A native of Long Island, Rachel Flatley’s passion for baking started at a young age. She was drawn to the kitchen, and would spend hours preparing treats for her family and friends. In 2008 she enrolled in the Baking and Pastry Arts program at Suffolk County Community College, and in 2009 she relocated to the North Fork. She quickly fell in love with the serene atmosphere, beautiful beaches and bountiful farms.
Shortly after moving, Rachel began her internship at the highly acclaimed North Fork Table and Inn, where she worked under the James Beard Award Winning Pastry Chef Claudia Fleming for three and a half years. After graduation, she began working as an Assistant Chef for Suffolk County Community College’s Baking and Pastry Arts Program, where she was able to hone her craft and inspire others in the field. She joined the Honest Man Restaurant Group team in 2014, which includes the restaurants Nick & Toni’s, Rowdy Hall, La Fondita, Townline BBQ, Coche Comedor, and Honest Catering. Total Food Service had the opportunity to talk to Rachel Flatley about her inspirations, trainings, and ambitions.
What experiences growing up inspired you to become a chef?
There were several people growing up that influenced and inspired my love for baking. My dad was one of my biggest influences – he’s the cook in the family, so I would spend a lot of time in the kitchen watching him make dinner. We would only have dessert on Sundays, so I started making a dessert to go with whatever feast he was preparing for Sunday Supper.
As time went on and my skills improved, I took over the Christmas cookie task from my older sister. My father would give each of his employees & coworkers a cookie tray for Christmas, and eventually this turned into a 4-day cookie bake off where I would bake upwards of 120 dozen cookies in my home. He’s been my biggest supporter and has always encouraged me to keep learning and keep reaching for my goals. My grandfather, noticing my growing interest in baking, arranged my first job at the age of 15 at the local bakery where he was a regular. This experience taught me so much and gave me a deep appreciation for the amount of time, labor, and effort that went into each and every dessert and pastry. I found the organized chaos of it all enchanting.
Tell us about your culinary education, what were some highlights of your time in the Pastry and Baking Arts program?
I received my Associates in Baking & Pastry Arts from Suffolk County Community College in Riverhead, NY. This program is a great program for anyone interested in the hospitality industry. The classes are intimate, rarely more than 30 students in a classroom, and maximum 16 in a lab, which gives you nearly one-on-one instruction. Out of the 4 baking classes we took, my favorite was the Advanced Pastry course, which focused on plated desserts. This class was taught by the late Gerard Molloy, who has been such a great influence and mentor in my career. Being located on the East End of Long Island, the school gave us the opportunity to meet and work with local farmers & chefs who have been forefront in the farm to table movement on Long Island.
Who are your culinary mentors and what were some of the most important things they taught you?
My biggest culinary mentor is definitely Claudia Fleming. I started working for Claudia at the North Fork Table and Inn in 2009 as a pastry cook and worked my way up to be Claudia’s assistant. North Fork Table was the first and most influential kitchen I’ve worked in and Claudia absolutely laid the foundation for my career. Claudia’s attention to detail, precision, hard work, dedication and excitement for food have stayed with me through the years. She’s been such a great mentor, and I try to be that person to others as well. When I teach my students at Suffolk Community College I will pass down some of the knowledge that I gained from Claudia, which always makes me think of her. And at work, there are definitely times I think “what would Claudia do?” – as silly as it sounds it definitely inspires me to do things the right way, which is not always the easy way. I think what I gained most from Claudia were the little hints and tips she gave me along the way, maybe without even realizing it.
My husband, Ryan Flatley, has been a great source of inspiration. He and his business partner Samy Sabil started a catering company in 2011 and opened their first restaurant in 2016. He has faced many challenges in his businesses, and each time he calmly and confidentially works through and overcomes them. He has taught me, and is still teaching me, how to be humble, how to overcome obstacles, how to be grateful, how to stand up for myself, and how to be confident in my abilities. Without him by my side constantly picking me up and rooting for me, I would not be where I am today.
Joseph Realmuto, the Executive Chef of Honest Man Restaurants, has been a great mentor. When I was hired for the Executive Pastry Chef position, I had pastry experience but I had never run my own kitchen, let alone a kitchen that manages the dessert program for 5 restaurants. He believed in me and coached me through the process of managing a staff, writing & pricing menus, ordering, training, and overall helped me find my rhythm. He not only supported me, but gave me my space to learn, make mistakes, and grow into the chef I am today.
You are creating desserts for multiple different restaurants with very different concepts at Honest Man Restaurants, how do you navigate creating such different menus?
Lots of coffee! The great thing about the company is that all of our restaurants are different concepts, which makes creating different menus challenging, but also fun. Since we create so many different types of desserts – from high end plated desserts at Nick and Toni’s to pub-style brownie sundaes at Rowdy Hall and whole cakes and ice cream pops at Townline BBQ – I never get bored doing the same thing over and over! It has really helped expand and refine my skill set and I believe it makes me stay relevant in more of the industry since I’m not only focusing on one type of cuisine or concept. Organization is key to making it all run smoothly, as well as having a great staff who puts the same amount of care, precision and love into each dessert that comes out of every restaurant.
Tell us about your Cakes & Confections company, how did it start and what sort of creations are you making?
Back around 2012, Miche Bacher was selling her cake business in Greenport and reached out to me to tell me that I should start making wedding cakes. At the time I hadn’t done anything more than a basic birthday cake, so I was hesitant about taking on a task as daunting as a wedding cake. Miche helped me through the ins and outs of the wedding cake business, and in June 2013 I made my first wedding cake for a client.
Being a pastry chef, taste is the most important thing to me – I make sure that each cake is as fresh and delicious as it can be. I offer a variety of cake flavors, as well as an entire dessert menu including individual desserts, tarts, truffles, and macarons. I handmake everything from scratch and put the same amount of care & dedication into my cakes as I do my plated desserts.
I am so grateful to Miche for encouraging me to take that leap, because cakes are one of my favorite things to make now. I take great pride in this business, because it is definitely one of the most difficult things that I’ve ever done. Every cake comes with its own set of obstacles and challenges, and each time one arises I learn and grow through it.
Do you have an all-time favorite dessert that you created?
One of my all-time favorite dishes I’ve created is a Raspberry Tart – because our local raspberries are so sweet and delicious, I serve them raw and make sure they are the star of whatever dish I put them on. This dish was comprised of a sweet tart shell made of a tangy raspberry mousse topped with loads of fresh local berries and simply served with candied pistachios and frozen yogurt. It’s simple, fresh, balanced and the perfect summer dessert to me!
What new kitchen technology are you excited about and why?
Although I know it’s not “new,” I am excited to become more familiar with sous vide cooking. As far as kitchen technology is concerned, however, I’m fairly ‘old school’ and don’t use much fancy equipment in my kitchen.
All Rachel Flatley and food photos by Eric Striffler