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Q & A with the Ladies of Levain Bakery

Thumbnail image for Sweet.43.jpgWho would guess the country’s best cookies were created by two triathalon runners?  Yes, really.  In fact, the two used to bake them to eat for energy during competition pre-power bars.  That’s the story behind Levain Bakery’s gooey, six-ounce chocolate chip cookies.  Pam Weekes and Connie MacDonald met training, but it was an unlikely parternship.  Pam worked in fashion and Connie worked at a bank, Long John Silver’s, Amy’s Bread for a stint.  Connie wasn’t even allowed to have sweets.  The two came up with a line of sinfully oversized cookies, including oatmeal raisin, dark chocolate peanut chip, dark chocolate, & chocolate walnut cookies. 

Their cookies are so phenomenal that they’ve shipped them as far away as Alaska.  They also took down Bobby Flay on Throwdown and even appeared on Oprah for their sweet creations.  They’re also selling bread, bombolini, and a divine raspberry jelly donut at Levain Bakery on the Upper West Side as well as a second outpost in Wainscott, New York. 

Part 1: Pam Weekes

Single/Married/Divorced? Single – married to the bakery!

What did you want to be when you grew up? Artist, Designer, Architect

What was your first job in food?  Opening the bakery! 

Have you had any professional pastry training or baking classes?  No, I have no professional training just a love of baking and eating.  My mother was an amazing cook and baker and I’ve always loved to bake since I can remember.  It was what I would do to relax at home.

The chocolate chip walnut cookie came out of yours and Connie’s constant hunger from training for the Iron Man triathlon.  What made you go the cookie route instead of making, say, a healthy homemade granola bar?   My mother used to make me “healthy homemade granola bars,” but I always thought cookies, pies and cakes were still way yummier and would always eat them for breakfast.

Competitive sports and desserts usually don’t go hand in hand.  How do you balance a healthy lifestyle with your love for sweets?  Balance in any aspect of life seems to be the hardest thing to achieve and having an active lifestyle enables you to be more flexible in your diet.  Sweets aren’t necessarily “bad” foods but moderation is important.  Everything we make at the bakery is made with fresh, real ingredients and no preservatives.  I have never eaten packaged foods and I believe that packaged foods of any type are probably the worst things you could be eating, fresh real foods are better.

Do you foresee any dessert trends on the horizon?  Desserts come and go, but they are all good.  Baked goodies seem to be sticking around in one form or another. 

How do you feel about the cupcake/whoopie pie craze at the moment?  I love them both!  I love any delicious, freshly baked treat.

Your favorite cookie?  Today the dark chocolate chocolate chip, but tomorrow it could be different.  I also like “embellishing” the cookies – maybe a dark chocolate chocolate chip cookie with some vanilla gelato, sprinkled with walnuts and drizzled with chocolate, mmmm.

You left working for fashion designer Norma Kamali to open up Levain Bakery.  Was there ever a time that you felt you had moved too quickly, or wanted to return to fashion?  Well, I actually took it rather slowly.  I kept my “day” job for the first few months and then took a leave of absence.  The thing I miss the most is looking nice and getting dressed in the mornings!  Now I live mostly in jeans and some type of t shirt.  I learned quickly that black didn’t work well in a bakery!  Although I do still try to dress as well as possible at most times, I just have different standards.

Your cookies were recently featured at the NYWF’s SWEET.  How did it feel to participate for the second time?  We loved being part of the SWEET event again. 

Will you feature other goodies next year?  We have sort of acquiesced to the fact that the cookies are really popular, so we should go with the flow and enjoy people’s enjoyment of them.

What is your favorite thing about working with Connie?   Ooo, hard to say.  We don’t actually work “together” so much on a day to day basis anymore, which was really fun, now we “divide and conquer”.  But I love working with Connie because as different as we are we have the same basic values and ideas and we both bring important things to the table so together we are a great duo.

What lies ahead for Levain Bakery?  A cookbook perhaps?  Not sure, we want to be sure we maintain quality as we grow.  We would love to write a book of some type but so far it seems to be one of those things that is always being pushed to the back burner.   Will you expand even more? I think in some way you have to keep growing to move forward, otherwise you go backwards.  We are constantly discussing ideas with each other and will just have to see where they lead us.

What is the most challenging part of opening up your own bakery?  I think most small businesses have similar challenges but the challenge of our bakery is that we have nothing to sell each day until it is made freshly that morning!

How far have you shipped your cookies? I think Alaska perhaps?  Although I know people have personally shipped them farther. 

Back in July Kristen Chenoweth named your cookies one of three things in NYC she can’t live without, and in March, Oprah named your Raisin Sticky Buns the best of her cinnamon bun tasting contest.  How does it feel to be receiving all of this positive attention? Amazing!  We are so grateful, and it is so flattering.

Connie MacDonald, after the jump…


Part Two: Connie MacDonald

Single/Married/Divorced? Single

What did you want to be when you grew up? Oh I don’t know, but I think I always knew that I wanted to have my own business.  My father had his own business, I guess it is in my blood!

What was your first job ever in food? Working at Long John Silver’s.  Dressed as a pirate serving fried fish!  It was a rough beginning!

While growing up you lived in a “cookie jar-free home.”  When did you discover your love for desserts? 
I loved them while I was growing up they just weren’t around!  Look what happened when I got out on my own!  It was when we started racing that we started making the cookies.  

The cookies are arguably the most well known goodies at the bakery.  What are some baked items that you think deserve more attention?  The scones are one of my favorites.  I always have one the day after Labor Day to celebrate the successful completion of another summer!  I also love the bomboloncini and the ciabatta.

How did it feel when Bobby Flay challenged you to a chocolate chip cookie throwdown?  Exciting, no matter the outcome it was very flattering. 

Better yet, how did it feel to win?  Awesome!!
 
They’re like barely-baked cookie dough! Have you considered pushing the envelope and making them half a pound?  We tried to make them bigger and six ounces was about as big as we found possible.
 
Your favorite cookie? 
The chocolate chocolate chip cookies.  I find them almost irrestible!  Still!!

You trained at Amy’s Bread before opening up Levain.  What are the most important baking tips you’ve learned from working under Amy?  Amy’s was a great place for me to learn how to shape bread really well and really fast!  Even then the volume was very high as well as her standards!! 

Do you have a kitchen tool you absolutely can’t live without?  Yes, dough cutters and plastic scrapers from a French baking supplier.

What is the most challenging part of opening up your own bakery?  I would have to say that the most challenging thing is continually producing the highest quality product that we can.  Volume has increased but that does not mean in our minds that quality  should decrease.  

What are your most memorable mishaps in the kitchen?  The night we dropped the starter and the bakery was flooded with three inches of sourdough starter all over the floor.

What is your favorite bakery in New York City (other than your own, of course)?  Ceci Cela on Spring Street.  So French, I love it!

What is your favorite thing about working with Pam?  Everything, what better than to work with your best friend.

How do you divide your time between the NYC and Wainscott shops?  We’re open weekends April through September and everyday all summer, so I’m there when we are open.

Do you two alternate?  Lately I’ve been the one to go to LI, hopefully Pam can get out more next season.

Can we look forward to any more baking classes in the future, or a cookbook? Strong possibilities of both.

Address: 167 W 74th St.
Phone: (212) 847-6080

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