Always Running, Marie Jackson stops to speak with a Customer
*Note the children’s beach buckets in Marie’s hands. The Flaky Tart makes a great kids’ cake that looks like it just came from the beach with a full load of sand, but is really carrying a sweet surprise.
- Interview -
Marie Jackson of The Flaky Tart in Atlantic Highlands, NJ, an outstanding pastry chef, offered to answer a few questions for our members about baking and baking as a career.
Smart Kitchen: What is the biggest lesson you have learned about baking since starting The Flaky Tart?
Marie Jackson: The biggest lesson is that as much as baking is a science it is also an art that requires mastery. So even though you should read cookbooks or watch baking on TV, or take as many classes as you can, nothing beats experience. Having said that though, in order to master the skills you need to have them in the first place. So what I’ve also learned is to find great teachers and learn from them, whether it is a favorite cookbook author (Rose Berenbaum, Carol Walters, Nancy Silverton) or a favorite teacher (Ciril Hitz). You have to find someone you trust and then do the work over and over and over and over, you get the point, to get there.
Smart Kitchen: What is the biggest lesson you have learned about going from an enthusiast baker to an acclaimed commercial baker?
Marie Jackson: The biggest lesson is that they are two completely different animals. Baking at home is fun, relaxing and rewarding. You need to be precise and skillful but you also can relax and play. Mistakes are sometimes just as yummy.
What you need to be a commercial baker, beside skill and stamina, is bells of steel (a slight edit). In a business, things are constantly going wrong, walk-in refrigerators die overnight when you have special orders inside, though the fans keep running when the compressor dies, so your walk-in may hit a steamy 80 degrees while you are sleeping; dishwashers don’t show up on holiday weekends when every bowl it the place is dirty by 5 am; huge, expensive batches of product get miss-scaled by interns, customers show up for orders you’ve never heard of because somebody screwed up the order; and the baby shower for 85 is in 2 hours and on and on. But you have to “stay calm and carry on” because you have to fix it. Being a commercial baker is for the few and the brave.
Smart Kitchen: Do you have any tips for bakers just starting out?
Marie Jackson: Go to the most fabulous place you know where they are doing work you love and beg (on your hands and knees if necessary) to intern with them. Wash dishes, hull strawberries, clean the gunk off their chef clogs if they want you to- whatever- but get into a great kitchen and learn from the best.
Smart Kitchen: Where did you get your initial baking interest and initial baking skills?
Marie Jackson: According to my Mom I used to make “cakes” in my sandbox and try to sell them to her. She was not surprised at all that I eventually opened a bakery. [Smart Kitchen: the sand box theme recurs]
My initial interest was not in making baked goods but in eating them. We didn’t have a lot of money growing up (and any that we did have went to Catholic school education) so we never had store bought snacks in the house. Fruit was as good as it got. I can remember having that scary dinner of cut up hot dogs mixed with baked beans more often than I care to admit. But mom did make awesome cookies and homemade bread. And my grandfather, a retired army officer (he was a paratrooper in WWII) was always perfecting his bread recipe. He sent all his grandkids homemade bread when we were away at college. He gave me my first and most personally valuable cookbook: Beard on Bread.
Also, I was obsessed in high school (RBC) with the crumb cake from the German bakery on Monmouth Street. We used to sneak off campus before school to get it while it was still hot. It is still my favorite pastry memory of all time (including trips to patisseries in Paris!). I also used to eat a chocolate cupcake from Freedman’s bakery (it used to be on the corner of Broad and Peter’s Place) every day after school. And the Bagel Oven on Monmouth Street opened around then too. Those were the days when bagels were considered ethnic food- and I was also obsessed. I’m pretty sure all my babysitting money went towards baked goods. I baked birthday cakes and Christmas cookies growing up, and later got interested in bread baking but honestly never thought of it as anything more than a way to get really great stuff to eat.
Smart Kitchen: When you look back, what do you think now of your own baking skills when you were just starting the shop?
Marie Jackson: When I look back at my skills when I started the shop, I think that I’ve certainly come a long way but I still feel I haven’t even gotten past the tip of the iceberg as far as the learning process goes. I didn’t know at the time how little I actually knew. My skills were OK but I was a fanatic perfectionist so I did whatever I had to do, as many times as I had to, to put out a good product. Now, I’m still a crazy perfectionist but at least I don’t have to kill myself on a daily basis to get the results I want. I have more experience and a better handle on why things go wrong and how to adjust factors so they don’t go wrong quite so much.
Smart Kitchen: We spoke a few years ago about your career change. But I don’t think I asked about your thought process or decision process in changing to a baking career. What was your thought process in changing careers? A lot of people have the fantasy. Do you remember the moment that gave you the confidence to believe you could switch from accounting, I believe, to pastry chef?
Marie Jackson: It went like this – I studied accounting because I had no idea whatsoever what to do with my life, although I did have a sneaking suspicion I would end up a business owner. It was the early eighties and everyone was going to business school so I did too. I liked the predictability and precision of accounting, as opposed to marketing or something, and I was good at math and everyone seemed to think accountants were smart (if nothing else) so that was it- accounting. So when I graduated I had no desire to actually BE and accountant but I had a lot of student loans and not a lot of ideas or money so I got a job in NYC with a Public Accounting firm. It was my first desk job ever and a year in hell. My butt was huge, my skin was green, my hair was falling out and I was about one Absolut Martini away from becoming a full blown alcoholic, not really, but you know what I mean. So, I quit and decided that I would rather live in a cardboard box and do work I loved then ever take another job just for money. And every job I ever loved was in the food business and of all the foods I love, it’s those pastries that steal my heart. And also, pastry and accounting, as strange as it seems, are similar disciplines, demanding precision, accuracy, and math. So, I went to school for pastry.
Smart Kitchen: Thanks so much Marie.