This month, I’m interviewing our May site artist, someone many of you have come to know and love through your involvement in her bimonthly Practice Bakes Perfect challenges. Yes, it’s none other than the woman who works hard to push you to new cookie decorating heights, Christine Donnelly aka Bakerloo Station, also a wonderful decorator in her own right. Her often whimsical and always beautifully executed cookies, frequently centered around birds and other naturalistic elements, are hard to miss (especially now, as they’re all over our banner and backdrop as the winning May Practice Bakes Perfect Challenge #13 entry)! And if that’s not all, Christine is a recent Cookie Connection Milestone Award winner for her sustained and outstanding contributions to this site.
I’ve “talked” to Christine via email nearly every week, ever since she started hosting our challenges back in February 2015. Somehow we always seem to get distracted (and eventually consumed) by Cookie Connection stuff, so I’m super excited to have this opportunity to break out of work mode to get to know her more personally.
JMU: Hi, Christine! Congrats again on your Milestone Award, and thanks from the bottom of my heart for all you do to keep this site humming! Thank you too for agreeing to this interview on top of all of your other Cookie Connection duties. I am most grateful!
I’d like to start this interview back at (close to) the very beginning by asking about your first forays into professional baking and decorating. You mentioned in your contributor’s bio that you started your professional career at 16, when you were hired on the spot at your local bakery to work the counter and decorate cakes. So, were you born with the “decorating gene”, and was it responsible for you seeking out that first decorating job? Or did you stumble upon the job with your decorating interest blossoming later, after some experience in that bakery?
Also, how long did you work there and what sorts of cakes did you decorate? Did you ever decorate cookies? If so, what was your typical cookie order there? Phew, that’s a lot of questions! Now, go!
CD: First of all, I want to thank you, Julia, for inviting me to be part of your Cookie Connection team. I have thoroughly enjoyed the opportunity to work with you and the other contributors, as well as share the creative company of the greater Cookie Connection community. Art is a never-ending learning process, and Cookie Connection is a fabulous place to exchange, nurture, and experiment with creative ideas. So THANK YOU for all you do in sustaining this community of sweet artists!
Now, for your question about how I got started . . . I have been baking since I was in the single digits. My mother was a good cook, and an excellent pie baker, and I always felt at home in our kitchen. By the time I was a young teen, I was baking so much that even my family of six could not eat it all. And so, the day I turned 16, my mother drove me to the one bakery in our town, I applied for a job, and I was hired on the spot. I think there was some trial period, but I don’t remember ever being worried that I couldn’t do it. (Ah, youth!) At first, I mostly worked the counter and dipped cookies in chocolate and sprinkles, but soon I was arranging platters of “Italian” cookies (you know, the kind that are sold by the pound in most New York bakeries). Shortly thereafter, I was asked to try my hand at writing “happy birthday” on cakes and making buttercream roses. I picked up both skills pretty quickly, and the next thing I knew I was decorating custom-order birthday cakes and eventually helping with the wedding cakes. I worked in that bakery throughout all of high school, and into my first year of college. We only made buttercream cakes in the store, so buttercream was the only medium I used. Our bakery did not make decorated sugar cookies, and it was not until decades later that I even learned such things existed. At most, my cookie work at the bakery consisted of dipping things in chocolate and sprinkles or filling with jam.
JMU: What were some of the biggest lessons you learned about decorating while there? About life in general?
CD: The biggest lesson learned was that the customer is always right. The next biggest lessons were that your boss is always right, to always get to work on time, and to speak up and ask for a raise when you think you have earned it. I learned skills that would ensure that no matter what I did in my life, or where in the world I ended up, I had a fall-back job.
As for decorating, I would say that you should never underestimate the weather and its effect on your finished product. Our bakery was not air-conditioned, and it was pretty hard to make a lot of buttercream roses and get them to stay stiff and not melt under those conditions! Summers were humid and winters were dry, and you always had to adjust your frosting recipe accordingly.
JMU: Did you ever go to culinary school? Why did (or didn’t) you decide to go?
CD: No, I never went to culinary school. I went straight to college after high school, and then went straight to law school after that. I loved my bakery work, but I had witnessed firsthand how difficult it is to earn a living in that industry, and so I, instead, set my sights on a job that would be better for paying my bills! However, since I “retired” from the law, every once in a while, I do think about going to culinary school, more for fun than anything. There are some good ones here in Chicago.
JMU: I know, The French Pastry School has a wonderful reputation – and they are offering some shorter “summer camps” right now, which might be fun!
If you had to choose one or the other, culinary school or on-the-job (OTJ) experience, which would you encourage young people with aspirations of entering the culinary profession to do first, before all else? And why? (Even if you want to pick both, please prioritize! )
CD: I am not sure I can adequately answer this question, since I never seriously considered going to culinary school when I was younger. However, I would say that some professions benefit from on-the-job training more than others, and the culinary profession is one of them. (Law is another!) If I were going to go into the culinary profession today, I would try to get some on-the-job training before going to culinary school. I think the real-world experience better prepares you for your formal training. I also think that “pedigrees” are becoming increasingly in demand, regardless of field, and so, I do not think it can hurt to have a degree from a culinary school, depending on what kinds of jobs you are looking for within the profession. As someone with a culinary degree, perhaps you could lend some insight here, Julia!
JMU: Perhaps I could, but today is not my day to be interviewed! It’s all about you!
After that first job, did you work in other bakeries or food service establishments before going to college in 1987 and later to law school in 1991? If so, briefly describe your most memorable day on one of those jobs. If not, what was your most memorable day in your first bakery job?
CD: Sadly, I did not work in any bakeries after my freshman year of college. I might have, if left to my own devices, but I was a Watson (IBM) Scholar, and so I was guaranteed a paid summer job with IBM all four of the summers I was in college. It was impossible to turn down an offer like that to decorate cakes! And then, all during law school, to pay the rent and to get that indispensable on-the-job training, I worked as a law clerk for a couple of law firms in Chicago. During those years, I only baked as a hobby, and for some pretty outrageous themed parties that we used to host during the 90s!
My formal bakery days were a long time ago, so it’s hard to think of a single memorable day, but I have many memories of working Sunday mornings, when the line into the shop was usually out the door and down the street. We always had trouble keeping up with the demand for Kaiser rolls, and so we would have to pull steaming hot rolls off the baking trays as they came out of the oven to sell to our customers. As a result, I have very little sensation left in my fingertips, even to this day!
JMU: Did you ever think about going into the culinary profession and skipping college altogether, or going into culinary work after college? What or who sparked your interest in further studies and eventual practice in law?
CD: To be honest, I never really considered going into the culinary profession when I was younger. I was a band nerd in high school who took so many classes that I didn’t have a lunch period. At points during high school, I also worked as many as 30 hours a week in the bakery. However, it never occurred to me that I might make a career of that. Instead, as far back as I can remember, I wanted to be a lawyer (which I did become) or a politician (which, thankfully, I did not!).
JMU: During your law school days and afterwards, how did you channel your baking/decorating passion, or did you? Was it put completely on the back burner or were you able to further cultivate your baking and decorating skills along the way?
CD: Through all the years, I never stopped baking. I have always found it extremely therapeutic and deeply satisfying. Like many others, I baked for special occasions, birthdays, parties, the usual things. However, as a lawyer, I did not have much in the way of free time. (Clocking regular 60- or 70-hour weeks will do that!) It wasn’t until later, when I had kids and was no longer working as a lawyer, that I had more time to devote to baking.
JMU: Let’s fast-forward to 2012! By then, you had left law and were a stay-at-home mom to two kids. It sounds (again, from your contributor’s bio) as if you also enjoyed baking a lot then, but that you hadn’t yet settled upon decorated cookies as your chosen medium for artistic and culinary expression. Is that right? Can you describe how you happened upon decorated cookies, and when you had the epiphany that they would be the chosen medium for you? What was it about cookies that attracted you?
CD: I have always loved to make cookies. They were the first things I ever really baked, back when I was still a kid, well before my bakery job. But decorated cookies, I had never made, or even thought of, until I was much older, and, yes, after I had stopped working as a lawyer. I had made these rolled sugar cookies decorated with an egg wash tinted with food coloring for some years (you would apply the colored egg wash and then bake the cookies), but wanted to find a way to decorate that was more vibrant and controllable. One year, I just stumbled upon a recipe in one of the women’s magazines for roll-out sugar cookie snowflakes decorated with royal icing. I clipped out the recipe, and some months later, for Easter, I decided to give it a go. (I still keep that recipe for posterity’s sake!)
The Family Circle article that started it all for Christine! (January 12, 2003, pp. 125-6.)
This must have been around 2003, I think. I just kept experimenting with that icing recipe (I used my own cookie recipe) and practicing on unsuspecting friends and family. It wasn’t until I moved to England and joined Facebook in 2012 (yes, I am a late adopter, I know!) that I discovered that there were other crazy cookie people out there. Being exposed to so many other cookiers helped me to really take my cookie decorating up a few notches. Before then, however, I was really on my own, just learning through trial and error.
The thing I prefer about cookies, over other baked goods, is that you can work on them in bits over time (convenient when you are caring for young children), and they are a lot less messy and less perishable than buttercream. One thing I really enjoy about cookies as an art form is their impermanence. I think that’s sort of a wabi-sabi thing, right? I like the fact that I spend a ton of time on a set of cookies, and then they are intensely enjoyed for a very short time, and then they are gone. This forces you, artistically, to move on to the next thing. Of course, there will always be the photos, but the original art is gone and has literally become part of the person who enjoyed/ate it! What other artists can say that about their work?
JMU: I agree. People always ask me how I feel about my cookies getting eaten after all the hours that have gone into them, but I’d rather they be eaten and enjoyed than just admired.
Later in 2013, you founded Bakerloo Station, your cookie decorating business, with a presence both on Facebook and Instagram (@bakerloostation). First, tell us about the name! What’s the story behind it? And what did you initially set up Bakerloo Station to accomplish?
CD: I started Bakerloo Station when I was living with my family in England as an expat. The name is a mash-up of Waterloo Station in London (which was where my particular train line terminated) and the Bakerloo tube (subway) line. There is no tube stop in London that is actually called “Bakerloo Station.” But I liked that the name sounded both London-y and baker-ish. After about 500 attempts to find a name, Bakerloo Station was the first that was not already taken and that my family did not veto! My first runner-up name was The Baking Advocate (playing off my legal career).
Initially, with the support of some cookiers that I had met through Facebook, Bakerloo Station was merely set up as a place where I could share pictures of my cookie work with a broader audience. Beyond that, I did not have a plan! I just wanted to share my crazy hobby/obsession with other crazy, like-minded people.
JMU: Now, let’s fast-forward once again, but, this time, to present day. How would you characterize your Bakerloo Station business in 2016? By that, I mean . . . Is it dominantly a hobby, or do you sell your cookies too? If the latter, what’s your typical weekly cookie production? Do you operate from the house or from another location? Why did you decide to operate that way? Do you do any other cookie-related activities, beyond the Cookie Connection Practice Bakes Perfect challenges, like teaching or videos? (Lots of questions again, I know! )
CD: I bake purely as a hobby. Sometimes, I donate cookies to charity through auctions or other means. I do not sell any of my cookies. Because I do not sell to the public, I do all of my work in my home. I live just outside of Chicago, in Cook County, which does not really have a cottage food law (one was recently passed in Illinois, but it was not adopted in Chicago/Cook County), and so, if I wanted to start selling my cookies, I would really have to be working out of a commercial space. When my children were little, I used to bake in my home and sell to family and friends only, but as soon as people beyond those groups began asking for cookies, I researched and found out that we did not actually have a cottage food law, so I stopped selling altogether. I don’t think I ever made a single cent when I baked back in those days, though it did probably keep me from going insane when my children were little, so that’s worth something, right?!
I have not done any tutorials or videos, but have been thinking about it lately. I am definitely going to try to attend Tina’s upcoming chat with Mary Simone-Valentino to learn a little more about the video-making process. And I have been asked to teach classes, but so far I have resisted. I have never taught any sort of class, and am not sure I would be any good at it! Maybe this is a “healthy risk” that I should take myself!
JMU: Sounds like it! I bet you’d be a great teacher, judging from the clarity of your Cookie Connection challenges.
And what about that wise-beyond-his-years son, who you mention at the conclusion of each Practice Bakes Perfect challenge as the one who encourages your healthy risk-taking? And the rest of your family? What do they make of Bakerloo Station and your cookie passion? On a scale of 1 to 10, where 10 is extremely supportive, are they cookie supporters or detractors? (I mostly ask out of curiosity, as my husband is probably registering a 5 these days, on good days. I think he’s pleased that I like what I do, but he hates the proliferation of cookie stuff all over our house! )
CD: My family is pretty supportive of what I do cookie-wise. Since I mostly bake as a hobby, I have more control over what I bake and when. I think it is all much more stressful and impactful on your family when you sell or teach for a living. My family knows how important the creative outlet is for me, and is (I think) proud of my work. My husband is a bit of a globetrotter as a result of his work, so he is not around to see most of the mess during the week, and my kids, who are now teens, hardly ever leave their own rooms or look up from their electronic devices, so they rarely know what’s going on in the kitchen. It’s only when I have a specific special event deadline and my cookie-ing starts interfering with family weekend time that it ever is an issue. I’d give my family a 9 on your 10-point scale!
JMU: Considering you had such a positive and formative experience in a bakery when you were a teenager, why haven’t you opened up your own brick-and-mortar bakery? Do you have any aspirations to ever do so? Why or why not?
CD: Actually, my daughter is always asking me to open an English-themed brick-and-mortar tea room (with cookies!) here in our little town, but when I ask if she is willing to work in the shop 20 to 30 hours a week and weekends, I hear crickets! But seriously, while it would be a lovely dream, the way I see it, there is just no way to make enough money doing that to make it worthwhile. Rents in our village are extremely high, and I am doubtful that such a business could ever turn a profit. Plus, the hours are dreadful, the work is physically demanding, and there is a lot of weekend work, which is really the only time we now have to spend as a family together. I have so much respect for people who can open brick-and-mortar shops and really make them work. All I remember from my bakery days back in New York is how hard the bakers/owners worked and how little money they ultimately made. It really made an impression on me, for better or worse. Maybe if I could do something as flexible as Jill FCS’s Funky Cookie Studio, I would reconsider, but for now, I don’t see a shop in my future.
JMU: Let’s turn now to the topic of cookie decorating challenges. You clearly spend a lot of time posing challenges to stretch the skills of our members (again, thanks!), but what about you? What are your biggest cookie decorating challenges, or where do you feel you need the most stretching? And how do you plan to grapple with those challenges?
CD: Where to begin?! Painting for me is an ongoing challenge. I first started really painting on cookies about a year ago, and it is definitely a work in progress. I think I improve with each set, but it is always a struggle. I do not have any art background whatsoever, so I am constantly looking to other cookie artists and fine art painters for inspiration. I learned a ton about painting from Monica Holbert (The Cookie Cowgirl) when I was at CookieCon 2015. She was really the one who most inspired me to start painting on cookies. I have also found inspiration from other cookiers who do a significant amount of painting, such as The Painted Box, Dany’s Cakes by Dany Lind, Emma’s Sweets, Evelindecora, and You Can Call Me Sweetie.
Generally, I think it is always a challenge to come up with unique ideas for cookie sets. It seems like so much has already been done, and nothing is really new. And so, it is always a challenge to take a theme (especially one that has been done over and over) and really make it your own.
JMU: What were the biggest challenges you encountered when designing your banner and backdrop cookies (pictured above) that won those featured spots on our site this month? How did you address those challenges?
CD: The biggest challenge was creating a set of cookies that could be configured and reconfigured to fit the two very different sizes required for the banner and backdrop. I must have arranged and rearranged and photographed the cookies 100 times before I got it right. I found that it helped to have cookies of varying sizes, and A LOT of them! It also helped to have a decent photo editing program, so I could be sure that I was sizing the photos exactly as required. (I used iPhoto.)
JMU: Now, a question that came in from one of our members about the Practice Bakes Perfect challenges that you organize . . . how do you get your inspiration for them, and are there certain features of a challenge that make it a “good” challenge or “not-so-good” challenge? Please answer that last part both from the perspective of the challenge organizer/host and those entering the challenge.
CD: I see inspiration for the challenges everywhere. For instance, I have done two related to “cookie kryptonite” (aka personal cookie weaknesses), a reference that I found posted in the Cookie Connection archives by Mallory of ButterWinks, where I believe she coined the phrase and then had an animated discussion about the topic, eliciting various people’s kryptonite “konfessions.” Sometimes other cookiers suggest topics to me. Sometimes the challenges involve challenges that I face myself (the lettering and mixed media challenges come to mind). Sometimes I will see an amazing set or cookie or technique used in a Cookie Connection clip, and think that everyone should try to learn to do it!
I have been doing a lot of thinking lately about what makes a good challenge and what makes a not-so-great challenge, and I think the jury is still out. I will say, however, that the challenges with the best participation rates are those where the instructions are relatively simple and clear, and there is a single technique at issue. I think the better challenges are those that are challenging enough that the participants truly acquire new skills, but not so challenging that people are intimidated and sit out the challenge. In a community with a wide range of skills, that’s a fine line to walk! My hope is that all of the challenges inspire everyone on some level, and that the feedback is kind and constructive enough that everyone feels comfortable giving the challenges a shot. As my son always says, “It’s all about taking healthy risks!”
JMU: I think I fast-forwarded past the time in your life when you lived in the United Kingdom (UK). But I understand you lived there for a period of almost three years, between 2012 and 2014, before returning to your current home in Winnetka, Illinois. Is that right? Your life experiences both in the US and UK give you a unique vantage point for answering this next question: How do you think cookie decorating preferences and trends differ in the US, as compared to the UK or elsewhere in the world? Why do you think any differences might exist?
CD: I think that the decorated cookie craze that really took off first in the US has become a global phenomenon. And thanks to the internet, everyone can keep an eye on what every cookier in the world is up to, so, really, I think the differences from country to country and region to region are minimal. I am at a loss to think of any part of the world, at this point, that does not have some seriously good cookie things going on. That said, I would say that that the few differences I have noticed between the US and UK, from a business perspective, are that, in the UK, there are fewer established cookie artists, the laws are much more favorable to home cooks, and insurance is much easier and cheaper to obtain. As far as decorating preferences, I have not seen too many differences. I think people outside of the US expect smaller cookies (all of my UK-purchased cookie cutters are about half the size of my US ones!), and they tend to buy them mostly for very special occasions. It seems that in the US, people want cookies that are large (as with everything) and at a bargain price, and they buy them for every little occasion (or no occasion at all). I think the cookie competition (economically) is stiffer in the US.
Some of the bigger differences that I noticed between the US and UK were in the ingredients I encountered (from flours and sugars to meringue powders) and the availability of certain tools (from mixers and cookie cutters to food gels).
But really, with sites like Cookie Connection, we have become a truly global cookie community, with shared trends and preferences.
JMU: Let’s fast-forward one last time to three years from now. How do you envision the cookie decorating world being similar or different in 2019? And what about Bakerloo Station? What are your goals for it over that same period?
CD: Ah, well, I have spent most of my life setting concrete goals for myself to meet. But with Bakerloo Station, I decided I would make the cookies I wanted to make and just put them out there in the world for other people to see. I promised myself I would just let Bakerloo Station be a thing that could grow organically and see where it would go. Right now, I am just enjoying the ride; it is anyone’s guess where Bakerloo Station will be heading the future!
As for the larger cookie world, I see a shift toward more teaching than selling actual cookies. I think live classes and video tutorials are what people want. In three years, I would not be surprised to see more interactive video tutorials and classes, so that people all over the world can participate in live online classes together. I think that Periscope is the very beginning of this trend.
JMU: Interesting forecasts. I’d love to see more interactive online classes, but I hope they don’t replace the in-person ones. There’s nothing more gratifying than meeting aspiring cookiers in the flesh!
And, last but not least, a final question that I’ve gotten in the habit of asking many of my interviewees: If there is one thing you could change about the cookie decorating world, to make it better in the future, what would that be?
CD: That’s a tough one. I would probably say that I would prefer if the cookie world were more collaborative and less competitive. I would love to do a Practice Bakes Perfect challenge that involved a collaborative aspect. I think it’s in the collaboration projects that people tend to do their best, most creative work, and get to really enjoy the creative company of other like-minded artists.
JMU: Well, I’m all for a collaborative Practice Bakes Perfect challenge, and I know of no better person to pull it off than you! Thanks again for all the time you spent answering these questions - and so thoughtfully! While it was great getting to know more about you, I really hope we can meet in person, either in St. Louis or Chicago, one day soon!
All cookies and photos by Bakerloo Station.
Cookier Close-ups is the place on Cookie Connection where we celebrate the change-makers of the cookie decorating world. Whether forging new enterprises, inventing novel decorating techniques, or consistently charming us with their cookie decorating prowess, each of our featured thought leaders has redefined in his/her distinctive way how we interact, create, or otherwise do business here in cookie space!
If there are other cookiers you'd really like to get to know, please post requests in this forum. We'll do our best to round them up for an upcoming Cookier Close-up! Thanks!