Interview with Claire Ptak, Founder Violet Cakes Bakery
Before opening Violet Bakery in Hackney, Claire Ptak was living in her native state of California. As a former pastry chef for Alice Walter’s Chez Panisse, she learned many of the skills she’d later need to open Violet Bakery, which is now one of London’s most beloved spots for cakes and treats. Claire’s fascination with the city is what eventually drove her to make London her permanent home. And there’s really no better place to be making sweet treats— she quickly found that tea and cakes are such a charming part of English culture and tradition.
Claire first gained a following when she set up a stall in Broadway market, and in 2010 she decided to open the doors of Violet Bakery. We visited Claire’s eclectic Hackney café that’s sitting in the middle of such a creative and vibrant part of East London. If you’re in the market for a sweet treat, be sure to take yourself over to Hackney and visit Violet Bakery!
You moved to London from California 10 years ago. What do you like most about London’s food scene?
For me it's the fact that there are so many more choices now. More choice means that the quality of food is forced to improve, as well. There were always a handful of great restaurants in London (mostly The River Cafe, St John and the restaurants opened by their ex-chefs) but now there is so much more. I love the challenge that brings. We all have to work hard and rise to excellence.
Tea and cakes are obviously part of London’s cultural existence, so you seem to be in the right place! What is it like to make cakes in such a unique place?
My only goal for Violet was that the cakes were the most delicious, satisfying and beautiful versions of what I like to make, and with the freshest, most seasonal produce. It’s a simple equation, but challenging to execute because it means lots of labour and expensive ingredients. So the money was always going to go into ingredient and staff costs. The space was an exercise in making the most out of what I could afford.
Violet Bakery is really one of the cities most beloved bakeries. How did you decide to open it, and where did the idea come from?
First of all, thank you! Is it? That makes me so happy. Pinch! I had started my stall on Broadway Market the third month after I had moved here from California. I thought I had something to say and add to the food scene that was really just taking off at that time. After nearly five years of trading on the street in all weather conditions and baking from home, I was desperate to expand and have a brick-and-mortar space. My husband and I found the space on Wilton Way, and the price was right.
The idea was to do more of what I did at the market but also adding great teas, coffees, soft drinks and then a few savoury dishes. It has grown organically since then. It's basically all based around a way for me to express myself through baking and not eat it all myself.
You first set up a stall in Broadway Market. On Saturday’s, the market is home to some of the best food in East London. What was that experience like?
Wonderful. Hard. Cold. Windy. Rainy. I met and spoke with my customers weekly, and they were so supportive and encouraging that I kept going. I thank them!
What do you like most about owning a bakery?
Midnight raids for cake.
You’ve also worked as a recipe developer for different projects and have recently released your own cookbook The Violet Bakery Cookbook. Do you share some of the secrets behind your delicious cakes in the book?
I share everything. No secrets. I like to help others become better bakers, and I’m not worried about giving things away. I think it only makes my business and brand stronger to be generous and share the love. The recipes are super tested. So when the folks at home splash out on expensive ingredients and make a lot of effort to bake a lovely cake from my book for their friends, it works! No surprises.
When you’re formatting a new recipe, what do you do? Do you often just go for it, or do you measure everything consistently? Do you have a process?
I definitely measure and take lots of notes. Taste, taste, taste the whole time. It’s about getting the balance right. Then I make it at least two more times to be sure it was all recorded properly. I always have a craving when I set out to develop a new recipe. It starts from a desire to eat something, and then it goes from there.
What do you like most about being located in Hackney?
It's where I have always lived since moving here to London ten years ago. I've watched the borough grow and evolve, and I care a lot about it. Even before I moved here, it was where our friends lived when we visited from California so I know it really well. And it has everything we need. Finally the suppliers I want are more willing to deliver here, because there are so many more like-minded business ordering from them. When we are all buying higher quality products, it's less expensive and more readily available. Yay!
How did you decide on the name Violet?
It just fit — nostalgic but new. It’s my favourite flower as a child. It also has an intoxicating scent, and you can't really cultivate them. They are much more fragrant in the wild. They’re very English, but I had them in my garden in California as a child, too. It just came together!
Do you have a favourite sweet treat?
Anything with sour cherries.
You’ve mentioned before that cakes make people happy. Was that your mission in opening Violet Bakery?
It's great to run a business that cheers people up. Life is hard. Little sweet treats that bring joy to our lives can help us remember to appreciate life and also to share with loved ones. It may sound corny, but it's true. I still smile every time I see those mini cupcakes being iced in all their seasonal-flavoured glory. It's a small thing.