You'd think that when presenting an interview with Natalie from Bake & Destroy, we'd knock ourselves out with some sort of sassy and / or sarcastic introduction, but this is one of those rare moments when really, only sincere things come to mind. Mlle. Destroy, aka Natalie Slater, is an absolute tour de force: a skilled crafter, writer and baker--as well as recent college graduate and mom. Yeah--and you thought you were busy. Not only does this girl juggle a lot, but she does it all with a sharp wit and a punk-rock, can-do attitude that has become her signature and inspired people all around the world. It is with great pleasure that we present an interview and inside view with a true mover and caker--er, shaker:
Natalie Slater: Ha ha! Is it that obvious? I really admire Michelle. For people who don't know about her from Food Network Cake Challenges or from The Bleeding Heart Bakery, Michelle Garcia is this really amazing young pastry chef from Chicago. She's really supportive of local business and sustainable products and she lit a fire under my ass to just throw myself into supporting female-owned businesses. And also we're in love. We're going to raise our children together in a frosting-covered hippy commune.
CS: That's...beautiful. (Pauses as a vision of dancing unicorns and shooting stars in a frosting-coated world passes through mind). Now on to the basics. How did Bake & Destroy get started?
NS: When my son Teno was about 10 months old I'd been nannying for almost two years. I totally loved being able to be at home with him, and I still love the little girl I took care of then but frankly, it's not exciting work, hanging out with babies all day. I've always really loved baking so I started making things during naptime and I started a blog for my friends so they could see what I was up to. (You don't see your friends much when you have a baby, I've found.) So Bake & Destroy was like having a conversation with me- lots of cussing and references to really trashy reality shows- but with muffins and stuff! I was shocked the first time someone I didn't know in "real life" left me a comment.
NS: I would give almost anything to have a typical day. I just graduated from college, so thankfully homework and going to class are no longer a day-to-day events. The only things I can count on happening every day are Teno waking me up no later than 7am, usually with a train to the face or a foot in the stomach; Teno getting a bath and trying not to go to bed at around 8pm and then eating ice cream and watching something on Bravo with my husband Tony. Otherwise it's a crapshoot. Some days I'm at the Time Out Chicago offices working on the Eating & Drinking guide, sometimes I'm hustling a freelance story and once in a while I have an interview for a "real" job. I do most of my baking on the week ends, in between going to Pasta Fresh and the Coffee & Tea Exchange, which are two of the other only things I can really count on doing every week.
NS: Um…asks the pot of the kettle. Ha ha. Anyone who knows me will tell you that I'm 100% devoid of corniness, so believe me when I say that it has changed my life. Before I started the blog and before people started to respond to what I was putting out there I had no aspirations for myself beyond like, managing a coffee shop and possibly retiring to The Villages someday. (It's the SWEETEST retirement village in FL, my grandma lives there and I'm obsessed with it.) The reaction I got from people is what made me decide to finish my journalism degree, and it's what gives me the confidence to pitch ideas to magazine editors and to go into interviews and just be like, "Hi. I have tattoos on my knuckles but what really matters is I write stuff that people want to read, so you should hire me."
CS: What sites, books, people, etc. keep you inspired?
NS: Well, the blog that started it all for me was Chockylit's CupcakeBlog. It's not updated anymore, but she's just really amazing and I love that she always has something new to teach. Like, you don't just learn a recipe; you learn how to make horchada. That's insane.
I also love The Urban Housewife, of course. She always has great photos; I wish I wasn't so lazy. I would post more than one photo per blog. More than that, though, Melisser is really funny and she loves Morrissey, so that won me over.
There are so many blogs I love, Tony has to watch the clock for me or I get totally sucked in. I also get really attached to people I only know from blogging. In some cases I do eventually meet them, like Leigh from Jessie Steele aprons, and Jennifer, a Flickr friend. And then there's Tara from Just Desserts who I've known for years. But I feel like City, Cassie, Melisser, the ladies from All Things Cupcake and probably lots of other people I "talk" to all the time are my real friends. I would get mani/pedis with any of them for sure.
NS: Well, like I said, it boosted my confidence most of all. But actually, I've pitched ideas to editors at pastry trade magazines who knew who I was from the blog. One editor told me I should capitalize on my built-in fan base and quit writing to open up a bakery. It wasn't a shot at my writing; it was his honest advice as someone who is working in a dying industry. But I was like, "Doesn't the fact that the only way you know I'm a good baker is that my writing convinced you so sort of tell you that I'm a good writer?" Sometimes I think the pastry chefs I interview get a little bummed that I'm a total idiot and people take me for an expert. Believe me, I would love to go to French Pastry School and actually be an expert. Maybe they'll see this and give me a scholarship.
CS: Do you have any advice or do's / don'ts for people getting started with their own blog?
NS: It's hard to say exactly. I mean, I'm lucky to only hear from people who like Bake & Destroy. Even my grandma reads it in The Villages. One person did tell me that she didn't appreciate a poop joke I made, but I didn't take that too personally. I read the blogs I read because they're either funny, really educational or about things I'm so interested in I don't care if it's not funny or educational. Like, have you ever read a blog about mixed martial arts? Bleh! I mean, I love it- I love the sport so I read about it but someone needs to sex up those blogs because they're hard to choke down sometimes. I guess I'd say just put yourself out there, don't worry about projecting any certain image because in the end, if you're a good blogger the real you is going to shine through anyway.
NS: Wow, so anti-climactic! We were so excited, it was his 6-month birthday and we stopped into Bittersweet Pastry Shop and I got him the cutest mini cupcake. We actually made a video, it's on You Tube--we took like, an hour of footage and made it look like he actually ate it. He just smashed it all over. And if you see my hand in there you can see how much baby weight I still had to lose after 6 months. It looks like a catcher's mitt. Trust me, the boy knows what to do with cake nowadays.
CS: What's your favorite cake, like, ever?
NS: There's a restaurant in Evanston called Blind Faith and they make this gigantic vegan spice cupcake with an ungodly pile of delicious "buttercream"- it's so, so good. I love spice cake, I don't care what season it is. I wish I had that recipe. I used to really love cupcakes from this one bakery in Chicago- I won't say the name but let's just say cupcake eaters in here worship the joint- and a friend of mine who worked there told me they were cake mix! They made my wedding cupcakes! I felt like I got stabbed right in the taste buds. One could argue if they taste good they taste good, but I don't think you should call yourself a bakery if you use a mix. If you use a mix you're an assembly plant.
CS: What baked goods or bakeries can't be missed in Chicago?
NS: Seriously, this is why I need my own public access show. I can tell you what's good even at the worst bakeries and I can tell you what's amazing at the best bakeries. The only reason I don't weigh 500 lbs is that I never stop talking about food, that burns a lot of calories. Ok, here's a top 10. I've never done this before… it's a Cakespy exclusive! (Cue the 9 o'clock news music.) These are in no particular order:
- Chicago Diner: They have an all-vegan bakery and it's all-delicious as well. I'm too scared to try the raw stuff but Malissa, one of their bakers, is seriously so talented you'll never miss butter. I had a coconut-custard stuffed cupcake she made and Teno and I got into a fish fight (Cakespy note: this was later corrected as "fist" but we like the idea of some Chicago-style fish fightin') over who got to lick the container it came in.
- Vanille Patisserie: I interviewed Dimitri Fayard last year for a story I ended up posting on my blog. Even before I met him, though, I was obsessed with his salted caramels and his Manjari entremets.
- The Bleeding Heart Bakery: Duh. The smores brownie is like eating chocolate covered butter, I love it. I really can't wait to see what they do at Chaos Theory, the new cake shop for grown ups. I love mousses, and there's going to be mousse-a-plenty.
- Bittersweet Pastry Shop : I always stop by near Halloween for their coffin cookies and ghost meringues but one day I was standing in line, 8 1/2 months pregnant and the lady next to me was like, "Try the raspberry ganache tart, you won't regret it." And it's literally all I order when I go in now. It's indescribably delicious.
- Letizia's Natural Bakery: I have personal reasons for this pick, as well as greedy fatso reasons. The cheesecake is hands-down the best in the city. Eli's who? But, this was the first job I had when I moved to Chicago almost 10 years ago and the Sorano family was really, really sweet to me. I even learned how to swear in Italian. Che Cazzo fai?
- Pasticceria Natalina: Um, hello! Filled-to-order cannoli. Loves it!
- Bennison's Bakery: If you're ever in Chicago eating a sandwich and you're like, "What the fudge? This sandwich is amazing!" It's because it's on bread from Bennison's.
- Angel Food Bakery: Homemade Twinkies and a Cupcake Club. I mean… c'mon. It's really hard not to go here everyday, it's really close to my house. They have the sweetest baking toys but they won't let me touch them.
- La Patisserie P: I can't say the French pastries knocked my socks off, but the Asian bakery is really awesome and so cheap it freaks me out a little. I like buying my mother-in-law BBQ pork buns for 99 cents here. She says they're delicious and the fact that they're under a dollar makes her happier than you could ever know.
- Ferrara Bakery: Considering my son is named after my great-grandpa Teno Petitti, I will SO eat anywhere that was opened by a guy named Salvatore Ferrara. I have a cousin named Larry Piano for crissakes! This might be one of those places you can only appreciate if your nonna fed you pizzelles she made and stored in an empty Folgers can, but it just makes me feel like I have my family all around me and it makes me happy.
CS: What's next for Bake & Destroy...or for you personally?
NS: I have two major possibilities in front of me career-wise and I'm killing myself trying to decide right now. One would be something cake-related I could totally blog about and one is something that would make my grandma really proud- it's this "green" company, totally liberal stuff. She has a picture of JFK hanging in her garage, she's into that sort of thing. So I don't know which one I'll end up doing, I'm hoping to know sooner than later. In the long run, I don't know. Tony and I talk a lot about opening a café, just like, his awesome seitan sandwiches and some cupcakes and coffee. I had a pretty generous offer from a friend of mine who happens to be the current WWE heavyweight champion and I want to take him up on it before he gets kicked in the head too many times to remember. I really want it to feel like 1980's wrestling and a Russ Meyers movie had a baby and that baby tasted like sandwiches and coffee and cupcakes. Like, Rowdy Roddy Piper posters on the wall and Faster Pussycat, Kill Kill on the TV. Basically my childhood minus the stuff that sucked, like school.