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Pastry chef embraces the healing power of a tasty dessert
by Chuck Gordon

Downtown Jacksonville is much like uptown Charlotte was two decades ago. “Ghost town” is an exaggeration, but the scene in the financial heart of this northeast Florida city is challenging for restaurants such as Bellwether. “Lunch is great, but dinner’s tough, because most people leave downtown after work,” says Allan DuVault, managing partner of Bellwether and one of its sister restaurants, Black Sheep. “They don’t come back in to go to dinner.”

But on a steamy Tuesday night in early September, a party of 30 has made the trek to the 2-year-old farm-to-table restaurant for “Grape vs. Grain,” one of the periodic special events Bellwether puts on in an effort to persuade Jacksonvillians that it’s worth staying put after 5 for a quality meal.

Rebecca Reed shows off a Coca-Cola cake she made

For Rebecca Griffin Reed ’08, the event offers a rare chance to see customers enjoy her confectionary concoctions. After seven years of being a one-restaurant pastry chef, including five and a half working in the open-kitchen environment of Matthew’s in Jacksonville, Reed has moved up in the world. In the spring of 2018, six months pregnant, she stepped into the newly created role of corporate pastry chef for Black Sheep Restaurant Group. She’s the rare chef who works 9 to 5 – an arrangement that works well for a new mom but does mean that Reed rarely gets to see diners enjoying her macarons, cakes and ice creams.

On this night, she’s working a rare evening shift, affording her a chance to view firsthand the satisfaction her imagination produces.

She’s been issued a challenge, though. For “Grape vs. Grain,” diners will cast ballots revealing which of two drinks, a wine and a cocktail, they think goes best with each of five courses. What pairs better with the honey-whipped ricotta and lemon curd – the fizzy citrus-vodka cocktail or the rustic Italian red? And what best enhances the flavor of the ribeye Steak Diane – the rye Manhattan or the South African cab?

Reed, of course, is responsible for dreaming up a dessert to go with two drink options, and the local distillery hasn’t made it easy on her. The cocktail she must match is made with fernet, an herbaceous, bitter liqueur, beloved by chefs, that could diplomatically be considered an acquired taste. “It’s not my favorite,” she says.

Reed has made a career of finding creative ways to present old standbys, and for this night she’s settled on mini Coca-Cola cakes, shaped to look like soft-drink cans. “I thought, What do the bartenders pair with it?” she says. “Here we have a Southern leaning, so I thought a Coca-Cola cake and a Coca-Cola can.”

Although in a straw poll the fernet cocktail lost handily to a Slovenian white, the Coke cake was a hit. But that’s not surprising, coming from Reed. Since graduating from Wingate with a sociology degree, and a minor in psychology, she has put aside thoughts of being a marriage counselor and instead learned to improve people’s lives through their taste buds.

Troubled couples’ loss has certainly been Jacksonville diners’ gain.

Calm under pressure

As rewarding as it can be to hear “my compliments to the chef,” the restaurant business is tough. Shifts can be extremely stressful, even on nights with few hiccups. Not every kitchen is as chaotic as those on Food Network cooking shows, but every cook has her moments when things don’t go right.

“When you do something creative, it’s like you have your plan A: It’s sunny outside, everybody shows up for work, you have a dishwasher, nothing is broken,” Reed says. “And then, if your dishwasher doesn’t show up, somebody is late, and then something random breaks in the kitchen, you don’t have the tool you need, or your purveyor doesn’t come through with whatever product you need, then you go to plan B, you go to plan C, you go to ‘just get it done.’”

Rebecca Reed prepares a dessert

The petite Reed, 33, looks like she could be fresh out of college, but she commands respect in a kitchen, and she’ll take control when necessary. A little over a year ago, only a few months after she started with Black Sheep Restaurant Group and a few weeks after she returned from maternity leave, Reed found herself in one of those “just get it done” situations.

The Black Sheep group was competing in a local cooking competition, and Reed was making a custard for the dessert course. She was busy with another event when the staff did their walk-through at the hotel venue and thus didn’t know the environment she’d be working in. Throughout the night, chefs had been going into and out of the kitchen cooler, elevating the cooler’s temperature. To make matters worse, the doors on the cooler didn’t shut properly. Had she been in a familiar kitchen, Reed could have trusted the temperature to be just right. As it was, the custards didn’t set quite right. “I’m going to invert my custards, and they’re supposed to just flip out really easy,” she says.

They didn’t, and the clock was ticking. Reed instantly transformed from the little blonde pastry chef into a boss in the kitchen. Calmly but insistently, she barked to Black Sheep’s social-media manager: “Nate, go get somebody. Run!”

Petit fours made by Rebecca Reed

“Everybody just came to help me,” she says. “They dropped what they were doing. ‘Drop that! Everybody on deck!’ And then it’s just brigade-style. I’m just yelling at everybody, telling them what to do. We wound up having to take an offset spatula and run it around the side of the dish and then slam it down and torch it to get it to flop out. Everybody was sweating.”

Black Sheep won the competition, so all’s well that ends well. But Food Network talent scouts take note: The narrowly averted disaster demonstrated Reed’s confidence, determination and ability to perform under pressure.

Situations such as that are the exception, of course. Most of the time, things go fairly smoothly, and the creme brulee or chocolate souffle are perfect. It’s those times that keep chefs working in such a demanding industry. Happy diners make happy chefs.

“I majored in sociology and minored in psychology, so if I had to look at it through that lens, the quick reward that you get for things keeps you coming back for more,” Reed says. “It is so different all the time, it’s like playing a slot machine or something. You don’t really know what’s going to happen, but there’s a chance that you could win!”

That’s the gamble Reed took a decade ago, when she decided she wanted to be a professional chef.

Following her passion

Reed didn’t sit still during her time at Wingate. She was part of the Leadership Fellows program, served as a peer mentor and a teacher’s assistant, and was the recruitment director of her sorority, Sigma Sigma Sigma (as a sophomore). All those leadership positions at an early age have served her well as she’s taken on more responsibility in the kitchen.

Reed also leans on her psychology minor as she deals with the cooks who ultimately plate her food every night at Black Sheep Restaurant Group’s three sites: Bellwether, Black Sheep, and Orsay.

During college, she planned to eventually make a living helping couples open up and talk to each other. By the time she graduated, though, she was having doubts. She wasn’t sure she could handle that path emotionally – “It’s hard seeing people on their worst days or really hard days, vs. celebrating with people about things,” Reed says – and she feels that couples’ bonding over pistachio-fudge petit fours can have a similar effect. “If I think about it now, I have the same heart and motivation for helping people and making people happy and seeing wholeness and completeness in things,” she says, “but instead of going the relationship route ... I mean, people are very happy about dessert.”

Rebecca Reed preparing desserts for service

Reed spent a year after graduation figuring out what she wanted to do. She worked retail, served as a nanny and took the Graduate Record Exam a couple of times, still telling herself she was going to get a master’s. But her passion was food.

When Reed was a kid, her parents worked long hours. Growing up on Long Island, New York, Reed, her sister and her stepsisters had a series of nannies, not all of whom knew their way around a kitchen. “I remember one microwaved lasagna,” Reed says. “I think she blew up the microwave.”

In sixth grade, Reed decided she’d had enough. “I just remember thinking, If you can’t do this, I can,” she says. “I can read the back of a box.”

So Reed started making pancakes, casseroles, pasta. It made her smile to see people enjoy something she’d whipped up.

That love of cooking stuck with her. After graduation, Reed’s parents told her they’d pay for graduate school, knowing she’d need a master’s degree to become a licensed marriage counselor. She asked them if they’d pay for culinary school instead. “It took a little convincing,” Reed says.

Before you know it, Reed and her husband, Ben Reed ’05, had quit their jobs and were moving to Manhattan, where Rebecca entered the International Culinary Center’s one-year pastry program. She was following a host of renowned chefs, including celebrity chef Bobby Flay, by enrolling at the prestigious school. It was a crash course in pastry prep. “It was just intensive cooking the whole time,” she says. Reed graduated with honors and then got a job where she’d interned: Locanda Verde,  an upscale Italian restaurant on the first floor of the Greenwich Hotel, in the Tribeca neighborhood of lower Manhattan.

“If I think about it now, I have the same heart and motivation for helping people and making people happy and seeing wholeness and completeness in things. ... I mean, people are very happy about dessert.”

The restaurant staff also stocked the cafe at the hotel, so Reed helped make doughnuts every morning. “This guy Bob would come in at 8:45 and ask for doughnuts,” she says. Back in the kitchen, Reed, hurriedly trying to prepare food, would act put out, muttering, “No, Bob. It’s 8:45. We don’t have the doughnuts ready. I’m doing all I can to get them out there at 9 a.m.” Bob was persistent. “You’d hear things, like, ‘Bob wants his doughnuts. Can you make that happen?’” she says. “You imagine this 300-pound sweaty ogre of a man.” Turns out it was Robert DeNiro.

Celebrities or no, Reed had no intention of making a career in New York. She and Ben, who would ultimately win Emmys as a TV producer, moved back to the Carolinas for a couple of years before he took a job with the PGA Tour in Jacksonville. Rebecca became the pastry chef at Matthew’s, a fine-dining eatery where a pork chop goes for 42 bucks. She loved it.

“I worked every night,” she says. “I was always on the line. If the doors were open, I was there. We had an open kitchen, so I talked to guests all the time. It was really fun.”

Customers were impressed that Reed could turn out perfect souffle after perfect souffle. “I would be like, ‘I do this every day. It’s not that hard. I could show you how,” she says.

So Reed started teaching classes. It became one of her favorite parts of being a chef.

“It’s so easy for people to relate to each other over food and the shared experience,” she says. ‘It’s nice. It breaks down walls. You’re all doing something you haven’t done before. There’s camaraderie.”

Move into management

At Matthew’s, Reed developed something of a following among Jacksonville foodies. She has nearly 1,000 followers on Instagram (@thebakerreed), and she’s appeared in local magazines and on TV shows in Jacksonville.

When she decided in 2018 that working every night wasn’t ideal for a new mom, she sent out feelers about potential jobs. Jon Insetta, owner of Black Sheep Restaurant Group, quickly contacted her. Black Sheep created the role of corporate pastry chef specifically for her, despite knowing that she would be going on maternity leave soon after taking it on.

She’s impressed her newest employers with her ability to make high-quality standard desserts and her creative flair, not to mention her managerial chops.

“She can knock out any dessert,” DuVault says. “When we do catering events, like the mayor’s inauguration event, she’ll come up with some smart ideas that work with the moment and work with the food itself. She comes up with supercreative presentations, like the carrot cake. It’s a round dome that’s frosted orange and then a brown accoutrement. It looks like a carrot coming out of the ground, because it’s got a little carrot top on it. It’s just a supergreat presentation.”

Reed misses the customer interaction she had at Matthew’s, but her new role is rewarding too, just in a different way. She sets the dessert direction for three restaurants and gets to test her organizational skills.

Soon, she’ll also get to return to the instructing she loved so much at Matthew’s. Now that she’s established as the “pastry” face of the company, cooking classes are a natural next step.

Rebecca Reed displays desserts

“It brings in money for the restaurant, so it would be extra money for me, and also it’s just wonderful marketing,” she says. “And then when I go to events and things like that, people get excited, and it’s branding for me and what I’m doing, which is helpful too.”

“It’s good for her to get some time under her belt and equate her stuff with quality and fun,” DeVault says, “so when we do start doing the classes they’ll be like, ‘Oh yeah, I’ve seen her stuff. We definitely want to check that out.’”

Teaching comes naturally to Reed, who feels like she teaches on a daily basis in the kitchen already. “I teach all the time,” she says. “That’s like half of management, right? You’re showing people how to do things and then circling back to make sure it’s still the same. And then solving problems. It’s all I do all day: problem-solving.”

Her life with the Black Sheep family of restaurants isn’t as frenzied as a restaurant kitchen during the Saturday dinner rush, but it’s hectic nonetheless. On the Tuesday of “Grape vs. Grain,” Reed’s workday started with a couple of hours’ worth of biscuit making in the morning at Black Sheep. She and an assistant made 18 quarts of biscuits to be frozen and then cooked on the weekend, when the restaurant is open for brunch. “If we were trying to make them that morning, that would be the only thing we would be able to do,” she says.

She also baked off some chocolate cake for the next day’s menu. Much of her day is spent thinking ahead and managing the production schedule for the next few days. Each restaurant is different. Orsay is an unpretentious French bistro and, according to DuVault, “undoubtedly the best restaurant in Jacksonville.” Black Sheep is an American farm-to-table restaurant, while Bellwether fits somewhere in the middle.

Each kitchen is staffed differently, too. Orsay has two pastry people, but at Bellwether and Black Sheep the cooks who plate the salads also plate the desserts. That means Reed has to do more prep ahead of time. For example, she accompanied the Coca-Cola cake with a “quenelle” of ice cream – basically, a football-shaped scoop. It takes a practiced hand to scoop out a customer-worthy quenelle, and cooks who don’t specialize in desserts aren’t likely to be able to do it well.

“They don’t have delicate little pastry hands,” she says, “so I have to be very mindful of my execution for plating. They wouldn’t necessarily be able to make a quenelle to order. If I want something like that on it, it’s going to have to be something that I can hold with it already on it.”

Reed is learning to accept that she doesn’t have 100 percent control of every dessert served anymore.

“I used to have such a tight grip on so many of the things I was doing,” she says. “Becoming a mom and in a different role like this where I oversee so many things, it changes the way you think about things. You have to kind of loosen your grip. I have to take deep, cleansing breaths sometimes.”

Or she could just take a bite of a nice cream pastry. After all, it works for her customers.