Peanut butter cupcakes with fresh homemade jelly in the center. Double chocolate espresso cookies. Chocolate mousse sitting on a chocolate cake coated with a chocolate glaze.
Is your mouth watering yet?
These are just a few things that pastry chef Tiffany MacIsaac, 31, may be selling in her shop, Buzz Bakery, in Alexandria, a sunny and colorfully painted place where people come to relax and enjoy sweet treats.
But behind the smiling cashier and the neon Buzz sign is a small kitchen where MacIsaac and her staff of five spend long hours trying to make all the cookies, cakes and brownies perfectly.
“This is a really intense work environment,” MacIsaac says, painting little fondant (that’s a type of icing) flowers shades of red before putting them on a wedding cake. “Working here is hard.”
On a recent Friday, MacIsaac’s workers move around the kitchen, cracking eggs, checking recipes, decorating cakes. The space is full of kitchen tools: bowls, whisks and a big, 40-quart mixer. On a shelf overhead are containers of nuts, salt, nutmeg and cinnamon sticks, among other things. Underneath the counter, four huge buckets (each probably about half the size of your parents’ laundry basket) are filled with buttercream icing.
On most Saturdays, MacIsaac and her staff make about 500 cupcakes, 150 giant cookies, 75 scones, 30 cinnamon rolls and 80 croissants for the Alexandria shop. In a week, they make about 60 birthday cakes and two wedding cakes.
And for each of the sweet treats, MacIsaac aims for perfection.
“On the surface, it’s just cupcakes [and other sweets,]” MacIsaac says. “But it’s more. We want people to be elated with happiness.”
MacIsaac grew up in Hawaii, where she played soccer and was active in her high school theater department. She ate a lot of fish because she lived close to the ocean, but “I didn’t grow up in a food family,” she says. When she was 18, she moved to New York City and got a job at the famous FAO Schwarz toy store, where she dressed up as Barbie and greeted all the customers. She thought she wanted to be a dancer on Broadway.
“But then I met food,” she says. One night she tried something called beef cheeks, which is a type of meat.
“Oh, my gosh! What is this?” she remembers thinking. “I realized, ‘Wow! There is so much more [to food.]’ ”
MacIsaac went to cooking school in New York, and it was there that she fell in love with baking. “I loved the beauty and creativity in making desserts, but it is balanced with the need for precise measurements. It lets me use all the parts of my brain.”
After that, MacIsaac worked her way up the food chain (get it?), working at different restaurants doing what’s called “trailing” or “staging.” That means she chopped or boiled whatever the executive chef (that’s the head chef) or the sous-chef (pronounced soo chef, the second in command) wanted.
MacIsaac moved with her chef husband to Washington, where together they worked at the restaurant Birch & Barley. Today, in addition to baking for the two Buzz shops (there’s also one in Arlington), MacIsaac is responsible for creating desserts for six restaurants.
At one of her restaurants recently, the mixer broke. MacIsaac had to figure out where to find another mixer, and fast! On some nights, the orders for desserts keep coming in faster and faster, and it’s hard to keep up. Chefs call this being “in the weeds.”
“It’s not uncommon for the cook to cry,” MacIsaac says. “To many, being a chef is like being a doctor. That’s how seriously we take it.”
Despite the stresses, MacIsaac says, she loves what she does. Every day is different, and every day she gets to be creative.
“A good chef has to go with the flow and think on your feet,” says MacIsaac, who rarely takes a day off. “Your world becomes the restaurant. . . . You have to love it.”