here.
It’s a bakery. People would come in and they feel conflicted. So I thought: Let’s just stick to the indulgent stuff.
Yet you are famous for using alternative flours: spelt, rye, oat. How did that happen?
We have a lot of customers who ask for gluten-free stuff. All the gluten-free flour blends, I really didn’t like. They reminded me of the taste of cakes you’d make in an Easy-Bake oven, some kind of weird, chemical aftertaste. I was determined to find another way to do gluten-free where it was good because it was good -- not because it was gluten-free. Then I started noticing all these great varieties of wheat that do have gluten, like rye, but are less refined and easier to digest and people like them. Then I got interested in the flavor that each flour had. And then I got excited. So I just started going that way and I had a lot of success. My customers love it.
How something tastes aside, how do you determine when ingredient combinations in a name will sound enticing and when it will just scare customers away?
You have to think about it. If we say that cake has spelt, agave or say it's dairy-free or egg-free, then people love it. But we can’t call a cake vegan. But I always want to call something by the ingredients in it so you know what you’re getting.
What was the culinary landscape like in Hackney when you first arrived?
It was 10 years ago. It was changing. It was a really good moment because suddenly you had all these people who were interested in something different. People wanted to come to the market because they heard there were great little food stalls. People were excited that something new was happening. We weren’t trying to fight the system. It was a very open time. But back then, it was like tumbleweed [rolling across the street] here. There was nothing. Now there’s so much. So it was great. We could really go for it.
What does being a Chez Panisse alum outside of the United States mean? Do you all stay in contact?
I think it’s so strong, that bond. We all know each other. We stick together. When I left Chez, Alice, for about six years, was doing a lot of events around the world. She still does. And she would go to Vienna or Berlin and she’d bring me with her to be the pastry chef for these events. And we’d work with other Chez Panisse chefs. So there’d be five or six of us. Basically I kept those ties really tight. And David Tanis would come out, and Christopher Lee and we’d all cook together. And that was even -- dare I say -- better than working at Chez Panisse. We’d go to the market and then we’d create a dinner in two days. It was magical. I’ve had a lot of the cooks come here, which has been really fun. Christopher Lee came and cooked here. David Lindsay. April Broomfield.
The way you promoted your book in the United States was by taking over restaurants in different cities. How did you come up with the idea?
I love collaborating with other chefs. But when you have your own place you don’t get to do that -- because you’re running it. I really missed that. So basically for the book launch, I wanted to do something different so I thought, “Why not go to all my favorite places in the U.S.?” We went to New York, L.A. and San Francisco. We did a supper club at Tartine, something at Chez Panisse. In Los Angeles, we did something at Sqirl and at Gjusta.
Share an L.A. food memory.
I went to my share of taco trucks. Ceviche tostadas, al pastor tacos. It was just heaven. To be honest, I was so excited just to eat a lot of big salads and tacos.