Carter Holton didn't grow up going to bakeries. The 26-year-old pastry chef had a mother who baked his birthday cakes and a grandmother who taught him how to bake a pie. But Holton, like most of his fellow millennials, thought of a bakery as just another department at the supermarket, like produce or meat.
The traditional small-business bakery isn't extinct, but it's a severely endangered species. And no, cupcakeries don't count.
"I think, thankfully, that novelty has come and gone," Holton says. "It was strange to walk into a bake shop that only focused on one product. And not only that, but it was a pastry that most people could easily make themselves at home. A bakery should always be the kind of place with a variety of beautiful, enticing products, none of them easily made by a home cook."
That's a pretty good definition, though it doesn't apply to more than a handful of KC businesses. And fewer and fewer restaurants today - in any market - hire pastry chefs. Owners prefer not to add to their payrolls, and they find they can save money by purchasing baked goods wholesale from corporate commissaries or by asking a cook in the kitchen to prepare uncomplicated sweets.
That job-market caution is one of the lessons Holton shares with his students at the Art Institutes International - Kansas City, in Lenexa, where he has taught pastry classes for the past three years. But he could be talking to head-count-minded restaurateurs when he adds: "A pastry just isn't any dessert. It's a creation that almost always requires a multistep process, with a real spectrum of textures. An ideal pastry, for me, would have elements of crunchy and soft, chewy and lush, sweet and salty."
Holton has created pastries for several Kansas City restaurants over the years, including Le Fou Frog and Anton's Tap Room. More recently, he has juggled his teaching position with jobs at both the new Sasha's Baking Co. (in the historic Cosby Hotel) and at the exclusive River Club, where he is the longtime pastry chef.
Sasha's Baking Co., at 105 West Ninth Street, evokes the neighborhood pastry shops of a different era - perhaps even a different century. Holton, as one of owner Jeremy Schepmann's featured pastry chefs (Julie Steele is the other), is given a lot of creative space when it comes to filling the storefront bakery's glass cases. Over Christmas week, Holton made a duck-egg custard - served in a tiny duck eggshell with a curl of candied kumquat - as well as a silky praline gâteau decorated with a wisp of silver leaf. You know, things most people no longer make at home.
Holton laughs: "These are the kind of pastries that no one ever made at home. There was a time when Kansas City housewives made their own bread. But that was a long time ago."
Sasha's Baking Co. is competing with the plastic-wrapped loaves, most lovingly baked with preservatives, sold in every supermarket and convenience shop in the metro. But the preservative-free baguettes and the whole-wheat, ciabatta and rye loaves created by local bread man Chris Glenn are selling well at Sasha's, Schepmann says.
Holton isn't sure that Sasha's will ever sell one home-cooked staple - fruit pie - no matter how much he loves it.
"I don't think this is that kind of bakery," he says. "Sasha's reminds me a lot of the first time I ever stepped into Andre's Confiserie Suisse as a little boy. Those pastries were as beautiful as anything I'd ever seen."
Then again, there might be more of a demand for Holton's Tarte Normandy - made with apples and almonds - than for his duck-egg custard.
"We have an interesting demographic coming into the bakery," Holton says. "A lot of businesspeople and downtown workers. They have very adventurous tastes. We've introduced our new winter menu, and it includes some unusual things that patrons really like, including a cheesecake topped with black-currant gelée and macaroon. We're also introducing a new chocolate tart made with salted caramel and chocolate mousse."
Pastries that could, perhaps, be made at home with a good deal of time and effort. But isn't it easier to leave it to the professionals?