Once Harriett Wilson wore business casual and a white lab coat to work. These days she’s rockin’ “dessert pants” and cupcake socks.
Chief pastry chef and marketer of her enterprise, Pastry4U, Wilson offers her bakery goods on Saturdays at HarborMarket and by special order.
Two years ago Wilson embarked on her second career as a baker after three decades of working in science and technology. Launched in 2017, Pastry4U took 14 years and a trip to France to come to fruition.
Talking with the News on a recent Monday morning from her base of operations in the basement of First United Methodist Church, Wilson traced her journey from science lab to commercial kitchen.
Originally from Chicago, Wilson was a trained biologist who began her career as a blood bank technologist at Northwestern Hospital, Chicago.
In 1993, after 19 years, she went to work at Abbott Laboratories in North Chicago. Deciding against commuting home to Chicago every day, she bought a house in Kenosha.
After retiring in 2003, Wilson decided to pursue her longtime dream of becoming a professional baker. “I knew once I stopped working I wanted to do this; I just didn’t think of it as a business at first.”
Wilson explains that her upbringing in South Carolina formed the genesis of her interest in baking.
She attended the Milwaukee Area Technical College in baking production, graduating in 2005, and worked for a while at a Kenosha County bakery and café.
Before settling into baking as a full-time vocation, however, Wilson returned to pharmaceuticals at a small start-up in Vernon Hills.
In 2008, she retired for good and concentrated her focus on baking.
To enhance her education in the fine art of pastry making, in 2011 Wilson took a three-month course called Gastronomicom in the south of France. “Studying overseas had always been on my bucket list,” said the 73-year-old Wilson.
In France, she enjoyed crafting baked goods rich in high quality butter. “Because people go to the bakery every day, baked goods do not contain preservatives. The people appreciate their daily marketing and they love their food,” she said.
For the next six years, Wilson put her education and passion into action, taking a course in small business operation, writing a business plan and searching for a bricks and mortar location.
Pastry4U launched in May 2017 at The Branch, a bank-building-turned-multi-use-space, on Racine’s west side.
After a short run there, however, Wilson began to feel that Kenosha might be a better fit for her operations, so she applied to use the commercial kitchen at First United Methodist Church, of which she is a member.
Pastry4U made its HarborMarket debut in the summer of 2018 and this year she has been a regular there.
Wilson’s standards include two- and- three-layer cakes bedecked with cream cheese, whipped cream or European buttercream frosting; mini desserts, cookies, pies, breads, muffins and tarts.
To keep things interesting for repeat customers, she offers seasonal specials, most recently a maple syrup scone.
During our interview, Wilson was filling a customer order for mini cheddar bacon scones. Cheddar bacon is a newer scone iteration, Wilson said.
Her original slate of offerings featured standard-size blueberry and cranberry scones. A month ago she whipped up some cheddar bacon minis and they became a crowd favorite at HarborMarket.
“The minis are easier to eat while walking,” she said.
On her website, Wilson also offers culinary tips. This week, for example, she defines the French term “mise en place,” which refers to the practice of organizing equipment and assembling prepped ingredients before a cooking session.
Wilson’s baking might be termed “professional homestyle.” Insisting on utilizing rich and real ingredients, her approach is home cooking with professional execution.
For reasons of personal choice and logistics, Pastry4U does not make fat-free or gluten-free baked goods. She explained that on a practical level, gluten-free baking would require kitchen space dedicated to gluten-free cooking specifications.
She also doesn’t want to mess with what she knows and loves. “For me I want real desserts — that’s my passion,” she said. “I just like desserts.”
Wilson bakes every day of the week except Tuesdays. Tuesdays are her day to mentor a Harvey Elementary School fifth grader and a Washington Middle School seventh grader.
Wilson has been mentoring for just over a decade. She began mentoring in North Chicago with a program sponsored by Abbott Labs. About seven years ago she joined Kenosha’s RSVP volunteer program and signed on to mentor the two girls, who are now in middle school.
On the days she does go to the kitchen to bake, Wilson first works out at the gym. “I love to eat, so I figure I need to do something to balance things out,” she said.