Monday, November 26, 2012 / 10:55 AM
Helen Fletcher, Pastry Chef at Tony’s, isn’t sure if her new cookbook, European Tarts: Divinely Doable Desserts with Little or No Baking, is a “teaching” or “learning” book. The first in a series that will include cakes, European and American cookies, bars, and savory pastries, Fletcher’s new cookbook (see left) includes an online companion site with step-by-step pictures of her making the recipes; all pictures are shot from behind by T. Mike Fletcher, a professional photographer who also happens to be Fletcher’s husband of 50 years (the couple planned to celebrate their anniversary the day after we spoke with her at the newly opened Cheshire restaurant, which is where they had their honeymoon breakfast 50 years ago). After spending some time with Fletcher, both in her home and at the book launch party at Tony’s on Sunday, we’d say it’s both a teaching and learning book.
If you’ve seen Fletcher on one of her regular appearances on Great Day St. Louis (right), you know she possesses both infectious enthusiasm and the gift of gab: “I’ve always had an ability to talk to people—people have never scared me because I worked from the time I was 10 years old in my father’s drugstore.” Whether she’s telling Kent Ehrhardt to “hush” after he reveals that Craisins make him “gassy” or repeats, “Greg’s gonna kill me,” as she continually steps out of the frame in one Great Day segment, Fletcher commands the viewer’s attention while making cooking and baking fun. What stands out most of all, though, is how comfortable she is in front of the camera. It’s a skill born from her genuine self-possession and sense of humor—what you see on TV is what you get in person—and her many years working in the industry, first with Carl Sontheimer at Cusinart; next in her wholesale pastry business, Truffes, which ran from 1987-2009; and now at Tony’s, where she’s worked for the last two years.
“The joke is around here that as they’re lowering the coffin, I’m going to be saying, ‘No, no, there’s just one more thing I have to finish,’” explained Fletcher about her drive to avoid becoming “Peter Principled out.” In other words, she keeps busy with multiple projects, always wanting to learn more, and avoiding falling into a rut. As a natural educator who has taught in Forest Park’s Hospitality Program, on the job at Truffes, at The Kitchen Conservatory, on her TV appearances, in her blog, for St. Louis Magazine’s At Home, and now in her new book, Fletcher seems compelled to share what she’s learned. Although she celebrated her 73rd birthday a couple of weeks ago, Fletcher is not slowing down anytime soon.
With no formal training in cooking or pastry (“I learned how to make cakes that are flat on top, not humpy. I had to figure that out myself”), Fletcher began her career in food by entering a contest sponsored by The Globe-Democrat. Unable to remember its official name, she’s dubbed it “The Flaming Pan” contest because that’s what her oldest son, Eric, called it when he encouraged her to enter. She took first place for vegetables with her cauliflower and cheese crepe and a stuffed mushroom dish she told the judges looked “exactly like a dog turd.” The experience provided her with enough confidence to begin cooking and writing, and demonstrates her talent for both cooking and entertaining—the judges appreciated her self-deprecating honesty.
In 1977, Fletcher began contributing food articles to local and national publications such as The Post-Dispatch, Chocolatier, and Bon Appetit. For the next few years, Fletcher traveled as a cooking teacher specializing in pastry, but she decided that she needed to know more—more about the science of baking. So she enrolled in Forest Park’s Culinary Arts and Hospitality Program, where she studied under the late Jack Miller. In her mid-30’s, at a time when non-traditional students weren’t the norm as they are today, Fletcher initially felt out of place. Unsurprisingly, the younger students were soon looking to her for help, and the members of her team presented her with 3 stars from The Army Store because she was “such a general.” To Miller’s disappointment, Fletcher left the program after she learned everything she could about cooking and baking, explaining that she was ready to move on to her next adventure.
And what an adventure it was: Fletcher’s big break came when she developed an orange-almond croissant recipe expressly for a food processor after Julia Child said the dough could only be made in a blender; for Fletcher, this was a challenge, akin to “waving a red flag in front of a bull.” After she sent the recipe to Cusinart and followed up with a phone call, Fletcher was eventually contacted by Carl Sontheimer, who not only bought the recipe but flew her out to a trade show in California, which marked the beginning of her collaboration with the company. Once a month, she’d travel to their home base in Greenwich, CT, and work on recipe development while raising two young sons at home with the help of Mike.
The experience with Cuisinart not only opened a professional door for Fletcher but it also introduced her to the actor Danny Kaye (right), who was friends with Sontheimer and called Fletcher up one day to complain about her croissant recipe. It turns out Kaye was using the wrong-sized pan, and Fletcher’s honest approach to letting him know as much endeared her to him—so much so that he phoned her weekly and invited her to his home in LA, where he cooked pasta with lemon sauce for her.
Although Sontheimer offered to move Fletcher and her family out to Greenwich, she chose to stay in St. Louis and parted ways with Cuisinart in order to branch out on her own. Her first book, The New Pastry Chef, was published in 1986, and Truffes was born in 1987 after Richard Perry, who owned the old Jefferson Boarding House, and Zoe Robinson Pidgeon, proprietor of I Fratellini, Bobo Noodle House, and the recently-opened Bars Les Frères, asked her to make desserts for them.
Originally housed in an 800-square-foot space shaped like a bowling alley, Truffes quickly underwent several expansions as the business grew. Fletcher remembers working until 3 in the morning doing whatever needed to be done: baking, packaging, slicing, even assembling boxes—something that plagued her beyond all other tasks. “One thing Carl taught me is that if you want to be perceived as first class, you have to look first class,” Fletcher noted of her need to make everything a cut above, from the desserts to the heavy boxes no one else was using at the time. Instilling this message into her employees, she’d say, “Go find a new mistake,” after they got something wrong, emphasizing that it was okay to make a mistake . . . once.
After Truffes closed in 2009, Vince Bommarito, Sr. approached Fletcher about working for him. As the original designer of Tony’s dessert line, Fletcher already had a good relationship with Vince Sr. and Vince Jr. Fletcher describes her position at Tony’s as great: “We’re like family. There’s an enormous amount of respect that goes both ways, and, of course, that just makes me try harder.” Moreover, since she works three days a week from about 5 AM to 2 or 3 PM, she has time to keep her hand in all of her other interests, like the TV appearances, the blog, visiting with her 2 grandchildren in Chicago (European Tarts is dedicated to them), and, of course, the cookbooks.
Over the time that we visited with Fletcher, her iPhone dinged constantly with email alerts, but if she noticed, she didn’t let on, as one story segued into another. A plate of homemade chocolate chip cookies sat temptingly in close proximity on a TV tray. “Don’t judge me for my crappy TV trays,” Fletcher begged, noting that although her kids keep giving her new models, she can’t part with the old ones because they’re perfect. (Regarding the cookies: they were delicious, but we were polite, eating only two. Luckily, she wrapped several in a napkin to take home, and we promptly scarfed them in the privacy of our car.) We realized that three hours had flown by when a light in the den clicked on automatically as the sun began to set.
Before we settled in the den, Fletcher pointed out shiny hardwood floors the couple refurbished, living room furniture passed down from her grandmother, a dining room table fashioned out of iron legs from her father’s drugstore with a marble top from Truffes, and a center island in her kitchen built to suit her diminutive stature (she stands at 5’2”). Both Helen and Mike guided us to a shallow, built-in cabinet nearly six feet tall that they designed and built, where all the spices are kept, arranged alphabetically, naturally. Lights for Mike’s professional photographs hang in the kitchen corners, and his intriguing black-and-white photos of politicians like Ted Kennedy and Barry Goldwater line the hallway leading up to the second story.
The conversation was not all light in tone when Fletcher described how she credits her position as a middle child to what has made her who she is; a couple of times, she joked that she’s “more guts than brains,” and while she indeed seems gutsy, we guess she’s pretty savvy as well. Positioned between an older brother who “was like a god” in the family, and a younger sister, whose beauty and exoticism garnered a great deal of attention, Fletcher learned that she must work hard to make her mark. After mentioning her sister, Alice, Fletcher told a story that many in St. Louis may not know or remember: camping alone in Arizona where she resided, Alice was murdered in 1991 for $20, by Alessandro Garcia (17 years old) and Michelle Hoover (13 years old) shortly after Garcia and another man killed 9 people in what’s come to be known as the Buddhist Temple Murders.
Fletcher flew out to Arizona several times to give victim impact statements, which were so persuasive, the judge added 5 years to Hoover’s 10-year sentence. Although the murder occurred 21 years ago, Fletcher still becomes emotional when she recounts the events but also displays her characteristic courage and industriousness. When she has a spare moment, Fletcher hopes to work on an advocacy program for victims’ families, like the one that helped her in Arizona, proving her mantra: “I’ve never been comfortable without too much on my plate; If I don’t have enough [to do], I slow down.”
At the launch party held in Tony’s kitchen (right), guests sampled several of Fletcher’s tarts from the cookbook, including Mocha Glazed Macadamia Caramel, Lemon Raspberry, Linzer (made with cranberries), Chocolate Caramel Truffle, and S’Mores (all these are depicted below) which contains an unusual ingredient: peanuts. Why peanuts? “Because they’re my s’mores,” said Fletcher. Among those in attendance were Fletcher’s sons, Eric and Dirk, who surprised her. Eric lives in LA, where he’s the Steadicam Operator on the Showtime series Dexter (alas, he revealed nothing about this season’s ending), and Dirk flew in from Chicago, where he’s the Chair of Digital Photography at Harrington College of Art and Design—photography clearly runs in this family.
While Fletcher was the main attraction at the party, posing for pictures and signing cookbooks, the kitchen itself was a wonder to behold. Copper-bottomed pots hang in precise rows down the center of the main room, wherein the centerpiece is a lectern replete with mic and “hot” and “cold” switches for communication to the lines. Near the lectern sits a picture of a woman with index finger to her mouth, reminding everyone in the kitchen that silence is golden. Around the corner, in a narrow corridor sits Fletcher’s work space, where she creates the restaurant’s amazing desserts.
Shunning the silver pitcher of water put out for the party, Fletcher filled her glass from the wash station saying she didn’t care where it came from. This gesture encapsulates all that Fletcher is: unpretentious, humorous, gregarious, and no-nonsense, for she drank as quickly as she could, to quench her thirst and give her voice a brief rest, before returning to her guests and their needs.
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