One of Tie Whittaker’s favorite courses in the BU Master in Gastronomy program was Food and the Senses. Students explore food practices and human senses through scientific, cultural and historical lenses. “In one unit, we learned a lot about how the tastes and smells of certain foods affect your memories,” says Whittaker (MET’12). “I loved thinking about that.”
One food from his childhood brought back particularly fond and vivid memories for Whittaker: his grandmother Angel’s buttermilk pie, with its creamy custard filling and buttery crust. The pie had such an influential effect that it inspired the name of her North Carolina-based dessert company, Buttermilk Shop.
Whitaker founded the company from her home kitchen in 2013. She started baking classic pies, pies, cookies and cakes, and expanded her repertoire over the years. Among its specialties today are inventive plated desserts, chocolate candies and truffles, and fun-flavored macaroons. Her desserts are available wholesale; she also does personal orders, including wedding and party cakes, dessert tables and catered events.
“Buttermilk Boutique started out as that kind of bakery back then, and has grown into a high-end, luxury bakery that incorporates the established flavors of my grandmothers’ recipes into innovative and stunning presentations,” says Whittaker.
But she still bakes a grandmother’s buttermilk pie and adds her own twist to other sweets. “I like to do things like take my grandmother’s recipe for red velvet cake and translate it into crème brûlée, or take her sweet potato pie and translate it into a mousse that I could put between a macaron à la brown sugar. It’s just fun to see how far I can push the limits, while invoking those nostalgic memories through the flavors.
Whittaker’s creativity has earned him some recognition. In 2021, she participated in the North Carolina Restaurant & Lodging Association’s 2021 Chef Showdown, which challenged a group of North Carolina chefs to create dishes using local ingredients. Whittaker won Pastry Chef of the Year for her plated dessert, The Aficionado, a chocolate cigar filled with realistic-looking smoked mousse that she served with buttermilk chocolate cake, a peach-infused whiskey ice cream, caramelized cocoa nibs, spicy miso pecan lace cookie, grilled peach sphere, and chocolate whiskey mousse and coffee bitters.
In the kitchens of his grandmothers
Whittaker’s love of baking blossomed from an early age, in the kitchens of his two grandmothers. She watched them skillfully work through each step of a recipe, sometimes helping them mix cake or cookie batters. “They were avid bakers and made things for their community, for their churches,” she says. “They taught me all the different types of cakes and what made them moist, and showed me why they loved to bake. That’s where it all started.
As a teenager, Whittaker dreamed of becoming a chef, but her family discouraged the idea. “My dad told me I wouldn’t make money as a chef and needed a different career path,” she says. He encouraged her to attend law school instead. Whittaker graduated from Xavier University in Cincinnati with degrees in political science and international affairs, then took the LSATS twice. “It just wasn’t the right path for me,” she says. “I went into this second test thinking I can’t do this. And that was it.
Whittaker moved to Inglewood, California to be near Angel and understand his next steps. The two often got together to cook for community and religious events. Their pies were always a hit and they decided to start working on a plan for a pie business. But soon after they started writing their plans, Angel was diagnosed with terminal cancer.
After Angel’s passing, Whittaker knew she wanted to pursue a career as a baker: “I had decided that I wanted to keep my grandmothers’ recipes, that was one of my biggest goals.”
BU Metropolitan College’s Food Program was the perfect combination of hands-on activities culinary training and the study of the role of food in the world.
“I was learning everything that I hadn’t learned to cook with my grandmothers, the science behind why choux pastry rises, for example,” she says. “Being at BU was one of the best times of my life. I met some really great people who I’m still very close to.
After graduating, Whittaker worked at two now-closed bakeries in the Boston area, helping decorate elaborate and spectacular wedding cakes at Cakes to Remember in Brookline, Mass., and moving from cake decorator to bakery manager. at Belmont, Mass., gluten-free bakery Glutenus Minimus, run by Natalie McEachern Costello (Wheelock’07).
In 2012, Whittaker moved to the Raleigh, North Carolina area to be near her other grandmother, who was also diagnosed with cancer but is now in remission. She landed a job as a pastry sous chef at the Carolina Country Club, an experience that provided her with intense on-the-job training. “I consider this work as the starting point of my fine pastry journey,” she says. “I’ve always been a baker, but I’ve never dealt with things like chocolate sculptures before.” She worked for a demanding chef, and her two years there were rigorous. “He was fast, thorough and kept the cleanest workstation. I learned about chocolate work, sugar work and more about French pastry. My love of chocolate developed there too, it taught me how to make sweets. In the end, I was more polite and credit my speed to it. I came out better chef.
Today, Whittaker is a pastry chef at an independent living center in Raleigh; she runs Buttermilk Boutique on the side (she has an agreement with the establishment, where she can use her commercial kitchen to make her ordered desserts). The mother of three works every day except Sunday, often gets up at 3am to start cooking and works 10 and 12 hour days. She prepares nearly 300 desserts for the residents every day. “I make two regular and one sugar-free. I learned they had their favorites: they loved chocolate and they loved pie,” she says.
Despite the early mornings and long hours, she says she has found her calling. “For me, baking is a stress reliever,” says Whittaker, who hopes to open a brick-and-mortar store near Clayton, North Carolina, later this year. “I get into my zone and I can let go of whatever is bothering me.”
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