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Daily Inspiration: Meet Hannah Ziskin

Today we’d like to introduce you to Hannah Ziskin.

Hi Hannah, we’d love for you to start by introducing yourself.
I started baking professionally in 2010, with a pastry internship at Chez Panisse in Berkeley. Baking has been a hobby since before I could read (please see photos of three-year-old Hannah, in a giant oversized tee-shirt, hair mussed, standing atop a chair to roll biscuit dough) so it was almost a given I would enter the field someday. From 2010 – 2018, I worked all over the Bay Area, from plating micro herbs with tweezers at Quince to baking ferment-y apple cider vinegar pound cakes at Bar Tartine, before I landed in my first pastry chef role at Nopa in 2015. I really found my “voice” there, and what better place to hone skills than a restaurant seating 350+ guests a night! I made so, so many gallons of french toast soak. When I moved to back to Los Angeles in 2018, I was exhausted and burnt out. I was ready to leave the industry entirely, which, while fulfilling and rewarding in many ways, was also mentally, physically, and financially draining. I rested, I caught up on all my New Yorkers, I took a coding class (update: this did not work out!), I studied for & took the LSAT (see previous parenthetical), and then… I took another restaurant job. Opening a new restaurant, I thought, will be the final level, the final push to see if I can make this career & industry make sense for me. Then about four months after the restaurant opened, the pandemic hit. When we all were sent home on March 15, I left the restaurant with a deep sense of unease and a 50 pound bag of Central Milling flour. What started as a few loaves a week quickly gifted to friends quickly blossomed into full-fledged micro bakery.

Within a week, I was baking almost 50 loaves of bread (in my home oven!) alongside a small menu of pastries and hand-delivering them around the city. As summer hit and I could no longer justify keeping my oven running at 550 degrees for 8 hours a day, I shifted my focus to cakes & pies, and my pandemic business, House of Gluten, really took off. The cakes brought me back to what I enjoyed about baking in the first place: it felt like playing again. I’m here in California working with the best & most delicious produce, crafting pastries that emphasize balance & seasonality & evoke an elevated nostalgia. The cakes are bright and light and covered in flowers, and they seem to bring as much joy to my customers as they do to me while I make them. And on top of it all, it seems like running my own business, where I make my own hours and design my own terms, has given me the space to love this work again. I still need to work on creating boundaries for myself (finding time to rest and recharge when you are not only the owner of the business, but also the baker, the delivery driver, the bookkeeper, the social media manager, & the dishwasher can be a challenge), but I definitely feel like I am finally headed in the right direction.

I’m sure you wouldn’t say it’s been obstacle free, but so far would you say the journey have been a fairly smooth road?
It definitely has not been a smooth road! But I try to be gentle with myself and to treat every bump or roadblock as a learning moment. When you are baking out of a home oven, trying to fit 30 loaves of bread into a residential refrigerator, there are gonna be some hiccups! I’d say one of the biggest struggles has been learning to set limits. I cannot say yes to every request for a cake that comes in, even though I desperately want to. And on more than one occasion, I HAVE said yes to every request and found myself awake in a cold, dark house at 4am icing cakes. This … is not sustainable. The food industry really has a way of asking-without-asking you to sacrifice for yourself for the good of the company, prioritizing profit and the guest above all else. I don’t want to work in that industry, but rather one where I can prioritize my own mental and physical health and (eventually) the mental & physical health of my staff.

Thanks – so what else should our readers know about your work and what you’re currently focused on?
My dessert mantra is “not too sweet” — I think that desserts deserve as much attention as savory foods when it comes to seasoning and balance, and frequently those elements are neglected in favor of something that is hurt-your-teeth sweet. Yes, desserts should be nostalgic and indulgent, but that doesn’t mean they need to be cloying and covered in sprinkles. My specialty is building layers of flavor into a seemingly simple dish. I want a slice of cake to be more than what meets the eye (although a glorious presentation never hurt either!) I use seasonal, local ingredients and try to let perfect produce speak for itself, I am generous with salt & acid and obsessive about keeping “sweet” as a background flavor.

Networking and finding a mentor can have such a positive impact on one’s life and career. Any advice?
Work for and with people who are curious. Folks who won’t answer your questions, or worse, make up answers instead of just saying “I don’t know, but let me find out for you” are ones to avoid. I’d also say that I’ve learned just as much from the folks on my staff than I have from those who are technically my “bosses” and frequently have learned more!

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Image Credits:

Molly DeCoudreaux

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