Pastry chef Emma Cech was sick of feeling sick, so she turned her struggle with gluten intolerance into an opportunity to fulfill her culinary dreams. Read our interview with her below.
1. When did you open The Happy Tart, and what was your motivation for opening it?
I opened the first location in Alexandria in 2011. After years of just never feeling well, I was finally diagnosed with Celiac disease in 2009 right before culinary school. Afterward, I decided to open my own gluten-free bakery. I got a mentor who helped me make a business plan [which we worked on] for about two years. Most importantly, I practiced gluten-free recipes every morning. I took the classic French patisserie I had learned and made gluten-free versions. The Falls Church location opened in October 2015.
2. Did you realize that you were feeling sick while testing your food?
I had been having problems for quite a while. There was nothing serious going on, but everything was wrong, if that makes sense. I was just generally never feeling well. After I stopped eating gluten, I suddenly felt so much better. That’s why it’s called The Happy Tart, because I was finally so happy to have a diagnosis. I didn’t know I could feel so good.
3. Tell me about your culinary background.
I always wanted to go to culinary school, but my parents were opposed to it, so I went to the University of Delaware and studied food science. I didn’t really want to pursue food science, so I ended up getting a Master’s in immunology in Maryland. I worked at the Patent and Trademark Office for a while, and then my husband got posted to Peru. I had a baby, then I had another baby. We were only supposed to be there for two years, but we ended up living in South America for 12 years. When we came back to the U.S., I had to decide what I wanted to do. I decided I would finally go to culinary school (L’Academie de Cuisine in Gaithersburg).
4. What types of gluten-free baked goods do you make?
Basically, the entire classic French patisserie, like Frangipane tart, opera cake, tiramisu, mousse cakes, and also eclairs and macarons. But we also have cookies and cupcakes and breads, as well as full breakfast/brunch and early dinner menus. And a line of gluten-free ciders.
5. What’s your busiest season?
Holiday season, by far. The holidays are crazy.
6. What is your favorite baked item to prepare?
Probably the Raspberry Chocolate Volcano. They have raspberry sauce in the center, surrounded by milk chocolate mousse, which is surrounded by dark chocolate mousse, all sitting on top of a chocolate hazelnut dish. The dish sits on top of chocolate sponge cake, which is all covered in chocolate.
7. How many employees do you have?
About 25. My staff is unusually loyal [for the industry]. There is usually a lot of turnover. But I’ve had my head pastry chef and head baker with me for about four years. They’re amazing.
8. What is your most requested item?
It’s either the quiche–people will fight each other for our quiche–or our turnovers.
9. Have you had an uptick in business since a gluten-free diet became trendy?
To be honest, a lot of our customers in Falls Church don’t even know we’re gluten-free. They just come because we have really good pastries. I would say that only about 40% of our customers are gluten-free, and the rest just really like what we do.
10. Do you enjoy cooking outside of your normal pastry-making?
I love all kinds of cooking. In our house right now, we’re experimenting with a lot of Indian flavors. We’ve also been eating a lot of vegetarian meals lately.