Check out our latest interview with Katie Kopsick, local pastry chef at Gentle Harvest. We had a great time learning more about her profession, her skills, and the science of baking!
Where are you originally from? Have you been in the area for most of your life?
“I was born in Kansas, but my parent’s jobs relocated our family to Fairfax when I was 5 years old. I grew up there, and even though I’ve lived in different states and coasts since then, I keep coming back to this area. It feels like home.”
How did you get into being a pastry chef? Is this something you have always wanted to do?
“I started taking culinary and baking classes in High School, and got my first job in a bakery when I was 15. I’ve always liked working with my hands and the science of baking really appealed to me. When it was time to start thinking about college, I decided to go to culinary school- there really wasn’t anything else I could imagine doing with my life.”
Is your family into cooking and baking as well, or is it just something you like to do yourself?
“My grandmother was a great cook, and my dad is too , but baking was a journey that I took on my own. My parents have always been very supportive of my career and gladly eat all my practice pastries!”
Did you attend school for culinary arts? Or did you just teach yourself?
“I attended the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, NY. I graduated in 2005 with a degree in Baking and Pastry Arts Management. Learning and teaching yourself don’t end with school, however- each of my internships, jobs and mentors has taught me so much and made me a stronger, more well rounded chef.”
Did you start as just a regular chef and then narrow it down to a pastry chef to more suit your interests?
“I’ve always been drawn to pastry. I like that it is very exact- you can’t just “wing it” in pastry like you can with some savory cooking- there’s a process and a method to follow, and if you want to deviate from it, you need to know what’s going on chemically in your recipe in order to make changes. Understanding the chemistry behind the pastry is what allows you to be creative! I also love that everyone celebrates big events in their lives with pastries- it gives me an opportunity to be a part of everyone’s happiest moments.”
Robert Doane told us you have an impressive resume! If you don’t mind sharing, what are some other places you’ve worked at?
“When I finished school, my first job was as a pastry cook at The Inn at Little Washington, which was an incredible experience. I had never worked pastry in a restaurant before, which has a totally different dynamic than you have in a bakeshop. From there, I had the opportunity to move to NYC and I worked at Per Se making desserts for the restaurant, and later the breads. Virginia called me back home, and I took my first job as a pastry chef at Poplar Springs Inn in Casanova, VA. Working there allowed me to really be creative and define my style of desserts. Most recently, I was pastry chef at the Locke Store in Millwood, VA which allowed me to really make connections to the farmers and producers of the area and showcase those products in my desserts.”
What made you want to work at Gentle Harvest?
“I wanted to work at Gentle Harvest because I wanted to make good, local, humane food available and approachable to everybody. I love that Sandy is creating the framework to allow others to follow this path too, and I am thrilled to be a part of her dream.”
What is your favorite pastry to make?
“Asking what my favorite pastry to make is an impossible question. I love making them all, for different reasons, and it changes with me as I grow in my career. Lately I have really loved to focus on making bread. It’s easy to make things taste good when you’re starting out with things like fruit, or sugar, or chocolate. Those things already taste good, you’re just making them better. Bread takes a lot of skill because the ingredients don’t taste good on their own. It’s alive, and it undergoes a transformation. It takes a lot of skill to manipulate those ingredients into something delicious- you could spend your whole life baking bread and still learn something new from every loaf.”
Tell me a little about the ingredients you use – I saw on the Gentle Harvest website that you use meats that are organic, local, and non-GMO. Do you use the same type of fresh and local ingredients with baking?
“We strive to use organic ingredients whenever it’s possible. For the soda fountain especially, we are using organic sugars, local cream, no artificial flavors or colors, and no corn syrup anywhere. I am really proud of what the soda fountain has evolved into- I really wanted to make it a place where you could treat yourself to something delicious, and while it may not be “good for you”, it’s something you can still feel good about eating.”
Could you tell me more about being a pastry chef? Do you mainly make desserts, or do you make breads, muffins, etc. as well?
“Being a pastry chef encompasses many things, and each place I have worked, the workload has been different. At Gentle Harvest, I focus mostly on making cookies, cakes, ice creams and breakfast pastries. We also service the Hunters Head in Upperville with their plated desserts. Having both places to bake for allows me to stay creative and change the menu often.”
What is your favorite ingredient to work with? Is there something that you use in a lot of what you make because it is tasty or has a good baking element to it?
“My favorite ingredient to work with is probably my sourdough starters. I have two of them, and they have names- Jeffrey is my wheat starter, and Kevin is my rye starter. I find that giving them names helps you to remember that they are living things, and as such, need to be “fed” to get the right flavor out of them. Adding starters to my breads that I make allows me to coax more flavor out of them, and use less commercial yeast. I take a slow approach to making my breads- many of them are a two or three day process to create. You can get incredible flavor out of bread if you give it the time it needs to mature and grow on it’s own.”
What’s your schedule like? It seems to me like it would require a lot of planning and timing because of prep work and baking times.
“My schedule can be all over the place. I am so lucky to have a great team that is always ready to help! For Gentle Harvest, I bake most of the items at our prep kitchen, and they will help finish them when they get to Marshall. For me, what I’m making dictates my schedule- if I have to make our Maple Bacon Doughnuts (available on Saturdays), I have to be in to cook them between 4 and 5 am. If I am rolling our Whole Grain Croissants for our breakfast sandwiches, I often come in later and work late, so I can have the kitchen to myself; I can turn the ovens off and keep the kitchen a little cooler. It all depends on what I have to make that day. It keeps things interesting!”
Do you make the same things year-round?
“We change our menu at the Hunters Head every month, so I am able to work with the seasons and really showcase the bounty of what Virginia has to offer. At Gentle Harvest, we have things that are available year round- our famous oatmeal cake, for example, but a lot of items get a seasonal twist. We want people to come back and be able to get all of their favorites- but also to be able to try something new.”
Do family recipes play any part in the food you make? Are there any old recipes that you like to either use entirely or play off of in your own creations?
“While I have used family recipes in the past, many of the recipes I use for Gentle Harvest have been created and developed by the talented pastry chefs that came before me. I am always tweaking recipes to make them more delicious or consistent though- it all goes back to understanding the chemistry behind the recipe and being able to manipulate the ingredients to achieve your desired results. I look at every recipe as a learning experience and am enjoying putting my my mark on the baked goods we are offering.”
Speaking of creations, do you plan things out before you make them, or do you jump right in and experiment?
“When we’re planning menus, we usually start with an idea for an item, or an ingredient we want to feature. Then, we brainstorm how to best feature our idea, and how we can make it work for both Hunters Head, and Gentle Harvest. Then begins the recipe testing phase- everyone’s favorite! We will try out a few formulas, organize a tasting, and get everyone’s feedback. From there, we standardize our recipes and begin production.”
What would you say is your best seller at Gentle Harvest?
“As far as pastry goes, I would say our best sellers at Gentle Harvest are probably the cupcakes. There is something that really appeals to people about their own personal cake that is just for them. We make them in two sizes- large and mini- and always have chocolate and coconut on hand. We also try to feature one or two different seasonal flavors- this month we have apple spice, and pumpkin. People love them!”
Is there anything else you’d like to say about yourself, Gentle Harvest, or the delicious creations you make?
“I just want to say how proud I am to be a part of the team here at Gentle Harvest. Everyone here is so committed to our mission, and seeing it grow from an idea to a fully realized restaurant and gathering place has been such an amazing ride, full of challenges to face and successes to celebrate. I can’t wait to see what is next for Gentle Harvest, and I am so happy to be able to be a part of it.”