(This article appeared in the Spring 2020 issue of Pastry Arts Magazine)
As a child, Nathaniel Reid dreamed of one day becoming a biologist, but after a summer internship during college left him ambivalent about this career choice, he switched his focus to culinary arts, setting off in determined fashion on a path to become the best chef he could be. After many years of hard work and study, in 2016 he and his wife opened Nathaniel Reid Bakery in Kirkwood, Missouri, a shop that has since become a destination for serious pastry lovers while solidifying Reid’s reputation as an international pastry star. Here are some of Reid’s reflections on his craft and business success.
In college you studied hotel and restaurant management, with a minor in biological science. What sparked your interest in pastry? Did your science and hospitality background help you with your career?
My background and passion for science allows me to think deeper about why things are happening in the kitchen. Being able to look at a problem and analyze exactly what’s going on helps me challenge the standard and usual techniques and methods that are taught both on the job and in culinary school. A lot of pastry and baking is taught by trade, meaning the ways of doing things are passed on from those before us. Though it is very important to learn from experienced chefs and instructors, it makes it easy not to think about these systems or challenge them, even if they may not make the most sense from a scientific standpoint. A lot of what I do now stems from my base knowledge of chemistry and the scientific method, such as measuring to the 100th of a gram for consistency, and changing one variable at a time when experimenting, to yield more accurate results.
Though I still have a passion for science, in my sophomore year of college I decided to pursue my dreams of becoming a chef. This (and my parents wanting me to stay in school) led me to change my major to hospitality. The management and business classes I took turned out to be some of the most important and relevant lessons for starting my own bakery. It’s easy to be passionate about food when you’re a chef, but being passionate and diligent about things like leadership, organization, professionalism, and cleanliness is what truly makes a successful business.
During my hospitality major at the University of Missouri in Columbia, I was working at a restaurant as a line cook on the fish station. The pastry chef at the time had to stop working suddenly due to illness, which left an immediate need to fill the position. Though I did have aspirations of becoming a chef, at the time I had no experience in pastry or baking whatsoever. Regardless, every day after work I would ask the executive chef if I could come in to make the pastries. After a long week of relentless pestering, he was finally annoyed enough to give in—but it definitely wasn’t easy. With no recipes or guidance, I was instructed to come in at 4 a.m. the next day to make whatever I wanted for that night’s menu. I tried a lot of different desserts that morning, most of which made no sense and were riddled with mistakes (but were of course thrown away before the chef could see!). With a lot of effort and time, I was finally able to come up with some very simple desserts. Simplicity aside, the restaurant ended up selling out that night because the desserts were something new added to a menu that hadn’t changed in years. Seeing this, the chef allowed me to continue making the pastries for the next year or so. Having this experience in the field really helped me out later on in culinary school.
You attended Le Cordon Bleu in Paris. How important was formal culinary training to your success?
Learning the techniques, philosophies, and principles of cooking is invaluable. If we don’t learn from those before us, we continue to make the same mistakes moving forward. Knowing the basics and getting this classical training helps you experiment and innovate, allowing you to blaze your own trail and make your own original style.
You’ve worked in the pastry department of luxury hotels and fine dining restaurants for many years. When you opened your bakery in Kirkwood, Missouri in 2016, did you worry that your cakes and pastries might be too high-end for the area? How did you strike the right balance between high-end and more familiar offerings?
Because we offer such a wide variety of products, there is something to satisfy everybody. We have everyday items like sandwiches and cookies, and more specialty-driven products like our entremets and macarons. The one commonality is that we always use the best quality ingredients and techniques and put genuine care into everything we make. Making a classic brownie is just as important as glazing an entremet, and our customers recognize that.
I did worry at the beginning that our product might be too high-end for the area. I wondered if we should just call the Kouign Amann a caramelized croissant so people would better understand the product. We ended up naming the pastries correctly, because it was important to do everything the right way—no shortcuts or simplifications. We found that there was a demand for premium baked goods and pastries in this marketplace, and it was so rewarding to see the feedback from the community. Our whole philosophy is based on providing high-end goods in a casual, accessible atmosphere. Great quality product does not need to be exclusive.
What was the most challenging part of opening your business, and how did you make it work?
Coming up with a business plan and finding a direction to go in was the most challenging part of opening the bakery. When you begin, it feels like looking out into the open ocean and not knowing which direction to go. There’s not a lot of supporting information out there for specialty bakeries like ours, so I didn’t have much of a platform to base my ideas off of. You want to make sure you’re not wasting time by choosing the wrong direction, while still working with pace to make sure everything gets done in a timely manner. I spent 12 to 14 hours a day working on our business plan, and ended up having to leave my job at the Ritz-Carlton to fully focus on opening the bakery. As difficult as it was, it was time well spent. Once the business is open, there’s no time to think about planning and logistics—having every single thing allocated in advance is what made opening my own business possible.
You make some amazing breakfast pastries. Where did you pick up your viennoiserie skills?
Though most of it is trial and error, having the help and advice of friends and fellow chefs was an invaluable part of the process.
Your pound cakes are very popular. How are they different from the classic pound cake?
I think a common issue with pound cakes is that they end up too dense and dry. To combat this, I’ve created and worked on several methods over the years to ensure that they stay moist on the inside, such as a specific technique used to emulsify the batter. I also put a lot of thought into the design and flavors of our pound cakes, making sure to incorporate unique tastes and textures. My favorite flavor to this day is the hazelnut, yuzu, and mandarin pound cake that won first place in the pound cake category at the International Patisserie Grand Prix in Tokyo, 2009. I wanted to do something that would blow the judges away, which is how I came up with the tube mold that you may see today—we bake the cake with a metal tube in the middle to put fillings in afterward. This allows for something that cannot be baked, such as ganache, custards, or creams, to fill the pound cake, leaving a perfect circular filling in each slice. Since this competition, I’ve had a passion for pound cakes, putting extra thought into their design, flavors, and techniques.
What’s a typical day like for you?
Starting at 7 a.m., I come in and shake the hands of all the team members—this takes a little more time now that we’ve gone from five employees to 36! After looking over the product and space to make sure everything is running smoothly and checking in with the managers for the day to go over our game plans, I mainly work on ownership and managerial responsibilities like checking our daily production, finishing schedule, and various administrative duties. In-between tasks I’ll help out as needed with production in the kitchen, dishes, or service in the front of house. I like to meet and greet with our guests whenever I can to make sure that everyone is having the absolute best experience possible.
After everything is finished for the day, I’m usually able to head home around 7 p.m. and spend the rest of my time with my loving family.
What are some of your favorite flavor combinations?
Some of the simplest things are the finest; they’re classic for a reason. I love the combination of hazelnuts, citrus, and milk chocolate as well as bright fruit flavors like lemon and strawberries. I like to take the basic concepts and flavors that most people are familiar with and turn them into an unforgettable experience.
I’ve heard your favorite treat is your wife Lee Lee’s chocolate chip cookies. What makes them so special?
There is something special about the nostalgia that comes with a good chocolate chip cookie. I remember my mom leaving cookies out on the counter and making me wait until they cooled down to take one (which of course never happened). Now that I have my own bakery, I don’t have to wait! The chocolate chip cookie recipe we use was developed for me by my wife Lee Lee, an excellent pastry chef in her own right. She would make logs of cookie dough for me to bake off, slightly tweaking the recipe every time until there was nothing else to change. With all her love and care put into it along with high-quality ingredients like local pecans, something simple and classic like a chocolate chip cookie can still be the favorite, out of the more than 125 products we offer.
What’s your best seller at the bakery?
Even though we almost didn’t make it, the Kouign Amann turned out to be one of our best sellers. Something that really sets us apart in our community – they’re slightly salted, buttery, sweet, and decadent. Our customers really love them (and so do we!).
What are some of your other popular items?
Since we offer a large variety of products, there are favorites for everything—savory, bakery, pastry, and more. Our Turkey and Havarti Croissant Sandwich is simple and classic, but so good. It has Tellicherry peppercorns and a Dijon aioli that really compliment the smoky turkey and luscious Havarti cheese. Our decadent almond and chocolate-almond croissants are always popular. As for our pastry, the Guyana cake is our bestselling entremet, made with chocolate hazelnut streusel, chocolate cake, chocolate crème brûlée, and dark chocolate mousse. We also take a lot of pride in our jams and confections, our bestseller being the Strawberry-Poppy Flower Jam.
What menu item are you most proud of and why?
The Hazelnut, Citrus, and Milk Chocolate Pound Cake. It’s very representative of my style in a lot of ways. We do everything in house from the hazelnut praline to the demi-confit citrus. Though it’s beautiful on its own, it doesn’t particularly stand out to the group. In this way, it’s almost deceptive of how incredible the flavor is. There are layers of rich, crunchy hazelnut with brown butter, velvety chocolate, and citrus. I like products that aren’t overly decorated or gaudy, but have the striking colors that you associate with real food.
One of the most challenging parts of running a bakery must be leading and inspiring your staff. How have you managed to do this so successfully?
You have to want to be a leader and work to motivate your team – it takes time and effort to earn people’s respect. I want to make sure that my team members feel heard, and that their work matters. Sure, I demand nothing but the highest quality work from my team, but this is achievable through a respectful, professional work environment. Our yearly goals and meetings are important, but I think one-on-one interactions, getting feedback and spending time to really praise and acknowledge hard work are what really make people put in the effort. The holidays off, employee parties, 401k plan and profit sharing don’t hurt either!
What advice do you have for pastry chefs who are toying with the idea of opening a business?
Put yourself in the best position to succeed before you start. Make sure that your life is in order first and put yourself in a healthy place, both mentally and physically. Surround yourself with a solid support group. The strain of the day-to-day job will test you and your relationships. If you’re everything in one (chef, owner, manager), it is a challenging thing to do.
What are some things about your bakery that people might not know?
My father and I built the bakery ourselves.We opened with five employees in 2016, but now have 36! We make everything in-house, including our almond paste, nut butters, puff pastry, pickled vegetables, vinaigrettes, and more. We are a retail-only bakery, offering over 125 varieties of product daily.