During the pandemic, Hattie McDaniel went from leading the pastry team at Cunningham Restaurant Group to building her own business that leverages her experience in restaurants while also giving her time for a life that wasn’t possible with 80-hour work weeks. Now that the flour dust has settled, we caught up with McDaniel—between her Ivy Tech classes, Zoom tutorials, and competitive powerlifting sessions.
What are your days like now?
I’m doing a lot of different things that fill my creative urge and also make money. I’m an adjunct instructor at Ivy Tech where I teach Intro to Baking, Baking Science, Classical Pastry, and Yeast Breads. It’s part time and varies based on enrollment and class schedule, so I also teach Zoom classes to home bakers. I also do recipe development for restaurants and other food businesses.
Early in COVID, Sahm’s hired you to help launch and oversee its Coffee Cake of the Month program, and now you’re consulting with other restaurants, including Main and Madison Cafe in Franklin. What are those business relationships like?
It depends on what the company needs. Ideally, they have a core menu, and I’m giving creative input and tweaking it. I think about what fits their brand and restaurant concept and start doing recipe development from there. Once I come up with a good recipe or flavor profile, I take it to their team and train them on how to make it. The places I work with have really great people on their staff already. They just don’t always have time to think outside the box. They’re so busy with their day-to-day tasks that there aren’t any extra hours to play around or test different flavors. That’s where I come in. With Sahm’s, their original sour cream coffee cake is a traditional family recipe so I couldn’t really touch that, but I like the versatility of it, and I can play around a lot with different fillings and textures to get a totally different flavor profile.
You earned a reputation as a pastry prodigy when you helped open Cunningham Restaurant Group’s Vida in 2016 at the ripe old age of 22, then led the team that opened Croute, CRG’s first standalone bakery, in 2019. How do you feel now when you look back on that time?
I’m appreciative of it, but it was also really difficult. It was 60 to 80 hours of work every week, and I was not in a good place mentally. It paid off because I got the respect and attention of the city, but it wasn’t sustainable.
You must have had mixed emotions, getting so much attention and responsibility on the one hand and struggling with the schedule and workload on the other.
I learned how to wear a lot of hats and to compartmentalize because I was producing for the storefront bakery, plus all the different CRG restaurant menu concepts. I really had to be able to shut off one side of my brain and focus on one concept at a time, which is helpful now because I’m working for more than one business. I have to think in different terms now—does this fit the Main and Madison brand? Does it fit the Sahm’s brand? Not just what I want to do, but what actually fits their companies. It taught me that I need to set boundaries to protect my brain and tell people when I’m at my limit. During that time when I was working so hard, I noticed such a decrease in my creativity because I was in survival mode.
Croute closed within a year, and then restaurants were shut down for a while at the beginning of COVID. You left CRG during that time. What was that like after such a whirlwind four years?
During the beginning of COVID, I thought we were going to go back pretty quickly. And then I remember realizing one day that we weren’t going to go back for a while, and they probably were not going to have a position for me because it wouldn’t be necessary anymore to have that specialized pastry chef role. I felt a sense of relief to not have to carry that load. The combination of the company’s expectations and my expectations had been crushing. It was a chance to create my own opportunities. That’s when I started doing the Zoom classes for home bakers.
I took one of your Zoom classes at the beginning of COVID and was amazed at how much I learned in just a few hours on a Saturday afternoon. What’s it like for you to be teaching people remotely, with you in your kitchen and the rest of us in our own homes?
I really like it. The hardest part is keeping up with everyone’s individual kitchens and making sure I’m keeping the class at a good pace. I want to make sure everyone gets enough attention and nobody’s falling behind. I really slow down and repeat myself a lot, making sure that I’m tuning in to what every student is doing.
What should people expect when they sign up for a class?
I supply a shopping list with all the ingredients two weeks in advance, as well as an Amazon wish list of supplies that might be hard to find locally. For instance, I did a creme brûlée class and sent everyone a list of torches and where they could get them if they wanted to have one in their own kitchen. The classes are designed for beginners, and you don’t have to know anything about baking. I guide everyone through every step of the recipe, and then I’m there for them before and after the class if they have questions.
What’s a pastry or dessert that is harder to get right than people think?
I think one thing that people think is going to be really easy is a batch of cookies, but a lot can go wrong with a basic cookie—not creaming the batter enough, overmixing everything, or mis-measuring the ingredients. There are so many nuances. And that’s why I think the Zoom classes are so beneficial. Because I can show you exactly what mine looks like up close on the screen.
What about something that’s easier to make than people think?
What’s your personal favorite dessert to eat?
I love a good soft serve ice cream. And danishes. So much work goes into them, and it’s a complicated process. You have to respect the danish.
You have a long career ahead of you, but when you look back, is there a particular dish or pastry you’re most proud of so far?
Definitely the ricotta doughnuts at Vida. That will be my legacy. We were working on developing a doughnut recipe for the opening, and I was inspired by my grandma’s dumplings for the texture. That was the starting point of the recipe, and it really blew up from there. There have been a lot of other desserts I’m proud of, but that sticks out the most.
You have this whole other side to you that surprises a lot of people. You’re a competitive powerlifter. First, a basic question. What’s the difference between a powerlifter and a bodybuilder?
Bodybuilding is when you go on stage and flex, but powerlifting is just based on strength.
How did you get into that?
My husband is a strength coach, and he got me into lifting when we started dating eight or nine years ago. Then about six years ago I started taking it more seriously and started competing. We’re hoping to go to Nationals again this summer. We compete in the USA Powerlifting Federation because it’s a drug-tested competition, so you know everyone is natural and clean, and you’re not competing against people who are on steroids.
What’s the most you’ve ever lifted?
We went to a competition this past fall, and I had a deadlift personal record of 165 kilos, which is 363 pounds. I like to compare that to bags of flour. It would be eight 50-pound bags. So, I just picture four 50-pound bags of flour on each side of the barbell. It would be funny to have a graphic of that.
Why do you think you love the sport so much?
I’ve always been a bulkier girl. I was on the swim team and have broad shoulders. With powerlifting, it’s not about how you look, it’s about how strong you feel. You don’t have to depend on anyone else; the harder you work, the more you’ll improve. When I was working so much at Cunningham, training was a good time to be on my own. It was just me, the barbell, and my own strength.