... Leads to a sweet result
October 4, 2018 | Repost from 150ish - The Local Dish
As you know, here at 150ish, we love a good backstory. So when we hear that a broken engagement led to a spur-of-the-moment career change that resulted in a wildly successful business making some of the most delicious baked goods we’ve ever tasted, well, that’s something we have to share. Iesha Williams is the Michelin-trained genius behind The Salty Heifer (don’t worry, we’ll get to that backstory, too), an online bakeshop that’s dedicated to making the world a better place—one cookie at a time.
Here’s the dish. “I know I dodged a bullet,” Iesha Williams says, speaking of the breakup that became a catalyst for change in her life. “We were just not cut out for each other, but it was the best thing that could have happened because it propelled me forward. I kind-of left everything and started again at 33 years old.”
Iesha had always cooked. She came from a family that cooked and she describes her late father as a brilliant, self-taught pastry chef who had at one time considered baking as a profession. She herself was working in event planning, but meandering about from job to job. “I don’t really think I knew what I wanted to do, much to my mother’s consternation and mine, for that matter.”
One late fall day, Iesha was walking down lower Broadway and found herself standing in front of the then-named French Culinary Institute (now the International Culinary Center). “They were having an open house,” she remembers. “I went in, did the tour, and signed right up, deciding I was going to culinary school.” Noting that she did both the savory and the pastry curriculums at the same time, she says, “I have never regretted it, as labor-intensive and grueling as it was.” Working at the required internships, she started at the very bottom at restaurant kitchens, always the oldest person on the line and most of the time older than the chefs themselves.
Her first job out of school was as the pastry intern at the now-closed restaurant Corton in Tribeca. After eight months, she was offered a permanent position at Il Ristorante Rosi, which Cesare Casella (the dean of her culinary school alma mater) was opening on the Upper East Side. Iesha went from French pastry to Italian savory, staying for two years. In 2014, she returned downtown, working for Jonathan Waxman at Barbuto.
That year, Iesha’s mother received a cancer diagnosis, and her grandmother entered hospice at the age 105. “At the end of the year, when my contract was up, I told them I wanted to spend a little more time with my family,” she says. At Corton, Iesha had always made the desserts for the staff meals, noting that it became like her test kitchen, with the restaurant staff her tasters. “They always asked me why I wasn’t just doing this,” she laughs. Now she had down time and thought, “I’m not getting any younger, it’s time.”
The Salty Heifer was born—and is now in it’s fourth year. As for the name? Well, it’s a bit of a tongue-in-cheek play on salty and sweet. Salty is a southern expression meaning that you’re not really angry, but you’re just a little perturbed. “I always say that New Yorkers have this look all the time—you don’t really know if people are angry or not,” Iesha laughs, then tells us that heifer is an affectionate term for children in the Caribbean, but she also points out that you get some of the sweetest cream and butter from the milk of heifers because they have not yet birthed a calf.
And salty and sweet is an excellent description of Iesha’s baked goods, which include some decidedly non-traditional ingredients. Take, for example, her signature bake: The Salty Heifer, a salted chocolate chip cookie that is made not only with four different types of chocolate, but also smoked pork lard in addition to butter. Or how about the aptly named Kid Sister, which adds smoked caramel to the mix? Then there’s the ultimate for chocolate lovers: The Salted Caramel Bourbon Cake (aka The Crack Cake), with five layers of smoked, salted caramel (and a touch of bacon), sandwiched between six layers of rich, dark chocolate bourbon cake, frosted in chocolate ganache. (It’s pictured above. Admit it, you want a piece right now, don’t you?)
“Our flavors are very big,” Iesha says, “but I’m proud that they balance very well, because I’ve learned to marry the savory and the sweet. I think working in pastry actually helped me become a better sauce chef and the savory side taught me to not take pastry so seriously. Pastry’s such a science, if you mess up you have to throw everything out and start again, whereas with savory you can figure things out.”
Despite her use of some unusual ingredients, Iesha believes in keeping things simple: “What I believe is that we don’t have to over-manipulate things if we’re working with the best ingredients,” she says. “I can do all the molecular gastronomy tricks, but what I appreciate is to let the ingredients speak for themselves. You can do beautiful things with three to five ingredients, as long as they’re the best. I also use as many locally sourced ingredients as I can: my butter is from the Hudson Valley, my eggs are from New Jersey.”
Despite the array of cakes, cookies, and pies that Iesha creates (and yes, of course, she does custom work for weddings and other events), she is surprised that her best seller is Sam’s Sweet Potato Pie, based on her father’s recipe. “We sell it year round, and last year it outpaced the Crack Cake. I don’t know if that’s my dad operating from beyond or what,” she laughs. “This was his recipe, I tweaked it a bit to put my flair on it. We made a lot of pies last year. It’s labor intensive to decorate but I thought it was just going to be a seasonal thing. I finally had to get a dough sheeter machine because people want it year round. I’m like really, it’s 4th of July and you want a sweet potato pie? I had one customer in Arizona who sent us her own pie plates, so that she could pass it off as her own. She said, ‘please don’t make it perfect—my mother-in-law is always shaming me about my pie and I really want to blow her socks off this year.’”
As The Salty Heifer continues to expand, Iesha (who works with one full-time employee and two interns) notes that she’s fortunate in how they’ve grown, mostly by word of mouth from very loyal customers. After four years of online and direct sales at a variety of markets, she’s now having the conversation about opening a storefront. Whether it will be an actual store or a stall within a larger space is still open to question.
Whatever she decides, Iesha knows it will be the right choice. “The universe definitely put me in the right place,” she says. “I definitely believe that when you are on your course, the universe opens up. When you’re really doing what you’re supposed to be doing, it doesn’t get easier, but you have a direct path to where you want to be.”