An accomplished culinary entrepreneur, the award-winning founder of BIRD Bakery (with locations in San Antonio and Dallas) has served as a guest judge on the Food Network and Cooking Channel and also appears regularly on the TODAY show. Her passion for baking started in the kitchen with her mother and grandmother.
BIRD Bakery was started in honor of your grandmother. What are your fondest memories of working with her in the kitchen?
I have so many memories of working with her and baking with her and my mom. I mean, all my early childhood memories were really centered in the kitchen. I guess my most vivid memories were sneaking into her walk-in fridge [at her catering company]. She had these little boats that were made of shortbread. And she had a big Cambro of lemon curd and I would just take those boats and dip them in the lemon curd. It was the most delicious thing you’ve ever tried in your entire life. And I think I thought I was getting away with it my whole childhood. I thought she didn’t notice they were missing. But clearly, I’m sure, she had some deliveries go wrong and she was probably short a few cookies for parties.
When was the moment you realized your passion for quality cooking?
I’ve always had an appreciation for quality of food and the process and what goes into it. It’s what I was always around. But I guess it really became kind of a weird obsession when I was out of college. I would bake compulsively. I would come home and be really just determined to find and create the best chocolate chip cookie recipe. I was buying so many ingredients every day; all different kinds of chocolate chips and different types of butter and finely granulated sugar versus regular. And then trying different all-purpose flours and doing testing to see if all-purpose was better than White Lily Flour, which is supposed to be finer and from a specific region. So, I just became really, really, really into it after college.
What’s one thing you must have in the kitchen?
Quality ingredients. I think it all starts with the ingredients, and we’ve been very careful to remember not to cut corners. We really haven’t sacrificed quality to cut costs or corners. That’s something I couldn’t really believe when we opened; food suppliers coming in and saying ‘if you change this for this you’ll increase your profit and lower your food costs,’ but it really wasn’t worth it to me because these are recipes I grew up having. That included Hellmann’s Mayonnaise and Jiff Natural Peanut Butter and quality ingredients that you can’t get from those food suppliers. We have to get them from Costco or other places, but it was really important to maintain the integrity of our ingredients and of our end result.
How does the community around BIRD Bakery affect your dishes/cooking?
We have such a wonderful community in both San Antonio and Dallas. I don’t think we could find that community anywhere else. People are so incredible and so passionate and so much like an extended family in a way, that we have this open dialogue with our customers. It’s really a beautiful thing. We had a customer named Jennie Erwin who said, ‘I like your pound cake and it’s really good but my mom made the best lemon pound cake you’ve ever had.’
She brought me a slice and it was honestly the best lemon pound cake I've ever had in my life. It was like completely saturated and had this tangy drizzle; I don’t even know how to explain it, it was the best thing I’d ever had. So, I said, ‘You’re right. This is 100 percent incredible. Could you come into the bakery and show us how to make it and we’ll put it on the menu as Jennie Erwin’s Lemon Pound Cake.’ So that’s a really good example, I think, of the two-way dialogue we have with our customers, because we now serve her pound cake and people love it.
What’s your favorite dish from your bakery?
My favorite thing... I don’t know, it changes so often... I think because it’s summer I really enjoy [our] Key Lime Pie. It’s got a praline graham cracker crust. To me, key lime pie has to be the perfect consistency; it’s not too silky and the texture is not too much like a cheesecake. It’s kind of perfectly right in the middle and it’s pretty amazing. So that’s my favorite at the moment.
Does your favorite dish differ from the most popular dish served?
Yeah, actually. We have three of our top cupcakes. Melted caramel, our red velvet and carrot cake. Those are the three most popular cupcakes, and then we have a most popular sandwich and we have a most popular cookie. We have so many different categories, but I think we have definite best sellers in each department. I would say probably one of our favorites is our Monster Cookie and our California Turkey Sandwich.
What’s your favorite dish from a local restaurant?
A favorite dish locally... umm I’m trying to think... Mesero has some of the best tacos I’ve had, and then, I don’t think it counts as a dish, but the Mambo Taxi (cocktail) at Mi Cocina is my favorite non-dish—it’s so good.
How would you characterize the dining culture in Dallas/Fort Worth?
When we first opened we had our pimento cheese and our chicken salad, and a lot of the customers didn’t like the mayonnaise in the chicken salad. So, we actually, in our Dallas location, we reduced the amount of mayonnaise by half because our customers kept asking for it. I think that people are very passionate about food; they appreciate the quality, and they know what they like and they aren’t afraid to ask for it.
We understand that the BIRD Bakery uses the best ingredients possible, but would like to know more about the atmosphere. What experience do you hope customers will have? Please talk about the design aesthetics and what your influences were.
I wanted those locations to feel like home. When we first opened in San Antonio, I wanted it to feel like somebody was coming into my home. I wanted the restroom to look like a powder room and wanted it to feel super cozy and comfortable for our customers. That was seven years ago, so in designing the Dallas location I wanted to create the same environment but also make it a little bit more Instagram friendly. Now people are photographing their food more when they’re at a restaurant. People are photographing themselves and the environment more when they’re at a restaurant. So, I really took into consideration the lighting in the store.
When you’re not in the kitchen, where are you spotted?
Usually working or with my family. I’m working on our cookbook right now—we have our birthday cake cookbook coming out. That has been a lot of test baking and recipe development and getting family photos together. That’s really what I am focusing on right now.
What’s the most labor-intensive dish you’ve had to create that yielded amazing results?
That is, without a doubt, my grandmother’s torte. It’s like, I think, 23 layers. It’s a savory dish but you have to perfectly bake the eggs, you have to do... its cheese, it’s prosciutto, just layers and layers and layers, and the dough is super temperamental. And I think my mom and my sister mastered it long—well my mom always knew it—but my sister mastered it long before I did, and she’s four years younger, so that was annoying to me. But I finally have it down. It takes forever, but it’s so good and it’s so worth it in the end.
Has there ever been a dish that seemed like a failure but allowed you to grow and improve your skill set?
It wasn’t a dish, it was more of a packaging choice. When we first opened we had our little mini cupcakes. We would serve them in the flat cookie bags. One customer was really upset because she got home and her cupcakes had turned over onto each other and she wrote a scathing email about how she really didn’t appreciate having to throw away the cupcakes because of the packaging. So, I took her positive criticism, I guess, into consideration, turned it into a positive, and came up with the idea of serving our little mini cupcakes in the egg cartons that we serve them in today.
What are your favorite dishes to make during Thanksgiving, Halloween and Christmas?
During Thanksgiving, I love making sweet potatoes with orange juice and plenty of butter. For the turkey, my secret ingredient is an entire bottle of Champagne in the cavity of the turkey before you bake it. It will change your entire turkey and makes it so much more moist. For Christmas, I make my Christmas trifle, which is layers of angel food cake with lemon curd and homemade whipped cream, berries and pineapple juice—it is delicious. For Halloween, I think I would say our pumpkin cupcakes. I do a pumpkin cake with cream cheese frosting, then smooth the top of the dome and put it in sanding sugar, then use a whole clove on top to look like the stem so it looks like a real pumpkin.
Do you hope, in the future, that your children will become more engaged with BIRD Bakery? Creating new dishes, putting a new spin on others and making memories of their own?
Yes, for sure. I hope that they have wonderful memories of being there as young children. My daughter feels like it’s a birthday party every time she goes there. I’m pretty sure it’s [the] cake. Her friends are there and there’re tons of kids playing in the corner in the Dallas location. It’s her happy place. I hope that they learn a work ethic from it. I hope that they understand the appreciation of food and know what it takes to create something. I think right now, in this day and age, it’s easy to think things just arrive at your door because everyone is ordering food. [I hope they] know the process, and where things come from and what goes into serving something.