When baker Jody Stevens decided to focus on creating vegan and gluten-free cakes that were as delicious as regular ones, people told her she was crazy and it would never work. At the time, Houston was still known as a meat-and-potatoes city and not the culinary epicenter is it today.
Fortunately, Stevens didn't listen and kept working on it. These days, she bakes dozens of cakes and cupcakes a week for what was previously an underserved market. It's not her only accomplishment. She also spearheaded an event called The Depressed Cake Shop where baked goods -- all in "depressing" colors like gray, black and white -- are donated and sold to raise money for a local mental health clinic.
In Part 1 of our Chef Chat, we'll learn about Stevens's service in the Air Force, her prior career in finance and how her baking business first gained a big following in Houston. Be sure to come back for the second part of our interview tomorrow, where you'll find out where you can buy her products retail, as well as about The Depressed Cake Shop.
EOW: Are you from Houston? JS: I actually am not. I am from Denver, Colorado. I moved here in 1995, and I've been here ever since.
EOW: How old were you when you moved from Colorado?
JS: I was actually almost 25.
EOW: Did you go to college there?
JS: I did. I actually went to the University of Colorado and halfway through my sophomore year, I decided to join the Air Force to go overseas.
EOW: What brought you to Houston?
JS: When I was discharged from the military, I decided to follow in my father's footsteps and go into finance. I figured that this was a good market with the oil companies being out here. My family actually lives in Corpus [Christi] and so at that time, I decided to come to Texas, and took a career path in finance.
EOW: What made you decide to go into the military?
JS: That's a great question. I don't know. College was great. I was a good student. I just always had more of a sense of adventure to get out and do something. I come from a family of naval aviators, and so therefore I just wanted to do something different. I know they say, "Go see the world," but I just kind of wanted to take off and do something for my country.
EOW: Where were you deployed to?
JS: Actually, during Desert Storm I was stationed in Keflavik, Iceland, and I worked for NATO. I was then re-stationed to Germany and then came back Stateside. So I was back in '93.
EOW: What was your rank?
JS: I'd gone out as an [Airmen] E4, which is nothing great, but when Clinton came into office, I was stationed at Altus Air Force Base up in Oklahoma. After being on such a real-world mission for the first few years of my Air Force career, coming back was kind of different. After talking with the pilots that I used to be in really heavy, hardcore, real-world mission-type stuff with, the pilots that I was talking to at this training base were basically [talking about] basketball and football scores on the radio. So, when Clinton came into office, I decided to take the military package and become civilian and go on that way.
EOW: How many years did you end up serving?
JS: Three, and I was honorably discharged. I decided to take the money and run. I never wanted to really be a career person in the military. It wasn't really what I wanted to do, but I had a great job. It was awesome.
EOW: And then you decided to go to Houston and start a finance career?
JS: Correct. I did that for ten years, working in different things, but I decided at the height of the refinance boom, a lot of the mortgage companies that were out there were doing some pretty unfair lending practices. I didn't feel comfortable doing that. I'm not saying that I was responsible for anything; I was just watching things that were happening around me and I decided to make a change. I started to kind of dabble in what I really wanted to do with the rest of my life.
EOW: What year was this?
JS: This was 2005 and actually, it kind of coincided with the death of my father. I love my family to bits, and my mom and dad have been so instrumental in making me who I am today and always telling me to follow my dreams. After his death, and with what I was dealing with in where I was in my career, I decided to go out to Los Angeles. I figured life is too short. It was kind of a wakeup call for me: to lose somebody so close to me, to not do what I dreamt of doing and be the person that I wanted to be.
I went out there and I took some odd jobs, and then I started to get into baking. I'd been baking my whole life, but that's where I really started working with some other chefs and other people that do pastries -- working, learning and honing my craft.
EOW: When did you first become interested in baking?
JS: This is something that's been around me my whole life. My maternal grandmother always made pound cakes and Bundt cakes. We always had everybody come over for coffee in the afternoon unannounced -- that kind of Texas thing. That was instilled with my mom as well. She used to bake a lot for us, ever since I was little.
EOW: So you grew up with that.
JS: I did.
EOW: You were in Los Angeles and just taking odd jobs here and there?
JS: Yeah, I did. I didn't continue on the finance thing; I just took some sales-type thing so I could pay the bills. I had some flexibility to then springboard into my baking.
EOW: How did you get yourself established with that kind of business?
JS: That's such a great question. It kind of organically happened. I was very integrated in my community there. I lived in the Santa Clarita Valley, and I became very active in a woman entrepreneurs group. I just decided to just really hustle it. That's coming from my years and years of corporate experience of how to network and how to sell and market myself.
I found that I could be the best of both worlds. [I could] be creative and do the baking and all the things that I wanted to do, but because of all my business background, [I could] work with other people and sell something that may not be there just yet. I could integrate those two things and become a powerhouse in the community. So it was a really organic thing to do.
EOW: One of the things that you've become known for in Houston is your gluten-free and vegan cupcakes and cakes. Is that something that you started when you were still in Los Angeles?
JS: I think that's a really good question because I get really excited about this. So, my best friend in my first year of college is vegetarian -- not that it has anything to do with veganism, but we discussed that a lot. We talked a lot about good things that were lacking for those people that had dietary restrictions.
It was kind of cool, and I took it upon myself as a challenge. I used him as a guinea pig to delve into what I thought was a marketing thing at first. This is just kind of a joke, but I tell people, "Gwyneth Paltrow, oh my gosh, she's gluten-free so I'll jump on that bandwagon." Because if Gwyneth Paltrow is a vegan, or a gluten-free, or whatever, then everybody else is. I figured it was a really great marketing thing.
But when I got into it and I started to really delve into my recipe development and talking to people, I realized that it was really a humongous need and it wasn't just a marketing thing. It's something that people require.
When I moved back to Houston in 2008, everybody told me I was out of my mind. Texans were meat eaters -- steaks, potatoes and all this. I swam upstream for a couple of years. It was a challenge with people slamming the door on my face and telling me it would never work, but now I'm busier than I know what to do with that stuff.
EOW: I tell people that your vegan and gluten-free cakes and cupcakes are better than most people's normal baked goods.
JS: Thank you!
EOW: It must have taken you a long time to develop and tweak out the recipes. They don't have eggs, right? (Author's note: A big challenge in vegan baking is not being able to use traditional leavening agents and binders, like milk, butter and eggs, and yet still coming out with products that look and taste as good as traditionally made ones.)
EOW: How long did it take you to develop that?
JS: It's hard to quantify the time, but I can tell you I had a lot of flops. To have the solid recipes that I have right now, it took me a couple of years of research and development, trial and error and bombs and terrible things that didn't work. I went to a lot of my closest friends and some of the other chefs in the community and I said, "Hey, try this and tell me what to change. See what you think. Your palate's probably a little more refined than somebody that is just off the street or somebody who may not understand what I'm trying to accomplish." I got a lot of really constructive criticism. Some of it hurt. I've had people say, "You know what? That was dry. You've got to fix it." So I did. I think it took about two years, but I think I got it. I nailed it.
EOW: You spent a couple of years in L.A. Why did you decide to come back to Houston?
JS: A boy. (laughs)
EOW: That's the way it always goes!
JS: The boy wasn't going to come [to L.A.], and that was fine. I came back. Ultimately I didn't want to live in Los Angeles forever, and three years is a long time. Most people go to a place like Los Angeles or New York and they're chewed up and spit out very quick. So I think three years was a pretty good stint and I really grew up. Not that I was some wild young thing. I had the military experience, which gave me a lot of structure, and then a really very successful financial career. I had the full package and it was time. I own a house here, so I came back and I dove in. I've learned a lot.
I made mistakes out there. I made mistakes on how to market myself and how to make Jodycakes. I was going with the wrong people. When I got back here in 2008, the food scene was just starting to take off. There wasn't anything. It was the Chili's and all these other [chains]. Really, the only thing that was here were a couple of the old guards -- Mark's [American Cuisine] and John Sheely [of Mockingbird Bistro] and all of that. I decided to integrate myself with that. I needed to get in there. No offense, but the soccer moms were not going to pay my bills. I came into Houston like I've always been here. I just showed up and I was like, "Here I am! I've always been here."
EOW: How did you begin to build your customer base here?
JS: That's such a hard question, I get asked that a lot. People are always amazed, and I don't know if they believe me. With my background in business, I'm just a really good networker. I really, really, really enjoy going out to functions, shaking people's hands and being right in front of their face. I think that's been my biggest success tool -- really being out there and being genuine -- participating in events and doing the things that we don't really want to do. You're like, "Oh, God, I don't want to do this." But you go do it anyway, because you never know what opportunity or doors are going to open. I just love it.
EOW: My very first exposure to Jodycakes was the cupcakes and wine pairings at 13 Celsius.
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JS: Yes. That was years and years ago now.
EOW: It seems like it was a long time ago and it doesn't. I remember those very clearly. And I just remember thinking how absolutely cool it was, the idea to pair different flavors of cupcakes with wine. How did you come up with that?
JS: Oddly enough, I didn't. Mark Borel is one of the wine guys around here and is now the beverage director over at Sparrow, Monica Pope's place. He and I had become friends very quickly and he was working at 13 Celsius at that time. We kind of bandied the idea back and forth a little bit.
He approached Mike Sammons and Ian Rosenberg [the owners of 13 Celsius], and they thought it was great. It really took off and was a lot of fun. I couldn't even believe it. I thought we wouldn't last two, three, four months, and I don't think they did either. It went for almost two years. It was amazing and really good exposure.