Or perhaps it was the rows of cherry tomatoes they kissed in her backyard garden — the ones her grandson, Dylan, popped like Skittles. Or the Italian, Chinese and Moroccan cookbooks lining her kitchen shelves, the golden-hued curtains she purchased in Los Angeles’ garment district, or the list of Dim Sum restaurants she checked off, one by one, in the L.A. Times’ Dining section.
Life sparkles, she says, once you start living for the things you love.
Last August, Nel ended a 35-year programming career in southern California to open Sweet Claire, a gourmet bakery on Third and Lincoln streets. The 60-year-old Philippines native who had been the IT director of an aerospace company took a significant pay cut: No longer did she have a stable salary, yearly bonuses or stock shares. No semblance of retirement when daily work begins at 4 a.m. “So, why more hours, less pay?” friends ask.
“My sweet rolls are your answer,” she responds, laughing.
Now, Sweet Claire is a hangout, study space and small party venue. Three rooms of café seating and free Wi-Fi beckon customers to linger over fresh bread and iron-cast pots of organic tea.
Bloomington is the ideal location, she says — just a 20-minute drive from her family in Spencer, Ind. And students tend to drool over her Nutella-frosted pancakes.
On a Saturday morning, inside the meticulously organized kitchen, warm cinnamon air wafts from the four-shelf oven Nel bought, heavily discounted, from a defunct pizza parlor. She’s nearly finished with the day’s first batch: 36 swirls of brioche, which she calls “French croissants with egg,” 40 Babka pastries and 96 sweet rolls — her favorite. It’s usually all gone by 2 p.m., she says.
“Who’s ready for food?” she asks, holding a tray of “pan de sal,” or Philippine “salty bread.” Nel’s husband and repairman, Jim, and the morning staff, Ashley and Genta, huddle around an island set with fresh spreads: pesto, red pepper, egg whites and goat cheese.
Breakfast, the first real moment of calm, comes around 9 a.m., just before the brunch rush.
“Me!” says Jim, who still wears his Carhartt jacket from manning the Sweet Claire Farmer’s Market booth. “Those red peppers and bread together? Killer, baby.”
The sandwiches aren’t on the menu — just more of Nel’s impromptu concoctions. When patrons call with requests, such as tiramisu cupcakes for a bridal shower, she Googles the standard ingredients and whips up her personalized rendition.
“It’s all trial and error, trial and error,” Nel says, spreading pesto across the makeshift buns. “That’s how we make and change our food. It’s creative and scientific. It’s fun.”
Her dream, the bakery, was an ambiguous urge for decades. Though Nel loved the fast-paced world of computer programming, she sensed something better awaited her. A calling.
When projects became stressful, she spent evening hours in her kitchen blasting the Eagles and fixing salmon rolls, chicken with white sauce and buttery noodles. Cooking — anything and everything — was a release, she says. Each new dish was a challenge, something to perfect with intuitive touches. Eventually, Jim says, their family and friends — anyone within tasting range — became foodies.
As Nel’s 55th birthday approached, the stars aligned. Time for a change. She couldn’t ignore the signs: Her company’s new vice president was a jerk, and enrollment had just opened for a six-week bread artisan class at the French Culinary Institute in New York City. She signed up, packed 10 boxes of cookbooks, traded her home for a studio apartment on Manhattan’s Upper East Side and never looked back.
As the Saturday crowd calms, Nel attacks a slab of butter with her rolling pin.
“Before you mix it, you have to beat it up,” she says.
Her baking routines are scientific, rigorous. She won’t send recipes to friends or customers because everything must be precisely weighed, stirred, separated, stored and beaten. Perfection can’t be winged, Nel says.
On this afternoon, she applies IT process rigor to sweet potato pastries. She explains it like Steve Jobs might talk about a Macbook: unblinking certainty, no hesitation.
“I combine flour, egg, milk, etcetera, using my ‘baker’s ratio,’” she says, motioning to an Excel document on her Hewlett-Packard laptop, “and determine different amounts based on how big the batch is.”
She dumps a scoop of flour onto her kitchen scale: 1.43 kilograms.
Everything at Sweet Claire is calculated, Nel says, down to the name. She chose “Claire” after Emily Claire, her four-year-old granddaughter. It sounded friendly, marketable and, most importantly, the website domain name was available.
She put it on the back of her staff’s “Got bread?” T-shirts.
“Isn’t ‘sweetclaire.com’ easy to remember?” she says. “I want people visiting us in their sleep.”
She laughs and takes another whack at the butter.
“I know I do.”
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