Gilman Street Gals Cook Up Sweet Treats in Berkeley

by Sarah Henry on December 2, 2011 · 25 comments

in baking,berkeley bites,food businesses

Meet the Gilman Street Gals: Christine Falatico Frey, Anastasia Widiarsih, Clarine Hardesty. Not shown: Carolyn Wong

In a teeny tiny, dark commercial kitchen on a small shopping strip on Gilman Street in Berkeley’s Westbrae neighborhood, four full-time, female food artisans, and a few part-timers too, are turning out sweet baked goods that have earned them mad props in the Bay Area.

Think of these enterprising edible producers as the Gilman Street Gals. In the cast: Clarine Hardesty, of Clarine’s Florentines, who holds the lease to the kitchen, which is co-owned by Bob Kelso of Toot Sweets down the block. Joining her behind the stoves: seasoned wedding and specialty cake maker Carolyn Wong, whose signature style is simple, elegant, and artistic. Also in the mix is Anastasia Widiarsih, herself no slouch on the designer cake front, whose main focus these days at Indie Cakes & Pastries is baking scones, cookies, and cakes for wholesale café clients, including Saul’s Delicatessen + Restaurant. Relative newbie in the kitchen crew: Christine Falatico Frey of CiCi’s Italian Butterhorns; her sugary, buttery, cinnamon walnut cookies are featured holiday picks in the December issue of Diablo magazine – along with Clarine’s Florentines and June Taylor‘s christmas cake.

It’s refreshing to encounter a group of women bakers — some with extensive culinary chops, others with more modest home-cooking origins — who get along, help each other out, and have found friendship in an industry better known for its cut-throat competitiveness.

One of Carolyn Wong's creations.

Carolyn Wong has the longest culinary resumé and the shortest commute. The North Berkeley resident can walk to the kitchen, where she’s been baking for the past two years, if she’s not hauling dry goods to work. “I began in this business over 25 years ago when it was mostly men in restaurants and bakeries; all that testosterone is not necessarily a bad thing,” said the 54-year-old, who ran her company from a commercial kitchen in Emeryville before Pixar bought the block.

“But I do enjoy working in a place where everyone genuinely likes each other and is super supportive.” With a degree in art from UC Berkeley, cooking apprenticeships in France, and culinary experience in fine-dining hotels and restaurants in the Bay Area, Wong has a rep as a pastry chef with creative flair, whose cakes have bridal publications buzzing about their craftsmanship, color, and style.

Frey, 48, is a former stay-at-home mom from Lafayette who launched her butterhorn business when empty nest syndrome hit after her two children went off to college. “I just felt like it was my time,” said the self-taught chef, who learned to cook sweet and savory Italian fare from her Nana. Much to her delight, CiCi’s has become a family affair: Frey’s daughter helps with baking, her son maintains her web presence and marketing, and her husband packs product and schleps boxes.

Cici's Italian Butterhorns: Doing bumper business over the holidays.

Her co-workers have chipped in to lend a hand too. “I’ve learned so much from the women in this kitchen,” said a grateful Frey, who has seen demand for her product take off in just over a year of operation. (Find her cookies locally at The Pasta Shop, Star Grocery, and Country Cheese Coffee Market; $9.99 for eight.) “The day Carolyn came in with chef’s clothes for me and said: ‘you made the cut and I didn’t think you would’ (I knew she’d been watching me) was a really big day for me. She’s excellent at what she does, a true master. It meant a lot to get that kind of acknowledgment from her.” Frey says the more experienced chefs have helped her with everything from labeling and licensing advice to weighing out ingredients and dealing with dough disasters.

Anastasia Widiarsih makes cookies like these for local cafés.

Widiarsih, who grew up in Indonesia where her mother ran her own at-home baking business, began her independent culinary career as a specialty cake maker too. Despite her own impressive pastry chef credentials and training, she was a bit nervous  about working in a kitchen that included Carolyn Wong, whom she called a legend in the wedding cake world.

But such concerns fell away quickly, Widiarsih said, when everyone got down to work. Today, much of her business has morphed into serving the wholesale market. She makes chocolate chip and salted chocolate cookies, along with carrot cake, mocha chocolate cake, and cheesecake, for Saul’s.  “I feel at home in this kitchen, which is just as well, because I spend a lot of time here. I work seven days,” said the 37-year-old single mom, who lives in Oakland and has baked on Gilman Street for a few years now. Tacy Traverso, Saul’s general manager said of her cookies and cakes: “We strive to support small, local business owners who are working hard to do what they love.”

Another holiday favorite: Clarine's Florentines

Hardesty, who also hails from Indonesian heritage and a family of female bakers, hand picks who comes to work in the kitchen, in consultation with the other full-time chefs. She’s careful to select candidates who have like-minded values (made-from-scratch cooking with quality ingredients) and similar cooking needs. All the artisans are wary of sharing quarters with anyone who favors pungent spices — cross contamination with garlic or chili can ruin a delicate buttercream — which is one reason why INNA jam‘s Dafna Kory worked the night shift at the kitchen when she rented space here, so her jalapeno-infused preserves didn’t affect the smell or taste of other people’s products.

A former 2nd-grade school teacher, Hardesty, 35, also from Lafayette, has handed off the actual making of her florentines, a chocolate-covered Italian specialty, to chef Gerardo Gonzales (the only man in the bunch) and his sister Maria, without any hiccups in the kitchen. Gonzales gets along well with and assists the other chefs. Hardesty, who began her baking business four years ago, manages the marketing of her company and keeps on top of kitchen concerns (when a freezer breaks, she’s the one people call). Her sweet treats ($10 for six) are sold locally at The Pasta Shop, Berkeley Bowl on Oregon Street, and Star Grocery.

The camaraderie among these women continues outside the kitchen, with quick lunches at nearby Tiny Thai, Picante, and Vik’s, and birthday celebrations over meals further afield, including Ad Hoc in Yountville, Hawker Fare in Oakland, and Sea Salt across town. “There’s great chemistry and kindness among our group,” said Frey. “I think we’ll stay friends beyond our kitchen time together.”

In such a small space there are, of course, challenges. Work stations are tight and it can be tough if someone needs to stretch out to meet a big order. Storage and fridge space is at a premium too. And with only two convection ovens, there’s a need to negotiate so everyone gets their goodies cooked. All four women said that there isn’t a strict oven schedule, they simply communicate and everyone tries to accommodate. Somehow everything gets baked on time. It helps that Wong’s peak period — typically spring and summer — doesn’t conflict with the winter holiday production push that Frey and Hardesty encounter. Still, some among the current kitchen crop may need to move on to larger quarters as ramped up demand dictates.

But for now, it works. At the end of the day, from Wong’s perspective, it’s not worth getting stressed about obstacles that do arise. “It’s just food. As a society we seem to have put a greater value on it,” said the former college culinary teacher. “There’s nothing very glamorous about what we do. It’s just really hard work.”

“I tell the others: Do it because you love it, not for the money. I don’t think any of us in creative fields — chefs, artists, writers — should go into it thinking we’ll make a bunch of money. For every Brad Pitt there’s an actor who can’t get hired. Likewise, for every Rachel Ray there’s someone toiling anonymously in a kitchen — usually an immigrant — who isn’t getting any recognition and is working two jobs.”

For these four small-batch bakers producing a quality product in a convivial atmosphere that has found an appreciate audience makes the physical demands, long hours, and cramped conditions worthwhile.

This post originally appeared on Berkeleyside.

You might also like:

June Taylor’s Artisan Way With Fruit
Jam Maker Dafna Kory Turns Hobby Into Thriving Business
The Artisan Kitchen in Richmond: A Co-op Cooking Space
A Family Recipe Becomes a Business: Mamie & Makhi’s Sweet Potato Pie
Alice Medrich’s Sweet Life

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{ 24 comments… read them below or add one }

NoPotCooking December 2, 2011 at 10:09 am

What a great group! I would love to try all of their items!

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Sarah Henry December 3, 2011 at 8:06 am

Yes, your kind of sweet treats, methinks, NPC.

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Donna Hull December 2, 2011 at 4:07 pm

I love reading about women who work successfully together. Their baked goods look so delicious. This post made me hungry!
Donna Hull´s last [type] ..The Lessons of Nagasaki

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Sarah Henry December 3, 2011 at 8:07 am

It’s rare, too, I think, to find a group of individuals who can work well together — especially in such a small space.

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Susan December 3, 2011 at 6:55 am

It’s wonderful to see professional women collaborating and supporting each other. And that wedding cake looks divine!
Susan´s last [type] ..Boston Food Swap: November Recap

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Sarah Henry December 3, 2011 at 8:08 am

Hey Susan, Check out Carolyn’s site for more of her creative confections.

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Sheryl December 3, 2011 at 11:04 am

Great story, Sarah. It’s heartening to read not only about successful women but about women who respect one another and can work well together. And, since I have such a sweet tooth, I must say that the photos are making me really crave something sweet right now~!

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Sarah Henry December 5, 2011 at 8:26 am

It’s funny, Sheryl, because one of the bakers told me that she has no interest anymore eating her own creations, which makes sense, but she’s quite happy to sample her coworkers products.

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Melanie Haiken December 4, 2011 at 2:51 pm

I love that all these products come from different traditions and take such different approaches to marketing and selling. I’ve never even heard of Italian butterhorns and now I want to try them ASAP!

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Sarah Henry December 5, 2011 at 8:27 am

I think you might like them, Mel.

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judy December 4, 2011 at 5:20 pm

What Donna said! Its refreshing to hear women cooperating and working together. Of course, we know it can be done and we have done it, but not that many stories like this get written. Thanks Sarah.

Baking: “do it because you love it.” Great to always remember!!
judy´s last [type] ..Having a Job is the New Green/Return of the Jobless Alumni

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Sarah Henry December 5, 2011 at 8:28 am

Thanks, Judy, I thought it would be nice to take a look at what does work when people run their businesses together in close quarters in a kitchen. You’re right, we don’t see these kinds of stories often.

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Jane Boursaw December 5, 2011 at 8:47 am

Another great story about folks working together to help each other out and bring good things to people. Excellent.
Jane Boursaw´s last [type] ..The Hunger Games: Movie Stills, Posters and Trailer

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Sarah Henry December 5, 2011 at 12:41 pm

Can’t help myself, Jane. Cover plenty of stories of conflict at other times of the year.

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Living Large December 5, 2011 at 9:06 am

I agree, it is hard to find a group who can work so well together. This story is very inspiring!

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Sarah Henry December 5, 2011 at 12:42 pm

Sometimes I think that when people are faced with challenges — in this case space limitations — that they do a better job of bonding than folks handed everything they need to make their lives/work easier. Does that make sense?

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The Writer's [Inner] Journey December 5, 2011 at 10:32 am

I just love this…their creations are gorgeous. It really feels like they are creating connections and an extended community through their homemade sweets.
The Writer’s [Inner] Journey´s last [type] ..The 5-Question [Author] Interview: Brette Sember

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Sarah Henry December 5, 2011 at 12:43 pm

Small-batch food artisans are, as you note Meredith, all about creating community through food.

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Roxanne @ Champion of My Heart December 6, 2011 at 8:20 am

Wow. Suddenly my baking efforts look a little lame. ;o)

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Sarah Henry December 12, 2011 at 10:36 am

I hear ya, Rox!

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MyKidsEatSquid December 7, 2011 at 1:42 pm

What a cool endeavor. Now if you could just pass along the recipe for those cupcakes…

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Sarah Henry December 12, 2011 at 10:37 am

You should see the macarons, MKES.

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Jeanine Barone December 12, 2011 at 9:37 am

I love stories about women business owners particularly those who work together cooperatively rather than competitively.

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Sarah Henry December 12, 2011 at 10:37 am

Indeed, Jeanine, especially so during lean economic times.

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