Food & Drink You get what you knead

Jenny Mattingsley has overcome sexism and hard financial times to become one of SA's finest bakers

It's Sunday afternoon at Paesano's Bakery. Technically, the shop is closed. The pastry case is nearly empty; just a few plates of scones, cookies, and muffins remain. But even as a fan blows the last heat of the ovens out the door, a lingering smell of sweets, flour, and bread hangs heavy in the air and beckons customers. An elderly fellow wanders in and buys a single cookie, while two women choose an assortment of bread, and another asks if they sell bagels - no - and leaves with a ciabatta. The man returns: "I wanna buy some more of those cookies. I tasted them and they're good."

Baker Jenny Mattingsley stands among some of the morning's creations at Paesano's Bakery. (Photo by Mark Greenberg)

"It's hard. I don't know how businesses do that thing where they just shut down," says Jenny Mattingsley, the bakery's pastry chef and kitchen manager (which translates to chief baker and bottle-washer), who has been here since 4:30 a.m., late by her standards. "I have a hard time doing that."

Largely self-taught, Mattingsley has been a baker for 27 years. In that time, she has moved back and forth across the country, married and divorced, experienced the thrill of starting a bakery and the disappointment of closing it, and, along the way, learned how to turn the other cheek on the sexism of professional kitchens. But, if Mattingsley has had some hard dough to knead over the years, she has emerged successful, and as dedicated to the craft as ever.

In 1978, while a student at the University of Texas-Austin, she took a part-time job behind the counter at Sweetish Hill, one of the first French bakeries in the U.S., mainly because it was close to where she lived. Until then she had baked only for fun. "I made my first Bush de Noel in High School," she says, "but I never thought of it as a career. I was always attracted, but maybe it was just sort of latent within me."

At Sweetish Hill, that changed. "It was so intriguing, I really felt they were artists," she says. "They were creating something that was so practical, yet with an artist's passion. It really appealed to me.

"I begged them to let me into the kitchen, but it was the people themselves that inspired me. I consider Patricia Bauer-Slate `the owner` one of my mentors."

Two years later, Mattingsley abandoned college and moved to New York to help start Sarabeth's Kitchen. "At Sarabeth's I really learned the challenge of doing something on my own, of pushing." she says. "I've always tried to do things I maybe wasn't qualified to do. That's how I learned."

She eventually left New York for a job in Seattle at Boulangerie, then considered one of the best French bakeries in the country, where she worked with a Vietnamese baker. Unfortunately, he wasn't entirely happy about having a woman in the bakery, a bias Mattingsley has had to face throughout her career. "I wasn't hired at one job I applied for because they didn't think I could lift a 50-pound bag of flour," says Mattingsley. "I'm sorry, almost any woman can lift a 50-pound bag of flour."

Bakers with foreign training are the most resistant to women, says Mattingsley, especially those trained in the European tradition of cooking and baking - frequently dominated by mostly male guilds - where women have only begun working in professional kitchens in the last 10 to 15 years. Yet, even in the ostensibly liberated U.S., old arguments still arise: Baking is too physical and women always quit to raise families.

"It's only a matter of not being accustomed to seeing women in the kitchen," says Mattingsley. "Once they see that you can work, that you are as capable as anyone else in the bakery, they come around. It hasn't held me back."

"The best pastry chefs are women because they have the patience," concurs chef Mark Bliss. "`Mattingsley` is one of the hardest-working people I've ever known. I've never experienced her saying no to a customer. She just got in there and kicked butt."

Yet, she would never have met Bliss had she not played to the stereotype. In 1987, Mattingsley married a chef in Seattle. They moved back to San Antonio to raise a family and Mattingsley quit baking. Two years and two children later, they divorced and she went back to work. She called Bruce Auden - "because he was the only chef I knew" - and was introduced to his wife Debra, also a baker, and Mark Bliss. She worked with Bliss at Pour la France for four years before moving to Biga to work with Debra Auden at its LocuStreet Bakery.

"Jen has always been her own person, just doing what she's doing," says Bruce Auden. "Nothing's too difficult, too heavy, or too hard. I don't remember her looking at recipes, either."

Eventually, Mattingsley and Debra Auden left Biga to open Bakersfield bakery on McCullough in Olmos Park. Like LocuStreet, it became the source for artisan breads, pastry, and cakes, along with the bakery at Farm to Market. But it was not to last.

Debra Auden left Bakersfield after nine months to raise a family and, with "a lot of expensive equipment" to pay for, Mattingsley says she "learned a lot about business the hard way; there was an absolute obligation to make money." After four years, the bakery closed. "It was sad, because a lot of people had made the bakery a part of their daily lives," she says. "`Despite financial problems,` I think we'd still be around today if we hadn't done wholesale. We thought we'd expand the client base, but it turns out there's a limited number of people for this kind of bread."

Mattingsley says the local market is slower to accept artisan breads, such as the crusty peasant loaves she sells at Paesano's, because they're used to soft, white breads. "Some people don't like my bread initially," she says. "They think it's stale or over-baked `because it's crusty`, but with time they come around."

These days, Mattingsley seems content to straddle the line between restaurant supplier and retail bakery. Though securely attached to Paesano's restaurant (bread that hasn't sold by 2 p.m., when the bakery closes, is sent to Paesano's, which is why it has the city's most varied bread plate), Paesano's Bakery has its own customers, who come to the bakery for its broad range of bread, from Italian peasant and sesame durum breads to stuffed ciabatta, cranberry walnut, and kalamata olive loaves.

Despite initial resistance, Mattingsley says the bakery has sold twice as much whole-grain bread this year, most likely due to a higher level of health consciousness. The trend has allowed the bakery to create interesting multi-grain breads such as the apricot pistachio, a current Mattingsley favorite, and the irresistible oven-dried tomato with pine nuts.

Although the fan has been churning away in the open doorway, it seems to have made little difference in the level of humidity inside the bakery. Mattingsley's light red hair is pressed against her forehead with perspiration, and there is still a full proofing rack of bread to bake. "It's really hard to find people to bake in San Antonio; they don't exist," she says. "It's hard work, the hours are terrible, and you're selling a low-cost product, so there's a limit to what you can pay ... you just have to love it."

By Ron Bechtol and Susan Pagani

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