Interview with Los Angeles Rising Star Artisan Baker Nicole Rucker of Gjelina Take Away

by Antoinette Bruno
May 2014

Antoinette Bruno: How did you get your start?
Nicole Rucker: I was studying photography and I started to make pastries to photograph; I was doing a feminist art project. I was in a band, too, and I would bring all the stuff I made to my band mates and they would eat it. People started asking me to make stuff and it turned out I was better at making food then art. For my graduation, my band mates got me a Kitchen Aid mixer instead of something to do with photography because I had been making everything by hand for 5 years. After I graduated, I could’ve been a photo-assistant, but I didn't have the need to be making art like that anymore. I lied—horribly—my way into a job working for a baker. She taught me everything. I’m self taught or I learned on the job. Her name is Gina Bloodsell, she's in San Diego. I went to school in San Francisco. This was in 2003, 2004. I moved here [to L.A.] in 2006. 

AB: Who's your mentor?
NR: Jason and Miho Travi. They were here this morning to check on me. They're my friends. After I worked at that bakery, I moved to Los Angeles and started working for Miho. She really taught me a lot of the skills I have now, the technique and keeping it clean. Evan Kleiman is one of my mentors. We met through the pie contest. I won [the National Pie Championship] in 2012. 

AB: How are you involved in the local culinary community?
NR: It starts by eating at other people's restaurants, you make friends with people. Roxana at Cooks County, she had a bake sale and I participated with her. It's an interesting question…We're all kind of connected through the radio station KCRW. Last night we all went to meet the guy from Anson Mills together and learned about buckwheat together—a bunch of pastry chefs at a house. There were two farmers there that are going to start growing buckwheat in California. We're all interested in using alternative grains, that kind of sphere of thought, using not white wheat product. We had a progressive dinner party making soba noodles. She's bringing buckwheat back—Anson  Mills are behind it. Wiser Farms was there and his partner for a new project—Kenton Canyon Farms—doing grains. 

AB: What are the biggest trends in pastry this year?
NR: Pie is having it's heyday, you have to have pie on your menu. Biscuits are also a huge thing. California is adopting a Southern aesthetic when it's comes to food—you can wrap them all up—the alternative grains, the pies, the biscuits. BBQ is huge this year, it’s part of that. 

On the pie trip, we got out of the car to eat pie. We were ragged when we got there [Florida], but had two days to relax. We started a kickstarter fund to make a documentary about pie makers in the American south to fund our trip across the country. The concept was: I’m a pie maker and wanted to gain inspiration from these longstanding, established pie makers from the South that have been romanticized. The South and that woman making the pie, the grandma putting pie on the window sill, the older woman making pie. We wanted to see if that woman was still out there.

AB: What's the biggest challenge facing your restaurant?
NR: Teaching your staff to make and taste things exactly how you would. That's the daily struggle, that's everything. Not having to be standing over every single dish all the time, every single day—especially in pastry, trying to get my pastry staff to ride the line between sweet but not too sweet. That's the training, what it's all about, inspiring your people to taste and create things exactly how you would do it. You just keep tasting with them, daily small notes for them without micro managing them. More then once a week I do the small stuff like roll the cookies, make all the pie dough. I love making pie dough! I'll do the bake off in the morning while someone makes the scones. The stuff you would give to the beginning worker, I would do that once or twice a week. It gives the idea that no one is above that and that all of that adds value. 

AB: What's your five-year plan?
NR: We'll be owning our own bakery and I'll be part of a larger bakery or marketplace that puts out really awesome stuff. We have a lot of big dreams with my boss, for concepts and ways we can make the Gjelina brand bigger, do cooler stuff and change things. I love the introduction of Anson Mills. I want to source stuff. In five years, I hope we have an awesome baking book out and the bakery we're opening is flowing and producing awesome bread. After that, I really want to open a Mexican diner. I grew up in a Mexican-American household—native American and native Mexican. There are a lot of dishes and memories people would be really into. I love diners naturally and Americana food. I think you could really blend the two together and have a really rad concept. In a Mexican diner you would have a traditional Mexican breakfast. Breakfast is already a big thing like pancakes, but you could have chilaquiles and heuvos rancheros, really awesome. The other thing about Mexico is that when countries have been colonized and invaded, they left behind a lot of techniques that have been diluted, but a lot of them are very French and the pastries that they've made with those techniques could be elevated—especially in L.A., where our community has been really inspired.