Standing in the basement bake shop, Amber Atkins says she’s a traditionalist. You know: butter, sugar, eggs and flour. The baguettes in the oven and pound cakes on a nearby rack attest to that.
But there’s an oil-based, vegan chocolate cake on the counter, not to mention vegan ice cream made with coconut and cashew milks.
This pastry chef, it seems, adapts.
If you look at the path that landed Atkins at Raleigh’s only AAA Four-Diamond restaurant, it’s a little untraditional. More than a dozen years ago, she didn’t necessarily love to bake. She hadn’t gone to culinary school. She was a recent high school graduate from Virginia Beach who landed in Raleigh because of her father’s career.
Atkins needed a job, and Second Empire Restaurant needed a pastry assistant. When she walked into the restaurant – located in a renovated circa 1879 home – she didn’t think she had a chance.
“I mean look at this place,” she says today while standing in the east main dining room with its white tablecloths, soaring ceilings and grand wooden staircase nearby.
She was hired, plating desserts at night under the guidance of executive chef Daniel Schurr, or “chef” as she calls him.
“He welcomes anybody that is passionate and wants to work,” she says. “This is definitely a teaching kitchen.”
For Atkins, it was a trial-and-error type of education. Learning by doing. She worked at Second Empire for three years, then left to work in a bakery. It wasn’t the right place for her, though, so she returned to the downtown Raleigh restaurant responsible for her first break.
Atkins learned the house desserts. She learned elements and textures. She was allowed to slowly develop. Atkins still gets a little emotional when she talks about getting a white chef’s jacket with her name on it and being promoted to pastry chef.
“Coming from where I came from, I didn’t think that was possible,” she says. “It was a great feeling to earn that trust from chef.”
It’s a trust she shares with co-workers in the bake shop, where a shelf with ingredients has containers playfully marked: bakin’ soda, cocoa pow and brown shuga.
Some say she’s too trim to be a pastry chef. There’s a difference between eating and tasting, Atkins laughs. It’s about quality control. Plus, she adds, the pastry staff has a lot of stuff—pots, bowls and strainers—to carry up and down stairs.
There’s an elevator, sure, but she doesn’t take it.