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Life at the Table

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Writing, falling in love, and baking cookies with Ashley Rodriguez

 

BY CHELSEA LIN

 

Ashley Rodriguez expected to fall in love with Italy. As an art student at Seattle Pacific University, she signed up to study abroad hoping to revel in a country steeped in art history. But it was the culture’s gastronomic influence—the gelato, the carbonara, the conversation, and long meals—that left a lasting mark. There was “something magic” that happened around the table in Italy.

“It was the first time I experienced a culture that lived around food,” she says. “Life happened at the table, and the food instigated all of it. Every meal is a chance to celebrate this life. To put aside all the [ugliness] of this world and remember that even in the midst of pain and sadness, what we have in front of us—a beautiful plate of food—is a gift. It may seem small in comparison but it’s something. To me, it’s deeply spiritual.”

The experience had a profound effect on her—and ultimately changed her life. Rodriguez came home to graduate, gave up plans to become an art teacher, and decided to surround herself with food instead. Now, 12 years later, she is a pastry chef turned food writer and photographer. Her blog, Not Without Salt, has won awards and legions of fans. She recently released her first cookbook and started selling her own cookie mix. Hers is a story that proves passion makes perfect.

Rodriguez started her career with a baking job at The Essential Baking Company, shortly after graduation. Not satisfied with spending all night in a bakery kitchen, she went home to her tiny apartment and made elaborate chocolate truffles—peanut butter and jelly, espresso, fresh mint. She walked these confections over to Queen Anne’s former kitchen shop, Les Cadeaux Gourmets, and gave them to owners Seis and Pia Kamimura. “I couldn’t afford to buy anything there,” she says. “I just wanted to be around food and be around people who knew and loved food.”

Rodriguez’s beau, Gabe, had proposed while they were in Italy, and the two Pacific Northwest natives married the year they graduated. Soon they decided to snip the local apron strings and set out on their own in Los Angeles or New York. Seis Kamimura—who had worked as a chef at Spago—got Rodriguez an interview at the famed Beverly Hills restaurant. It was a long shot, but she nailed it, thanks to what she calls, “the most ridiculous resume”—a little bound book she made with pictures of her chocolates. It conveyed what she had to offer: passion, if not experience.

Rodriguez was hired by Spago’s legendary pastry chef, Sherry Yard, and spent months earning her respect. Rodriguez went from working the line, turning out some 250 desserts on a Saturday night, to flying with Yard to New York to assist her with private dinners at Eleven Madison Park. Spago owner Wolfgang Puck was opening a new shop, and there was talk of Rodriguez becoming the sous pastry chef at Spago. She was working hard but loving the work. She and Gabe bought a convertible to celebrate their acclimation to Los Angeles.

And then—in a happy, shocking twist that Rodriguez says rocked them both—she found out she was three months pregnant. It was an easy decision to leave behind 12-hour workdays in L.A. and move back to Washington to be closer to family, but Rodriguez says there was still “a little bit of an itch that I didn’t finish scratching.” She might have been done with restaurant kitchens, but she wasn’t done with a career in food.

With a young son at home, Rodriguez started Artisan Sweets in TK, a business that made wedding cakes for Bellingham catering company Ciao Thyme. Gabe encouraged her to start a blog—she’d never heard of such a thing—and she began to write and take pictures of her confections. “The blog was my creative reprieve from parenting—something I didn’t take to easily,” she says. “I spent a long time trying to become the mom I thought I should be, rather than the mom I am.”

Now mom to three kids—Baron is 8, Roman is 6, and Ivy is 4—Rodriguez has her hands full. As time passed, however, she noticed her busy home life was starting to take a toll on her marriage. Tired from a day of parenting, she and Gabe both retreated to laptops once the kids were in bed. Her first cookbook, Date Night In, is an answer to that problem—a tome filled with recipes, stunning photos, and personal stories built around the couple’s weekly ritual of spending date nights at home. As in Italy, time spent at the table created space and opportunity for them to connect.

And because Rodriguez is the sort who needs to keep busy, last fall she also introduced her first product: a shelf-stable cookie mix based on her popular recipe for salted chocolate chip cookies. The blend features local flour, three types of sugar, ground vanilla bean, Guittard 72% bittersweet chocolate, and Maldon sea salt flakes (customers add their own butter and eggs before baking). The response has been enthusiastic.

What started as a tiny operation in the kitchen of local pizzeria Delancey—on Mondays when the restaurant was closed—has turned into an all-hands-on-deck enterprise, with the cookie mix being sold at Sip & Ship, Book Larder, and even Sur La Table. Rodriguez recently hired a co-packer to assemble the product. They shipped 460 tubes one week over the holidays, and on Wednesdays, locals can pick up their orders from the small studio that Rodriguez rents with her husband down the block from Delancey.

“What I miss about the restaurant industry is having something tangible,” says Rodriguez, “feeding people immediately. I wanted something that went from my hands and my kitchen to someone else’s hands and their kitchen.” Why chocolate chip cookies? “It’s what I crave most,” she says.

With a successful career and a busy home life, Rodriguez gets asked a lot about balance. “I look at life in terms of seasons,” she says, “instead of a day-to-day balance. For our family, right now is a really busy and intense season, but it’s not going to always be like that. Rather than feel guilty for not being at my kids’ school as often as I should, I think about being intentional with the time that I have. I knew I was never going to be a soccer mom, but we have a busy, full, and fun life. I want them to be a part of it.”

Though her life looks enviably perfect, Rodriguez is the first to admit that things get ugly sometimes, even if it doesn’t end up on her blog. “I’m more than happy to dispel any myths of perfection that people may have,” she says. “Perfection is boring, and it’s not encouraging to others when they think my reality is so different from theirs. I want my work to inspire, but not feel unattainable.”

Even though her kids occasionally turn their noses up at her more creative dinner dishes, theirs is a family that lives—and loves—at the table.

Chelsea Lin is a Seattle-based freelance writer who has spent the past five years writing about the city’s food scene, both in print and online.

 

 

 

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