The Gilman Street Gals: Christine Falatico Frey, Anastasia Widiarsih, and Clarine Hardesty. Not shown: Carolyn Wong

In a teeny tiny, dark commercial kitchen on a small shopping strip on Gilman Street in Berkeley’s Westbrae neighborhood, four full-time, female food artisans, and a few part-timers too, are turning out sweet baked goods that have earned them mad props in the Bay Area.

Think of these enterprising edible producers as the Gilman Street Gals. In the cast: Clarine Hardesty, of Clarine’s Florentines, who holds the lease to the kitchen, which is co-owned by Bob Kelso of Toot Sweets down the block. Joining her behind the stoves: seasoned wedding and specialty cake maker Carolyn Wong, whose signature style is simple, elegant, and artistic. Also in the mix is Anastasia Widiarsih, herself no slouch on the designer cake front, whose main focus these days at Indie Cakes & Pastries is baking scones, cookies, and cakes for wholesale café clients, including Saul’s Delicatessen + Restaurant. Relative newbie in the kitchen crew: Christine Falatico Frey of CiCi’s Italian Butterhorns; her sugary, buttery, cinnamon walnut cookies are featured holiday picks in the December issue of Diablo magazine — along with Clarine’s Florentines and June Taylor‘s christmas cake.

It’s refreshing to encounter a group of women bakers — some with extensive culinary chops, others with more modest home-cooking origins — who get along, help each other out, and have found friendship in an industry better known for its cut-throat competitiveness.

One of Carolyn Wong’s creative confections.
One of Carolyn Wong’s creative confections.

Carolyn Wong has the longest culinary resumé and the shortest commute. The North Berkeley resident can walk to the kitchen, where she’s been baking for the past two years, if she’s not hauling dry goods to work. “I began in this business over 25 years ago when it was mostly men in restaurants and bakeries; all that testosterone is not necessarily a bad thing,” said the 54-year-old, who ran her company from a commercial kitchen in Emeryville before Pixar bought the block.

“But I do enjoy working in a place where everyone genuinely likes each other and is super supportive.” With a degree in art from UC Berkeley, cooking apprenticeships in France, and culinary experience in fine-dining hotels and restaurants in the Bay Area, Wong has a rep as a pastry chef with creative flair, whose cakes have bridal publications buzzing about their craftsmanship, color, and style.

Frey, 48, is a former stay-at-home mom from Lafayette who launched her butterhorn business when empty nest syndrome hit after her two children went off to college. “I just felt like it was my time,” said the self-taught chef, who learned to cook sweet and savory Italian fare from her Nana. Much to her delight, CiCi’s has become a family affair: Frey’s daughter helps with baking, her son maintains her web presence and marketing, and her husband packs product and schleps boxes.

Cici’s Italian Butterhorns: Doing bumper business over the holidays.
Cici’s Italian Butterhorns: Doing bumper business over the holidays.

Her co-workers have chipped in to lend a hand too. “I’ve learned so much from the women in this kitchen,” said a grateful Frey, who has seen demand for her product take off in just over a year of operation. (Find her cookies locally at The Pasta Shop, Star Grocery, and Country Cheese Coffee Market; $9.99 for eight.) “The day Carolyn came in with chef’s clothes for me and said: ‘you made the cut and I didn’t think you would’ (I knew she’d been watching me) was a really big day for me. She’s excellent at what she does, a true master. It meant a lot to get that kind of acknowledgment from her.” Frey says the more experienced chefs have helped her with everything from labeling and licensing advice to weighing out ingredients and dealing with dough disasters.

Anastasia Widiarsih makes cookies like these for local cafés.

Widiarsih, who grew up in Indonesia where her mother ran her own at-home baking business, began her independent culinary career as a specialty cake maker too. Despite her own impressive pastry chef credentials and training, she was a bit nervous  about working in a kitchen that included Carolyn Wong, whom she called a legend in the wedding cake world.

But such concerns fell away quickly, Widiarsih said, when everyone got down to work. Today, much of her business has morphed into serving the wholesale market. She makes chocolate chip and salted chocolate cookies, along with carrot cake, mocha chocolate cake, and cheesecake, for Saul’s.  “I feel at home in this kitchen, which is just as well, because I spend a lot of time here. I work seven days,” said the 37-year-old single mom, who lives in Oakland and has baked on Gilman Street for a few years now. Tacy Traverso, Saul’s general manager said of her cookies and cakes: “We strive to support small, local business owners who are working hard to do what they love.”

Another holiday favorite: Clarine’s Florentines
Another holiday favorite: Clarine’s Florentines

Hardesty, who also hails from Indonesian heritage and a family of female bakers, hand picks who comes to work in the kitchen, in consultation with the other full-time chefs. She’s careful to select candidates who have like-minded values (made-from-scratch cooking with quality ingredients) and similar cooking needs. All the artisans are wary of sharing quarters with anyone who favors pungent spices — cross contamination with garlic or chili can ruin a delicate buttercream — which is one reason why INNA jam‘s Dafna Kory worked the night shift at the kitchen when she rented space here, so her jalapeno-infused preserves didn’t affect the smell or taste of other people’s products.

A former 2nd-grade school teacher, Hardesty, 35, also from Lafayette, has handed off the actual making of her florentines, a chocolate-covered Italian specialty, to chef Gerardo Gonzales (the only man in the bunch) and his sister Maria, without any hiccups in the kitchen. Gonzales gets along well with and assists the other chefs. Hardesty, who began her baking business four years ago, manages the marketing of her company and keeps on top of kitchen concerns (when a freezer breaks, she’s the one people call). Her sweet treats ($10 for six) are sold locally at The Pasta Shop, Berkeley Bowl on Oregon Street, and Star Grocery.

The camaraderie among these women continues outside the kitchen, with quick lunches at nearby Tiny Thai, Picante, and Vik’s, and birthday celebrations over meals further afield, including Ad Hoc in Yountville, Hawker Fare in Oakland, and Sea Salt across town. “There’s great chemistry and kindness among our group,” said Frey. “I think we’ll stay friends beyond our kitchen time together.”

In such a small space there are, of course, challenges. Work stations are tight and it can be tough if someone needs to stretch out to meet a big order. Storage and fridge space is at a premium too. And with only two convection ovens, there’s a need to negotiate so everyone gets their goodies cooked. All four women said that there isn’t a strict oven schedule, they simply communicate and everyone tries to accommodate. Somehow everything gets baked on time. It helps that Wong’s peak period — typically spring and summer — doesn’t conflict with the winter holiday production push that Frey and Hardesty encounter. Still, some among the current kitchen crop may need to move on to larger quarters as ramped up demand dictates.

But for now, it works. At the end of the day, from Wong’s perspective, it’s not worth getting stressed about obstacles that do arise. “It’s just food. As a society we seem to have put a greater value on it,” said the former college culinary teacher. “There’s nothing very glamorous about what we do. It’s just really hard work.”

“I tell the others: Do it because you love it, not for the money. I don’t think any of us in creative fields — chefs, artists, writers — should go into it thinking we’ll make a bunch of money. For every Brad Pitt there’s an actor who can’t get hired. Likewise, for every Rachel Ray there’s someone toiling anonymously in a kitchen — usually an immigrant — who isn’t getting any recognition and is working two jobs.”

For these four small-batch bakers producing a quality product in a convivial atmosphere that has found an appreciate audience makes the physical demands, long hours, and cramped conditions worthwhile.

Sarah Henry is the voice behind Lettuce Eat Kale. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

Shop Talk: The ins and outs of Berkeley businesses [10.18.11]
Jam maker turns hobby into thriving local business [02.11.11]
June Taylor’s way with fruit: esoteric, steeped in history [01.07.11]