Calli Marie on Butter, Baking and Being Stubborn
Calli Marie's career in food is like any good recipe: start with an idea of what you want to prepare, cover the basics, then begin experimenting and tweaking as you go. Lucky for her, as the Food Program Manager at BREW Five Points, she has a job that allows her some flexibility and culinary creativity. More than just Head Baker, she is also known as the Nosh Queen and Champion of All-Things-Brunch. We grabbed a few minutes of time from Calli between a myriad of cooking projects she's currently got underway, including a cookbook in development and a budding business in special order cakes. Who said you can't have your cake and eat it too? Not Calli Marie!
You're a professionally trained chef. Many people don't know what exactly that means. Can you tell us more about your training -- both formal and informal?
Formally, I received my BA in Culinary Business Management from the Arts Institute of Jacksonville where I learned the basics. I participated on the competition team there, traveling around the region. We practiced after class and there I was able to really hone my skills before getting my first culinary job. I worked every catering event the school offered and even volunteered at the stadium. After that I worked anywhere I could - food trucks, a homeless shelter, corporate restaurants, large and small-scale bakeries, you name it. I’ve worked in just about every kind of position in nearly every kind of kitchen.
Why were you drawn to baking, in particular?
After dabbling in every aspect of food service I found that nowhere other than in the bakery setting was the relationship between creator and customer so intimate. That became really important to me because it just makes me happy. There’s no greater feeling than seeing someone’s eyes light up when they take their first bite of something new or pick up a cake that I’ve decorated and are pleased with it. Lately, I’ve been working nights so I don’t get to talk to my customers or see them enjoying their food as much which is a bummer but I have a feeling that may change soon enough.
How did your cookbook project come to be -- and what excites you most about the project?
Every year on my birthday I write out my goals. One of them was writing a cookbook by the age of 24. I explained as much to my good friend, Cari Sanchez-Potter, whom I worked with on a cookbook project for the Cummer Museum here in Jacksonville. Within two weeks she was setting up meetings and signed on as the project manager. We have a truly awesome team of creative people on the project who also happen to be some of my very favorite humans in the world!
I’m most excited about the thought of people baking these recipes, sharing them with their friends and having the same experience I do when I do it. I have no idea how sales will go but the thought of anyone being interested enough in what I do to spend their hard-earned money on it gives me goosebumps. Thinking about all the Instagram posts that will follow is a cool bonus.
You're responsible for full menu-planning at Brew. How do you choose your weekly menus? Where do you find inspiration, and what do you see as food trends in 2016?
Our weekly specials are designed around what’s in season, what we have leftover from building other menu items and how the flavors relate to any special coffee or beer offerings we have at that particular time. I get a lot of inspiration from what the Australians are doing to be honest, not to mention other bakers around the world who share what they do on social media. There’s this whole community of people out there, most of whom I’ve never met in real life, but inspire and encourage me on a daily basis. For BREW, I see focusing more on how food pairs with coffee and beer and making as much as we can in-house. For example, we’ll develop a recipe and then consider, “can we make our own mustard, hot sauce, mayonnaise, etc.” Piece by piece we try to break things down to the raw ingredient and see if we can make something tastier and perhaps more affordably than what’s commercially available. We’ve also been working hard to eliminate waste or repurpose things around the kitchen. Fast casual dining is on the rise but I’d really like to see fresher, more delicious fast food offerings like David Chang’s Fuku chicken sandwich!
What's your favorite ingredient to work with and why? What ingredients do you want to experiment with more?
BUTTER! But only the good stuff. We use 83% milkfat butter because you should never skimp the foundational ingredients. It seems like such a simple, boring ingredient but it’s so fun and easy to make a tasty compound butter that completely changes a dish. Eggs and salt are pretty high up there on the list. I really want to play with more umami, pickled and fermented things in the future on the breakfast menu. It’s really common in other cultures but Americans are just now reaching outside the eggs, bacon, pancake (or cereal) approach to the most important meal of the day and I wouldn’t mind challenging people to step outside their comfort zone just a little.
You're young and a female -- working in an industry often dominated by men. Who have your role models been and how do you think your personal style has been influenced by your mentors? If your mentors have mostly been men, how to do you think your work might have been different if they were women?
My mentor during culinary school was my teacher and coach, Noel Ridsdale. We still keep in touch and he taught me the foundation that everything I’ve learned is built on. I constantly find inspiration and guidance from all my friends here in the local culinary community, and almost all of them are men. I’ve been fortunate in that they’ve always been very supportive and I’ve never once felt excluded or patronized by them. In fact, some of the toughest, most brutal coaching I’ve received has been from the women in the industry. I’ve had some female mentors as well and they’ve taught me how to survive in what is traditionally a man’s world. But the times are a-changin’ and I don’t mind carving out my own little niche of the culinary world where I get to be the boss!
NE Florida's food community is growing. Where do you see the biggest opportunities? What's the number one thing you think is still missing?
There’s a big opportunity to corner the late-night food market. We also have a depressing lack of Asian cuisine. There are plenty of average sushi spots, pho dives, teppanyaki and take-out but where’s the dim sum, the ramen, the Sichuan?! There’s a concentrated interest around food culture that seems to be growing but for now it seems everyone is still playing it safe. It’s good that we have that foundation but sooner or later it will be time to take some risks and really innovate.
We talk a lot about seasonal ingredients and chefs, restaurants, artisans and farms working together as a "food system". What are some of the hurdles you face in trying to source-buy local?
Volume is the hardest part for us. We rarely need the minimums that farms require for delivery so as much we’d love to buy directly from farmers, we rely on distributors like Blue Buddha who deal in local specialty foods. We pretty much hit the grocery store or farmers market every day to prepare for the next. Customers demand certain items as well that can’t necessarily be sourced local but we try when it makes sense for us. But at the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter how local or artisanal your stuff is, people gotta eat and not all of us can afford to spend what it costs to source that way. A restaurant is a business so you constantly have to balance your personal preferences, your customers’ tastes and the budget.
Finally -- what are the three most important personal qualities you feel you bring to your work that have helped you get to where you are today?
Social - I am proud of what I’ve achieved on my own and confident in my skills but I cannot deny the role that social media has played in where I am today. I love sharing, not only on the internet, but with my friends as well. Cook tasty food for people, welcome them into your home, share experiences with them and they will support you.
Stubborn - This isn’t my favorite quality and it may get in the way sometimes but I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t put my foot down from time to time and demand what I want. I don’t always get it but you never will if you just roll over every time someone tells you no. That being said, I do have a pretty awesome boss who knows how to deal with my crap and when to give in and when to call me on it.
Dedication - More than once I’ve made myself sick working all day and night for something that just has to be done. I may procrastinate every once in a while but when it comes down to it, I’ll stay and work my butt off until the job is done or I collapse from exhaustion. I wish I was kidding!
Want to support Calli's cookbook project? Consider contributing to her crowd-funding campaign by backing it here.