After reading an article in Buffalo.com about alexandra Hare, a buffalo-based baker who has been awarded a spot in the Women in Culinary Leadership program, I knew I wanted to speak with her.
According to the article, “Administered by the James Beard Foundation, the Women in Culinary Leadership program is an effort to help women “break through the culinary world’s ‘glass ceiling,’” a press release said. Hare will spend six months working in both the kitchen and dining room at Nico Osteria in Chicago, one of the city’s best Italian seafood specialists.”
I had the chance to speak to Hare over the phone a few days after she arrived in Chicago.
Q: Alex thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me. How’s Chicago?
A: It’s so nice! I’m actually in a park now, enjoying the sun and soaking it all in, since I got here a few days before the program starts.
Q: That’s so nice! I’ve always wanted to go – especially this time of year. Have you been before?
A: It’s not my first time, but this will be the longest period of time I’ve ever been in Chicago. Right before graduating from college, I was able to save up and spend time here for Lollapalooza, but that kind of trip is more focused on the event than getting to see the experience the city itself.
I remember thinking that it’s such a beautiful city, and that I wanted to come back here. Even when I first moved from New York City back to Buffalo, I remember thinking that Chicago could be a next step, so it’s funny that it ended up happening this way.
Q: That’s great. Timing is everything. So, tell me a little about the program. How many people are in it? How long is it? What are you most looking forward to?
A: Well, it actually starts tomorrow at 8:30 a.m! My particular program is six months in length, and I will be based at Nico Osteria, one of the One Off Hospitality Group’s restaurants, learning essentially everything there is to know about running a restaurant and how all of the pieces fit together, back and front of house, and everything in between.
There are seven other grantees in the overall Women in Culinary Leadership program and we are spread out among eight different mentors.
Including myself, there are four of us in Chicago, and then one in Seattle, one in New York City, one in Boston and one in Louisville, Kentucky.
We’re all on independent tracks. Some programs focus on back-of-house, some focus on front-of-house operations and some, like mine, cover both.
Q: That’s really interesting. What are you more interested in: front or back-of-house?
A: Most of my experience is in back-of-house, so I am looking forward to further honing those skills but I also am just as excited to expose myself to the rest of the experience, because cooking is just one step of the dance.
I’m eager to see how all of the pieces come together, how everything adds up to make seat one at table five, to make that guest’s experience a happy, memorable one.
Q: That’s great.
A: I feel like for me personally, to have success in this industry, I need to see how everything works together. I need to know how to provide the diners, our guests, with an amazing experience and doing everything I can to ensure that before they even walk through the door.
Q: I definitely agree. So, let’s back pedal a bit. How old were you when you started baking?
A: As soon as I could help my mom make cookie dough, which really meant as soon as I could grab a spatula to lick the bowl…that was my foray into food.
I adored my Easy-Bake oven and remember “baking” with my sister with that goofy little light bulb. At the same time though, it wasn’t just about sneaking cookie dough when my mom wasn’t looking.
I love making people happy, making people smile, and I learned early on that cookies and cakes and all sorts of sweets are a good way to do just that. They’re not the one way, but definitely a good one.
Somewhere in the back of my mind, I knew that bringing it all together was something that I was interested in.
My brother was diagnosed with Celiac disease way back in 1999 or 2000, well before any of the amazing developments happening now. So, between wanting to help more with the holiday baking, and seeing my mom fighting to figure out how to make gluten-free food for him.
I wanted to be able to help her out, and to make special things for him, so that he could share in family experiences. I knew I had to learn the pastry structure and understand the rules of baking so I could play around to make something for my brother.
Q: That’s so sweet. I can relate to that frustration — seeing how hard it was for my sister, and how heartbreaking it was for my mother, to see how terrible the gluten-free food available was at that time. I can’t image how it was for your brother since he was diagnosed a few years before my sister!
A: It was really bad!
Q: I can only imagine. So, where did you go to school for your training?
A: I went to the French Culinary Institute, now named the International Culinary Center in New York City.
Q: I read in the buffalo.com article that while in New York, you worked at Momofuku Milk Bar as a pastry cook?
A: I started at Milk Bar as an intern and after graduation they offered me a job as a pastry cook. Ultimately, in under a year, I was lucky to move up to being a head baker.
Q: That’s amazing!
A: It was incredibly exciting.
Q: How does that experience compare to the ones you’ve had in Buffalo at Merge and Bourbon and Butter?
A: Milk Bar was the first real bakery job that I had. It was intense. At that point, there were five different locations in the city and we were also doing a number of special orders from all over.
I think that if you can survive Momofuku Milk Bar during Christmas season, you can survive anything. The experience taught me how to manage my time, as well as how to execute recipes on a large-scale, ensuring accuracy from day 1.
Those skills translated really well to working at Bourbon and Butter. My time management skills and prioritization really were built, and honed, at Milk Bar.
Q: What made you decide to leave New York City and come back to Buffalo?
A: Ultimately, the cost of student loans. Well, that plus the cost of New York City meant that I couldn’t really enjoy the city at all.
I realized that if I couldn’t enjoy the city, if it was just stressful and I was worrying about being able to just pay the bills, why am I in New York?
It was heartbreaking to leave, and I do hope to get back, but ultimately the cost of living was just too darn high!
Q: I definitely can vouch for that, growing up near the area. So, what exactly is your role at Merge?
A: I was their baker. Additionally, towards the end of my tenure there, I was able to develop some recipes with Eliza, which was really exciting. At Bourbon and Butter I worked both prep shifts and dinner service, but at Merge it was just prep.
Q: What was your trick to making the flat breads so good, and still fluffy, at Merge?
A: This may sound silly, but I just listen to the dough! You have to watch it carefully, and once it all comes together, you’re done. It’s a big “look, listen and feel” experience.
Q: It’s delicious. Consistently. It’s really something special.
Merge’s caprese pizza
Thank you, that means a lot.One of the most important things to me about my role at Merge was that it really did bring everything/everyone together.
One night my parents, my brother and I all went there for dinner, and now we all eat radically different, but everyone found something they really wanted. We were sharing off each others plates like it was no big deal.
Hitting the mark like that, and even having a tiny part of the behind-the-scenes action, it was inexpressibly awesome.
Q: That’s so nice to hear. Are you gluten-free too, or just your brother?
A: Just my brother is, but there is some level of sensitivity in my family, because a few years after my brother, my cousin was diagnosed.
So, just like with your family, my brother learned the ropes and we were all able to pass on the knowledge and tips to my cousin.
Q: For sure. Well, your cousin is lucky! So, do you enjoy baking gluten-free more than you enjoy ‘regular’ baking?
A: That’s so hard! I love them both the same…but for different reasons. With gluten-free baking, I feel like there have been great strides, yes… but like being able to tinker with the formula still.
To be able to really look at a recipe and analyze which ingredients do what, how I can recreate that annoying little protein, is flour even necessary in a recipe, etc…
I feel more like a wizard when I’m improvising and baking gluten-free than when I’m just following a recipe. It’s a very exciting feeling.
I also feel like I keep stumbling on amazing recipes that are naturally gluten-free and you don’t have to change or modify anything. It tastes delicious and oh, by the way, it’s gluten-free!
Q: Totally! So, did you make the desserts at Merge too? What’s the one you enjoyed making the most? What’s the one you enjoy eating the most?
A: Yes I did. Part of the production I was responsible for was the gluten-free flat bread, and the rest was the dessert menu itself.
I made the vegan Lemon Tart with the gluten-free almond crust, the Beet Lava Cake and worked on the Mayan Spicy Granola that was paired with the vegan Chocolate Mousse that had previously been on the menu.
Q: Yum. Which one did you enjoy making the most?
A: I am torn between the Lemon Almond Tart and the Beet Lava Cake because I love making lemon curd and I would always you know, take a little extra. For quality control. I mean, someone has to do it right? (Laughs)
So, I loved that but I also loved the Beet Lava Cake because you’d never know there were beets in there! It was a little Harry Houdini magic trick of “aha, you didn’t know but it’s also healthy!”
Q: (Giggles) Looking ahead, do you plan on coming back to Buffalo after you finish this program?
A: I know that I will be in Chicago until late October, that’s when the program ends. I definitely have roots in Buffalo, but I have no idea what the future brings.
I think I’m just going to ride with that, it’s very exciting. The most important thing for me to take away from this experience is everything I possibly can. I can’t pick one thing that I’m most excited to learn. I’m excited for the whole nine yards.
While only the future will tell, I have a feeling that this won’t be my last chat with chef Alexandra Hare.
Her down-to-earth demeanor paired with her skill set and smarts is sure to land her an incredible opportunity when she finishes this prestigious program.
You can keep up with Alex on Twitter!
[Photo Credits: Hare headshot courtesy of Buffalo.com; Momofuku Milk Bar Cake courtesy of www.sogoodblog.com.]