My Half-Baked Life and the Pastry Job That Saved Me

This piece originally appeared on Tue/Night.com

Last summer, two coworkers and I left our jobs running a hip and lauded bakery in Brooklyn to start our own catering and cakes company. The plan had come together organically: We shared mutual affections, bonded over grueling workdays and were all possessed by a deep desire to pull ourselves out from under the never-ending task of producing someone else’s dream to ride high on our own vision. We conspired over margaritas how we together would take over the world — or at least the New York Slow Food scene.

The “plan” lasted a solid two months and eventually fell apart when a project shaped distinctly like something bigger than we could chew, coupled with an epic no-sleep, Adderall-fueled prep session flushed out our deeper natures. We pulled it off and the client was thrilled, but I was deemed both too soft and too harsh to enter into a long-term relationship with. The other partners pushed me out.

My ego was left battered, but — oh god — in no way would I for a second skip a beat or let it show that I was hurt or that I didn’t really know what to do next. I was perfectly okay! I would start my own thing! Oh, my partners and I just went our separate ways because we decided it would be better to carry forward as friends and not business partners — but we’re fine! Totally fine! I would, with effortless bravery, go it alone and live out the dream that would deliver me, airbrushed and in my lucky shirt, to the cover of Cherry Bombe magazine with the respect of all of my industry peers. In glaringly obvious hindsight, that would have been the perfect moment to step back, take stock and be honest with myself about all of the things that were driving me. But life, beautifully, does not work like that.

A decorative cake. (Photo: Lani Halliday/Instagram)

For me, becoming a pastry chef in my mid-30’s is a second act — but not in the conventional sense. I didn’t come from a glittering-yet-stifling career in publishing, PR or fashion. I always have and will likely only ever work in the food and service industry. It’s my first true love. Cranking out perfectly executed over-priced pizzas every Friday night for two years straight at age 16? Check. Waking up at 4 a.m. to bust out 500 identical loaves of organic artisan bread for four years straight at age 19? Yes, girl. Lead baker rocking out the early shift at a gorgeous little boutique allergen-free bakery in NYC at age 25? Mmm-hmm. I was always on time, never missed a shift and took the pride that I felt in my work very, very seriously. Somehow, though, there was a missing piece of a belief in myself that made me feel like a fraud who could at any moment be found out for being a phony little faker who didn’t actually posses the required skill set. What can I say — I came out of a super shitty adolescence with an even shittier sense of self-worth. When I got pregnant with my first kid, I was more than happy to dip out of the work force, move to London and stay at home with my babe in support of my husband’s rocketing career. I didn’t work a single day outside of the home for seven years.

I’ve come to realize that the reality of starting the business is that it doesn’t look like me with a shit-eating grin on the cover of a magazine.

Let me just say that, for a person who grew up in poverty, the privilege to stay home with my babe for seven years was, on the one hand, a deep and lusty luxury that was so intoxicating it allowed me to gloss right over the fact that a big chunk of my early career-building years were passing me by. I always held my first love in my heart and baked a lot at home. I’d turn up at my husband’s office and press beautiful French macarons into his coworkers’ palms. I whipped egg whites and sugar into glossy peaks and served juicy, gorgeous pavlova to the greedy individuals inhabiting my sister-in-law’s home. We frequently had more than two types of pie in the fridge. I starred in a TV commercial pushing butter. During this period, I talked a lot — a lot — about how I was such a supportive wife that I couldn’t manage to work because my husband’s work assooooo unpredictable and I was his rock. I held down the fort. I couldn’t possibly go back to work. Now, all of this was true, but the other hand obviously held within it the fact that I was hiding from doing the work of growing as an individual, facing the reality of my flaws, weaknesses and insecurities. Hiding from owning the power in knowing my own truth. Yes, becoming a parent pushed me to grow in countless and wonderful ways, but our lifestyle set-up was definitely letting me coast in the personal emotional development department. I definitely complained about the anxiety I felt at the loss of identity in being a worker, but I also definitely wasn’t doing anything about it.

Photo for 2015 Fall/Winter wedding issue of New York Magazine. (Photo: Lani Halliday/Instagram)

The leap of faith came when a separation from my husband gave me time and space to think and realize that I was the only one living my life. That I needed to own the fact that I am only ever going to be happy when I’m carving my own path and not just cruising along, spread out in the metaphorical backseat because I’m too scared to trust myself to take the wheel.

I went to pastry school, graduated at the top of my class and scored a grueling internship in a para-militaristic silent kitchen under a James Beard Award-nominated chef. I ground out 14-hour shifts for weeks on end, performing my tasks like a machine. I’d crouch for hours over stacks of tiny spiced tuile cookies, blast them individually with a blow torch and roll them by hand to look like miniature cinnamon sticks. Noise or mess of any kind was not allowed. They completely broke down the entire kitchen and scrubbed every single surface with a lock-step three-person team every single day at 1 p.m. and again at the end of service. Before that gig, I never even dared to envision myself having the discipline or skill to hold my own in a kitchen like that. It was the beginning of me building up a confidence I had never before had.

A Floral Knot Cake

Floral knit cake. (Photo: Lani Halliday/Instagram)

Back to that moment when the catering company broke down: Looming on the horizon of my production schedule was an epic wedding cake that I took with me from when there were three of us to share the work. I was terrified that I couldn’t produce the thing alone, and I would gasp awake in the middle of the night, every night for two weeks leading up to that cake. Lying in the dark, blanketed in self-doubt and counting down the days until I had to execute this thing that I felt unequipped to do, it still didn’t occur to me that everything I was afraid of was literally just in my head and that I had the power to change the narrative. I managed to pull my head out of my ass, pull together a plan and pull that cake together. That giant, crazy cake ended up being a beautiful success. The pop star bride who commissioned it was thrilled and, because the wedding was featured on a major fashion magazine’s website, I reveled in my first hit of press.

Snake Cake via Vogue.com + Noah Rabinowitz

Lani’s first hit in Vogue.com. (Photo: Lani Halliday/Instagram)

As I’ve continued to put one foot in front of the other, I’ve come to realize that the reality of starting the business is that it doesn’t look like me with a shit-eating grin on the cover of a magazine. Its gift is more subtle and beautiful than that. It has been the realization that the day-to-day running of the business is a mirror of the internal work to find, know and trust myself. That as I continue to create beautiful cakes, I will continue to get opportunities to be and reflect on the best versions of myself — to value and love myself. Instead of being so afraid to fail that I don’t even try, I put aside my fears and put to work the skills and talents I actually possess and work things out. I side-stepped my negative internal dialogue and stepped into a flow to style and produce work I had never believed I was capable of on my own. Before starting this thing, I was too afraid to even admit out loud what a sorry state I was in as an individual. Now, I’m confident and secure enough in my own sense of self to open up and share my story — and the best part is that it has only just begun.