Gabrielle Cote, Pastry Artist
Using cake as a canvas
In 2014, pastry artist Gabrielle Cote made the birthday cake for George H. W. Bush’s 90th birthday. It was in the shape of a giant lobster.
“I’ve been making cakes for the Bush family for years,” says the Kennebunkport resident. “Everyone comes to me for cakes.”
But now with her reputation established, Cote is ready for the next layer in her career. Why limit cake to birthdays, she asks? Why not order a cake to celebrate buying a new home or sobriety? How about a cake to serve at a tennis match or a yacht club party, or a last-day-of-school cake? Why not eat more cake?
At 28, Cote considers herself still a work-in-progress.
“Everyone else in my family is a complete genius,” she says.
As the youngest of five in a family of high-achievers, including doctors, lawyers, and business execs, it’s no wonder she, too, would excel in her field and become no ordinary baker. Cote says she just needs a little more time.
Her plan is to have her own full-time pastry studio and business within two years. For now, she’ll continue her current side business of serving a growing list of cake-craving clients with artistic, unique, and delicious cakes.
Like many artists who draw inspiration from their surroundings, Cote feels connected to the sea, which is a short distance from where she grew up in Rye, New Hampshire.
Straight out of high school, at a young age, she went to the prestigious Culinary Institute of America (CIA), where she earned a degree in Bakery and Pastry Arts. Two days after graduating, she landed a pastry internship at Kennebunkport’s legendary White Barn Inn, and quickly made her way up to pastry chef, overseeing the entire pastry and bakery program at that landmark establishment. Then, she became sous chef.
Along the way, Cote worked as a baker in five different hotels in the area, collecting clients and developing a reputation for her artistic and delicious visions. Currently, she is sous chef and pastry program manager at the uber-cool Earth at Hidden Pond in Kennebunkport, a plum job for a woman, and one so young.
“Leading a team of 15¬20 young chefs is the most rewarding thing ever. I love it. It’s my main focus—for now.”
Her parents think she’s a dreamer. They want her to diversify and include more than just cake in her repertoire. You have to give the public what it wants, they advise. Cote is not persuaded; she’d prefer not to make cakes that other bakers might also make.
“It’s not my strength,” she says. “I’m not happy doing it.”
Cote is an artist at heart, and not interested in producing the usual cookies, pies, and muffins that sustain a conventional bakery.
“I don’t want to be stuck making brittle for $10. I want to be known for my cakes,” she says. “Two cakes a month would pay my rent.”
A dreamer? Maybe. But she’s a dreamer with a business plan, and she is smart and passionate, honest and beautiful, and disarmingly candid about her process—one could listen to her talk about cake all day.
Cote uses the tools and techniques of the painter’s craft to make her cakes. Her art studio at home is full of painter’s implements and unfinished works on the walls.
“I’ve been painting my whole life,” she says, “studying different types of art, different textures. I make all my own gesso (a white paint substance used to prepare or prime a canvas for painting) and all my own canvases.”
As a pastry artist, in place of gesso, she uses fondant to prime her cake structures. She makes her own gum paste and shapes it into the flowers she sees in Instagram photos, or in her local flower shop. She uses an artist’s palette knife to sculpt French buttercream into layers to achieve the texture and depth she is looking for. She likes to put her color and texture preferences onto common items, say, a cupcake, and elevate that item, transform it from a bakery item to a plated dessert. Cote has learned that contemporary cake art is a more natural canvas for her.
“I don’t want to be hired to make a football cake. I want the client to trust me. I don’t know what it’s going to look like in the end until I make it.”
To Cote, pastry making is art.
“I know pastry is where I belong. It doesn’t feel like work to me.”
But with the degree of responsibility required to run a big busy kitchen, working 15-hour shifts, “there is no work/life balance.” Case in point, Cote’s work schedule kept her from attending her brother’s wedding recently.
“If you don’t have a clear work ethic in the kitchen, you’re not going to make it. But you do have to take care of yourself.”
Having her own business, she feels, would solve the work/life balance challenge.
“I don’t want to be 40 and still not have a family.”
Or she could simply quit her job and get a dog, she jokes.
But she likely won’t do that. The world needs a few more dreamers.
“I trust the universe,” she says. “And I learn from it every day.”
You may say that I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one. I hope someday you’ll join us, and the world will live as one. —John Lennon
Rosie DeQuattro is a freelance writer and regular contributor to Edible Maine and, formerly, to Edible Boston. She loves to tell the stories of the dedicated and passionate men and women of Maine who produce our food, and about what it takes to get it to our plates.