It always smelled like butter and sugar at Grandma’s house.
“It didn’t matter — she could be making spaghetti, but it would always smell like butter and sugar,” Tie Whittaker, founder of Buttermilk Boutique, says. “And there was always a cake on the counter.”
Now that her grandmother and her great-grandmother have passed away, it’s moments like these, in the kitchen together, that Whittaker holds close to her heart: crimping piecrusts together. Creaming butter and sugar. Licking the beaters real clean.
Today, Whittaker keeps the matriarchs’ memories, and their recipes, alive through Buttermilk Boutique, her Clayton-based pastry business that focuses on fine Southern pastries and confections using locally sourced ingredients. Our State sat down with Whittaker to learn more about why family is essential to the success of her business, and how one homegrown business can shape a community.
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OS: Where did you get your passion for baking?
Whittaker: That started before I could reach the stove. My grandmother and great-grandmother were both phenomenal bakers, so growing up and being in the kitchen with them is really where I got my start. Baking always seemed so effortless for them, even if they were trying something new. It just came naturally to them, and they loved it. They baked for everyone and used their baked goods to show people they loved them and supported them.
OS: As a baker, what skills and techniques do you try to emulate from watching your grandmother in the kitchen?
Whittaker: When I first learned how to bake, I relied a lot on books because I didn’t have that confidence, but for my grandmother it was just so effortless. She would add vanilla, taste the dough, and know if it needed more. Or she’d taste it, and if it didn’t have enough sugar, she’d add a bit more sugar, or maybe we needed a bit more salt. I watched, and I couldn’t wait to get to the point where I could think like that: maybe it doesn’t come out perfect, but just to have that confidence to add a little more or take something away.
OS: Your roots as a baker are in traditional, Southern desserts; however, you have also earned a master’s degree in gastronomy, studied abroad, and worked in a number of professional kitchens. How do those experiences come together under the Buttermilk Boutique brand of “Southern flavors with a fine pastry twist”?
Whittaker: Buttermilk pie was the first pastry I learned to make. It was the foundation for everything my grandmother did, so I thought it was a good place to start. But I’m not just a Southern girl who only knows about sweet potatoes and other Southern foods. I like to add different flavors from my time in India and Germany, and from my experiences in the culinary world.
OS: In 2014 you left your job as the pastry sous chef at the Carolina Country Club to focus on Buttermilk Boutique. What was going through your mind when you made the decision to become an entrepreneur?
Whittaker: The biggest thing was knowing I could create the same things that I was making at the Carolina Country Club, but on my own terms. I wanted something not just for myself, but for my family. I had gotten all of the experience I thought I was going to get from someone who could teach me. I think the rest has to come from your own ambition, drive, and desire to know more and learn more. It’s important to experiment with flavors on your own instead of waiting for someone else to teach you or show them to you. So I thought, It’s time. I’ve gotten to know the basics, and now it’s time.
OS: A quick scroll through your Instagram page shows the diversity of products you can create, from wedding cakes to homemade marshmallows to pistachio crème brûlée. What are some favorite desserts that you’ve created?
Whittaker: Chocolates and truffles are my specialty. Chocolate is a wonderful medium for both sweet and savory things, so that really opens up the opportunities for what you can pair together and create in terms of chocolates, truffles, and confections. But then there are also the simple-but-beautiful — red velvet croissants with cream-cheese custard, sweet potato babka, purple sweet potato pie. Those are beautiful to me because they’re flavors from my childhood that can be transformed into something modern. It’s a little bit of nostalgia, with a little bit of modern technique.
OS: Baking has changed a lot since your great-grandmother and grandmother started doing it. How have advancements in baking technology allowed you to grow Buttermilk Boutique?
Whittaker: As a baker, electricity is vital, because it allows me to expand baking from a passion into a business. Making pastries is an old art form that used to always require hands-on, time-consuming attention. By using modern electric tools, like my stand mixer, baking is now something I can do more quickly, so I can do more of what I love to do.
OS: As a home-based business, some might expect Buttermilk Boutique’s next step to be opening a brick-and-mortar location, but you’re not so sure. Why is that?
Whittaker: I’m at a crossroads, because I love Clayton and its small-town charm, and I think a brick-and-mortar here would be something that I’d want. A lot of folks have told me that they need someone like me; we don’t have a lot of fine bakeries around here, so I think that would be great for the Clayton community. But then I also want my family to be road warriors; I feel like you rarely see pastry food trucks, and my traveling spirit won’t let me be still for too long. I like the idea of having something mobile that can go place to place and spread the word of Buttermilk Boutique — maybe there’s potential for a brick-and-mortar location with the pastry food truck out back!
OS: While home-based business owners face some challenges, running your own business is also an exciting and empowering experience. What do you get most excited about during day-to-day life at Buttermilk Boutique?
Whittaker: It’s when I’m in the final stages of completing a big wedding cake, birthday cake, or any pastry that takes fine detail. It’s like winning the lottery. When a client comes to me with a grandiose idea, I say, yes, and a part of me in the back of my mind is like, “Oh, can you really?” And then when I do, it’s like “Yes, I can!” Then it feels like I can do anything. So, if you can imagine that each time you complete a cake, that’s what it feels like — like I nailed that picture, or I nailed that flower she wanted, or that color is spot-on. It feels good.