Meredith Tomason calls herself a classic career changer, but the truth is she didn't spend that much of her professional life as a playwright once earning an MFA in dramatic writing from Columbia University.
"Let's say I graduated, and within five years, I was a pastry chef," says Tomason, 34, over coffee at La Colombe, one of several D.C. locations that sells her treats, which she produces at Union Kitchen under the name RareSweets.
For her bricks-and-mortar debut, Tomason plans to combine her two passions. Her wholesale and retail space at CityCenterDC, expected to open this fall, will sell not only layer cakes, ice creams, cookies, brownies and breakfast hand-pies, but it'll also tell the story of American baking in the process.
"I've always been someone who enjoys baking, and I've always been someone who enjoys storytelling," says Tomason, the former pastry chef at Tom Colicchio's Craft in Manhattan.
The majority of sweets at Tomason's shop, she says, will be based either on family recipes or on recipes from one of the many historic cookbooks she has collected over the years. Each recipe, in other words, has its own story; it may be a personal story or it may be a historical one.
Tomason reads old cookbooks like some read novels, looking for clues about how the protagonist (or, in this case, the recipe writer) once lived. But she also reads them for the mystery inherent in each: How did early Americans, for instance, bake cakes in blazing coal-fired ovens? Why did the owner of a cookbook dogear a particular recipe? Was it the best one in the book?
"It's like looking into someone's closet," Tomason says. "What were their go-to things?"
The pastry chef plans to have cards available at RareSweets. The cards may include the original historic recipe or it may feature other facts about the sweets.
"There's going to be information in front" of the 10-seat shop (with patio seating for more), Tomason says. "I'm not going to force it on people."
Once she figured out her career path, the New Jersey native wasted little time pursuing it. She enrolled at the French Culinary Institute's pastry program and, upon graduation, started working at New York shops such as Magnolia Bakery and Tribeca Treats. Two years out of pastry school, she was employed at Craft, where she quickly rose to pastry chef.
"I loved it, and I learned so much" at Craft, she says. "But I knew once I finished with that, I was going to be ready to start thinking about my bakery."
And one of her first thoughts? Tomason didn't want to launch a shop in Manhattan, which she believes is over-saturated with bakeries. "I wanted to do it in a place that had a growing food culture and was kind of receptive to ideas," she says. "D.C. fit that bill."
Of course, Tomason also has an older sister who lives in the D.C. area. She wanted to be closer to her.
Tomason expects her bakery to start rather ambitiously, producing 10 cakes and ice creams daily. Her team will also bake cookies, prepare breakfast items and produce all the wholesale sweets you already find around the District. About half the cakes and ice creams, Tomason says, will be seasonally driven.
The pastry chef may even make doughnuts, although she won't have deep-fryers at RareSweets. "We are playing around with different techniques for the doughnuts," Tomason notes. "Right now, pan frying and baking are duking it out in the kitchen and in my head."
No matter how far back in U.S. history Tomason goes in search of flavors, she knows that many modern Americans still prefer the time-tested ones: chocolate, vanilla, strawberry, etc. Which is why she plans to cater to conservative palates, with hopes to entice them to more untraditional bites.
"I make a really good chocolate cake, and I tell you the history of it," Tomason says. She hopes those chocolate eaters will return another day and think, "I tried that and now let me be a little bit more adventurous and try the brown butter almond cake with cherries."
"If I can get people a little bit out of their comfort zone," the pastry chef adds, "that makes me happy."