Hours of Idleness-A Photographer's Journey in St. Louis

Dinah Grossman, Cheap Tart Bakery

Posted in art, Chicago, interview by Jason Gray on May 26, 2013

Chicago-based pastry pro, Dinah Grossman, is a woman of many talents. She performs Tango, has a super-sharp wit, and of course, bakes delectable treats, among other things. Her business, Cheap Tart Bakery, employs the latter ability, and I imagine that a lot of people will be taking notes as her enterprise grows. I know from personal experience, that the food industry is a difficult market to be successful in, but when you have a true talent, it just shows (I didn’t).

Dinah and I met several years back, when we were both working at a job that did not utilize either of our full, innate potentials. She struck me then, as she still does, as being extremely self-assured and competent, but also accessible and adaptable. In other words, capable of seeing things from many points of view. She had traveled extensively, which struck me as remarkable for her age at the time.

She once gave me a short story of hers entitled, Tucson Days, which illuminated the extraordinary thoughts of a few ordinary people grasping for a glimpse of the profound and hoping to find it underlying the unremarkable reality of life. The story is written in a fluid prose that borders on something Kerouac would have been fortunate to contrive during one of his long typewriter benders. There is a bit of Updike in there as well. Thankfully, I still have this copy; a short excerpt:

“I wasn’t sure what any of this had to do with an impending nuclear explosion, so I sat and watched the sun melt away, glancing at Hershel’s face for clues. Moshe picked at a hangnail. Hershel, who was nodding in grave understanding at Garrison, apparently found it all terribly relevant. After a while we climbed down off the roof and Garrison got on his bicycle and rode off into the dark.”

So, what does all of this about Dinah have to do with tarts? In my opinion, everything.

French Cream Tart

HOI- In a world seemingly obsessed with the cupcake, what made you go the way of the tart?

DG- I’ve never really understood why cupcakes caused the frenzy they did (do?). I associate cupcakes with boxed mixes and school bake sales and, to be frank, the “gourmet” versions that have proliferated aren’t so far from that stereotype. Cupcakes don’t take a great deal of skill to make, and it always frustrates me to see people elevate something so pedestrian to the level of “haute cuisine.” A cupcake is a cupcake, a hot dog is a hot dog. Those things can be good, but I think they should be appreciated for what they are. Instead cupcakes and cupcake bakeries have been idolized in the last few years. They’ve acquired a cult-like following that borders on religious fanaticism, and religious fanatics of any ilk have always rubbed me the wrong way. Tarts, on the other hand, in addition to being delicious, take some skill to create. You can see and taste real craftsmanship when it comes to pastry, and I appreciate that. They’re endlessly variable and versatile, and have traditionally been served in many cultures as both everyday fare and more sophisticated desserts. I’ve always enjoyed making them, and I’ve always enjoyed eating them.

HOI- You once told me, something to the effect of, “Intelligent people do not look for work, they make up jobs for themselves.” This message had a tremendous impact on my personal thinking about work and life, but most importantly, it freed me from believing that I had to follow the traditional path toward self-reliance (ie. college degree, to entry-level job, to pay your dues one 9-5 day at a time, to eventual success). Is Cheap Tart Bakery an expression of this mindset, and if yes, how so?

DG- I’d say Cheap Tart is very much an expression of that idea, although the bakery’s creation wasn’t that linear. When I moved to Chicago I had just graduated from college, and the already pretty wretched job market was flooded with people just like me–new graduates without a lot of experience looking for entry-level jobs. I was able to piece together a living by freelancing as a writer, and teaching and performing tango, and I also had part-time work as a personal assistant, a job I could fit in between freelancing gigs. But a few years of that kind of work left me pretty worn out. While it allows flexibility, that lifestyle doesn’t provide stability, and there is something to be said for a stable income (and health insurance). It’s all about finding a good balance. About a year ago I started tossing around the idea of opening a bakery, in large part because I saw other people doing it, and recognized that the skills I’d acquired working as a pastry chef and baker in restaurants over the years had given me more than enough experience to compete with what was already out there. I started out making a wedding cake for a friend, and things snowballed from there. I didn’t do a single thing to promote the bakery, but word of mouth spread, and that was followed by some good press, and pretty soon the thing had taken on a life of its own. While I wouldn’t say I’ve achieved the level of stability I’d like, having a clear goal, ie. the success of this business, has freed me in new ways, and at least psychologically that clarity can be stabilizing.

HOI- How has your past influenced your business? Do you see any correlation between your previous forays, into Tango, freelance writing, web design, etcetera, and your current venture?

DG- In all the jobs I’ve done there’s been a lot of learning as I go. I’m a big believer in saying “yes” first and then figuring out how to achieve what’s been asked of me later. Working as a freelancer has taught me to have confidence in my abilities, most of all my ability to learn what I don’t already know. Saying “I can’t” gets you nowhere. I’ve also always sought out work that allowed me to be creative in some way. I’ve learned over the years that how I’m being creative is less important than if I am, which is to say it doesn’t matter in some respects if I’m designing a website, baking pastries, or dancing. And I don’t think that’s unique to who I am. I think we are all innately creative, weather we realize it or not, or whether we call it creativity or some other thing. The people who thrive in life are those who have found a way to channel their creativity productively, whether that be for financial gain, or simply the satisfaction of making, thinking, or doing.

HOI- What was it like writing for the A.V. Club? Did you feel pressure to write a certain way?

DG- Writing for the A.V. Club was not as much fun as you’d think. For an office that’s supposed to generate comic material there was a marked lack of laughter. The writing that I was doing was primarily for the food section, which meant there was actually pressure NOT to be funny. After I stopped working as an intern and freelanced from outside the office, there was a little more freedom to experiment. But not much. It was pretty straight, as far as writing goes.

HOI- What did you learn about food/foodie culture while writing about it?

DG- I learned that I hate that such a thing as “foodie culture” exists. What I always loved about food and cooking was that it was such an important part of life and culture as a whole–survival, happiness, growth. But I find people who call themselves “foodies” have isolated themselves from what food is really about. It becomes all about extremes–how much, how outlandish, how exclusive–and ends up being more about the experience of being seen somewhere or being able to say you did something than it is about the food itself. I also learned that the kind of writing I was doing, which didn’t really allow for total freedom to say what I truly felt, was more stifling than liberating. I had, and still have, a lot of things to say about how we eat in this country, about food, about enjoying the acts of growing, cooking, and eating. But restaurant reviews (with the sharp corners sanded down by editors) aren’t the place for big picture opinions.

Apple Tart

HOI- Given the distracted focus of society today, how do you see your pastries/food, or food in general, fitting in? What role might it play, or what benefit does it offer (aside from filling up an empty stomach)?

DG- If everyone cooked one meal a day, the world would be a much better place. Food can be a real equalizer. We all need it to survive, and across cultures there has always been so much sharing, trading, borrowing of traditions and methods. I can’t think of a better way to learn about someone than through food. I think about that when I come home and smell that someone in my building is cooking dinner. I wonder what they’re making, how they’re cooking it, and think about how much could be learned if we all opened our doors a little more often. I find it fascinating that I know the people in my building and in my block far less well than I knew neighbors miles away from the house I grew up in in Maine. I’ve found that more than any other job I’ve had, telling people that I run a bakery is a real conversation starter. People’s eyes light up. Food is something we can all relate to, and there’s something comforting about bakeries. People remember the bakeries of their childhoods, their neighborhoods, their whole lives. I hope one day that Cheap Tart will have a retail location that serves as much as a community center as it does a bakery. To be a solid part of a community, that’s the real goal.

HOI- Do you see food as a conversation starter?

DG- See above 😉

HOI- How has baking changed your life?

DG- Baking has gotten me jobs in restaurants in interesting places (Alaska, coastal Maine). It’s a skill that’s determined the work I do for pay, and my outlook on life: Sometimes you need to be methodical, other times the most beautiful things can result from experimentation, chance, and chemistry.

Pie Pops

HOI- Where, on Earth, did your delicious-looking concept for the “Pie Pops” originate?

DG- I had seen versions online of what were, essentially, glorified Pop-Tarts. I thought there must be a way to make single servings of pie (something to compete with a cupcake!) that were convenient to eat, but maintained, more accurately, the proportions of a regular pie. Much experimentation and a lot of Popsicle sticks later, Pie Pops in their current form were born!

HOI- Do you have any new concoctions waiting to be debuted?

DG- I’ve got a few things up my sleeve, but they’re still in the R and D stage.

HOI- How can readers purchase your culinary creations?

DG- Check out our website, www.cheaptart.com, to see what our menu offers. To place an order give us a call at 773.344.1998, or email your order to sweet@cheaptart.com. We ask for 48 hours notice, and we deliver within Chicago!

All images are provided by Dinah Grossman, and are used by her permission.  Food photographs are by Garrick Peterson.


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