Susan Holding has a knack for taking a fancy to something and —voila!— making it happen, and beautifully at that. After looking for a weekend baking class, she wound up at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris, and ultimately left her nursing career for pastry arts. She became an entrepreneur and built a commercial kitchen in her home, which became The Little French Bakery and cooking school in North Freedom, Wis. She even started a farmers’ market in nearby La Rue.
That was 15 years ago. Her love of food has become the stuff that feeds the soul—hers and ours: She decided to try her hand at writing, photography and blogging and, just like that, now serves us her tempting new cookbook and Paris-days memoir, aptly named after her bakery.
The book is being devoured. Published in 2014, it sold out after Costco picked it up, is already on its second edition and an audio version also is available on Amazon.com. Holding talks to BRAVA about how her baking career was just the first layer of her newfound creative life that stays open to new possibility and embraces learning curves with a vertical climb. Like a delectable croissant, it’s made with certain effort that renders it multilayered and buttery rich.
Q: You were a good home baker who simply wanted to learn more. How did you leap from your nursing career at epic to the prestigious Le Cordon Bleu, Paris, to ultimately become a pastry chef?
When I was at Epic and traveling for work I had all these frequent flyer miles and thought I’d go away for a weekend class. The Le Cordon Blue materials arrived by accident. I went and absolutely loved it. I never set off with the intention of a career change—I thought I’d stay at Epic. But, I loved it enough to take the leap. I have never looked back.
Q: Was there an “a-ha” moment when you knew you had to leap?
I do remember exactly the day. I was rolling croissants [at Le Cordon Bleu] and thought, ‘oh my god, this is what I need to do.’ I got my camera out and took a photo of my workstation [to capture the moment]. I knew I was in way over my head, but that was where I was, and it what I was supposed to do.
Q: How did it feel to launch your enterprise?
It took two years to suddenly realize it was all mine, and that I didn’t have to do anything I didn’t like to do. How I operate now is that I figure out why I am miserable about something and then change it. I like deciding when I do and don’t want to work, and that anything is possible.
Q: Is there a common ingredient that connects all your pursuits?
I was always teaching as a nurse, and now. No one’s going to die in my kitchen—but I need to be time sensitive, accurate—there’s science in both [nursing and baking]. There is a finished product, and you’re working at a fine and finicky level—in pastry and photography.
Q: Your foodie inclinations have struck a creative chord. When you take on a new pursuit—such as writing and photographing a cookbook without any publishing experience—how serious is your prep work?
I went all over and took the best classes—from Joy the Baker in San Francisco, to Ireland with a French woman and food stylist, private lessons at The Camera Company in Madison, ACE Camps [for immersive learning]. I started commenting on Dorie Greenspan’s blogs and grew my posts there, then spun off my own blog. I went to the Alt Summit, a bloggers workshop, and sat next to the guy who created Pinterest. I went to the Writer’s Institute at the UW, learned to write a book proposal and the next year pitched my book idea there. This fall I am going to a workshop with Sweet Paul [foodie magazine] publisher at the Anthropologie campus in Philadelphia. I love to learn and want to know and surround myself with the best people who know how to do things.
Q: How do you describe yourself and how does that factor into how you’ve pursued interests, careers and passions—with a vertical climb for a learning curve?
I love a good challenge. I like immersion—I’m doing it again with quilting and sewing. I’m a messy perfectionist. I never lost time with doing something before, until I got behind a camera, and I never knew that I could or liked to write. That’s to me what passion felt like.
Q: What’s the best advice you’ve received about your new pursuits?
“You’ll be a food photographer when you call yourself one.” My cookbook designer, Amy Sullivan, told me that.
Q: What’s your best advice for women contemplating career change?
If you pursue your passion as a job, make sure you have a hobby. Be careful what you wish for. You know when you’re ready to make the change. It’s not magic—you work hard and learn what you need to learn. Some of it’s luck, but if you’ve done a lot to prepare yourself, you’ll look and see you’ve done the things to make you ready—then go for it.
Q: How do you just go for it—turning out interests that become passions and careers?
Maybe it’s because I am older. I’m fearless. What’s the worst that can happen—someone will say no?
Q: What’s next out of the oven?
I’d like to think there’ll be another book in me, maybe a children’s cookbook for kids ages 8 or 9.
– Kate Bast