My Road to Bakery Success Was Paved With Rotten Meat and Termite Wings

Once I knew that I wanted to be a baker, I never looked back. Even when I was faced with termite infestations, maggoty rotten meat, and threats from the Jewish mafia.

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Jan 13 2016, 8:00pm

I grew up working in restaurants from the time I was about 15. Mostly front-of-house, but I found myself in the back of the house a lot. I liked the hustle, the chaos. I ended up moving to New York and got a job at New York University in the psychiatry department, overseeing the research department there for almost ten years.

Towards the end of it, it was a lot. I would come home and bake all night by myself, and it made me feel better. That was my comfort.

Photo by Mark Weinberg courtesy of Ovenly

Photo by Mark Weinberg, courtesy of Ovenly

I was baking on the side, but I was waiting to do something more with it—especially towards the end of my career at the NYU School of Medicine, when I felt really burnt out. At the time, I was trying to create a lot of stability for myself. I thought I just needed a good office job with great benefits. But I was in dinner and dessert clubs, and I met Erin in a food-focused book club before we opened Ovenly. I think it was just a matter of meeting the right person. And the moment that it happened, I never looked back.

MAKE: Ovenly's Peanut Butter Cookies

So many New York food people have this experience, but the point when I realized how deep I was in it was when we were renting a commercial kitchen in Red Hook, Brooklyn. Erin and I were in there for 16 hours a day, seven days a week, and we'd go home and sleep for four hours and then come back to work. We bought a Ford Explorer for $1,500 from a guy that I dated and we'd sometimes sleep in it. We called it our Mobile Cooling Unit because we'd keep our butter in there, and nap in it when we got too tired.

He told us not to look because it was the most disgusting thing he had ever seen in his career as an exterminator in New York City. That says a lot.

That kitchen was crazy. There were no windows, no heat, no air conditioning. In the winter it would be 32 degrees, and in the summer it would be 115.

Ovenly-agatha-erin

Agatha (right) and Erin at work in the kitchen. Photo by by Winona Barton-Ballentine for the Ovenly Cookbook, courtesy of Ovenly

At one point, there was a really bad termite infestation. One day, one of our bakers was saying, "Eww, there are bugs," and I just said, "Whatever, keep working." But suddenly I looked over, and there were tons of these shiny wings floating down from the ceiling all over everything and I thought, what the fuck? Apparently, termites mate in the air, and when they do, their wings fall off. We had to throw out everything because it was covered in termite wings. It was horrifying.

Another day, I said, "Guys, I think something smells." Everyone brushed it off and insisted "You're crazy!" but I kept saying that I thought something was in the walls. A dead something, somewhere. No one else could smell it. They thought it was the squid-processing facility (seriously) across the street. Finally, I called the exterminator. He looked around everywhere and then told me, "I need to show you something." But then he changed his mind and said, "Actually, let me take care of it, and I'll tell you after." I saw him putting on a gas mask and gloves up to his elbows, and I thought, this seems bad.

I said, 'This is what it takes. We're going to succeed and find something better, but this is what we have to do.' This was after robberies, threats, infestations. Rotting meat.

We shared the space with someone at the time, and apparently he had just abandoned a bunch of refrigerators in there—including everything that was in them. Our exterminator found pounds and pounds of meat that had been rotting in unplugged chest freezers, around 35 pounds of meat with maggots all over them. He told us not to look because it was the most disgusting thing he had ever seen in his career as an exterminator in New York City. That says a lot.

We got threatened by the Jewish mafia, but that's a long story.

Photo by Winona Barton-Ballentine for the Ovenly cookbook

Ovenly's peanut butter cookies. Click here to make. Photo by Winona Barton-Ballentine for the Ovenly cookbook, courtesy of Ovenly.

One day, after all of this had happened, the person we had rented from came in. While we were sitting there doing production in our half of the space, he came in with a sledgehammer and knocked out the walk-in refrigerator on the other side, then the bathroom, and took the sink. I just told our staff to keep doing their work. So there are four girls making cookies and scones, and this guy just smashing and destroying things on the other side of the room.

That night, we called in some people to sit in the space with a baseball bat to make sure none of our stuff got stolen.

The person I was with at the time was finally like, "What the fuck are you doing? Why are you here? Why don't you leave?" and my answer was, "This is what it takes. We're going to succeed and find something better, but this is what we have to do." This was after robberies, threats, infestations. Rotting meat. The walk-in would break down practically once a week—we spent thousands fixing it. We once spent four days straight sitting in the walk-in in our coats scooping cookies because it was summer and it was too hot in the kitchen.

The point of all of this is that there's been so much crazy shit that has happened along the way, but there's never been a moment where I felt, I'm not going to do this anymore. I think you need that determination in this industry. You hear it in so many chef and restaurateur stories. There's a ton of craziness and ups and downs, but this is my passion, and it's so much better than sitting behind a desk and having a regular office job.

Ultimately, that kitchen worked out, and we were able to give that space to other friends who were able to use it to grow their business. They fixed it and it became perfect for them.

But the serendipity also happened in Red Hook when nothing was around. There was just a Stumptown, and they provided us with coffee every day and some sanity. But they also became a client of ours now, we sell their coffee too, and we have an incredible partnership with them. That relationship alone was worth it.

Ovenly has been so different for me than any other job I've had, how the community is so huge but also feels so intimate and is so giving. I'd never experienced that before.

This article originally appeared on MUNCHIES in January 2015.