Fermenting the Good Stuff
On a steely Sunday morning in January, the doors to the Aberdeen Pavilion are swung wide open, but Jo-Ann Laverty doesn’t seem bothered by the cold. Nor does the cohort of growers and makers who have arrived early this morning to set up for the weekly farmers’ market. The old exhibition hall becomes cluttered with wooden crates and bins brimming with local foodstuffs and handmade goods — not to mention an astonishing amount of produce given the ferocity of the winter season — while Laverty arrives with just two large blue coolers. She steals a moment to chat with a few merchant neighbours and sip from her tumbler of coffee before she finds her way to a table near the south side of the building. It’s a good location; the sun floods in from the high windows directly overhead and the grip of the cold finally wanes. While the 30 or so vendors set up their ad-hoc shops, Laverty unpacks her coolers of their contents: dozens of small, black-capped jars, each filled with various custards, caramels, and fruit preserves; and layered with a most intriguing ingredient — sourdough cake.
“Maybe one out of 30 people wants to talk about fermentation and the sourdough and cultures,” Laverty says, “Most people just think that it’s a cute jar and it’s the jar that they are attracted to.” With names such as “Carrot Mango Crumble” and “Ginger Apple Caramel” adorning the charming jars and whole cakes — the showstoppers, stunningly decorated with rustic flair — it’s easy to see why the slick design behind her company, Cake Lab, is such a lure. But Laverty hopes some will look past the label. “The people who do want to talk about it, we are just on the same wavelength when it comes to looking at food from a slower perspective, I guess.”
Within the hour, hundreds have herded into the Cattle Castle and several find their way to Laverty’s showcase. They crowd in for the small spoonfuls of cake that she doles out, ogling the jars and occasionally inquiring about her motto: Eat Better Sweets. Laverty is more than happy to explain: “I tell them what’s better is that it is a fermented product using all local grains. It’s not just one white flour, but a combination of grains from a local farm. Those grains are grown in an organic fashion, so they’re good, they’re quality and there is nutrition in there. There is sugar — it is still an indulgence — but I’ve really reduced it so there is, by far, less sugar than a muffin or most quick breads and other cakes. So I always say on the spectrum of cake, it’s a healthy cake.”
True to its namesake, Cake Lab is certainly an experiment — in baking and in business. With fermentation experiencing a surging renaissance, Laverty doesn’t know of anyone else testing out sourdough in sweets. “It wasn’t like I could grab a cookbook and make a chocolate cake,” she says, “It was a totally different process of combining the ingredients and making sure that you got a good end result, in the crumb, the flavour and consistency.”
It’s been a slow process for Laverty, but she believes that is what yields a better result — in food and in business. “Sometimes it’s a way to really renew your passion,” she reflects, “by stepping back and taking it slowly again.” Laverty, a self-professed entrepreneur-at-heart, has learned a thing or two about taking it slow. She has been in the business of food (often cake) since the age of 18 when she began catering for friends from her family’s home in Nepean. By her early 20s, she was baking cakes wholesale from her own kitchen for her one client — a small café up the street. When one café turned into three restaurants, Laverty found a commercial space and a business partner. Soon, they were catering to more than 30 restaurants and the fledgling business showed no signs of stopping. They opened a storefront called the Emerald Bakery on Wellington Street, where Laverty took “whatever requests we got” for catering, wholesale and retail, for the next 12 years.
Her next endeavour came from a happenstance meeting with Jennifer Heagle, an accomplished chef and entrepreneur in her own right, at the school their children attended. They were both looking for a new direction and found one when Laverty stumbled upon 250 square feet of commercial space in Old Ottawa South. “The way we looked at it was, the rent was really inexpensive. Let’s come up with a concept and see if it will fly.”
Their concept, a take-home meal service rooted in local food and community, immediately took off. By their second year, it was clear that The Red Apron would need more space so in 2006, the women took their nascent business to a small storefront on Gladstone Avenue; better known then for its pawn shops, garages and laundromats than its good food options. “It was a super underserviced neighbourhood,” recalls Laverty, “There was more and more demand for the fresh meal service and then retail just exploded.” Again, the pinch to grow was palpable. In 2010, Heagle and Laverty found a bright, sprawling space directly across the street and converted The Red Apron into a local food juggernaut offering more meals and more retail, with the addition of a lunch counter and café.
From a business standpoint, it was a savvy move, but one that took its toll on Laverty. “Being an entrepreneur sucks your energy,” she laments, “You go from work, to carving some time out for family, to carving a little time out for yourself. I knew that I was out of balance.” By 2014, she would need to have surgery for repetitive strain on her hand and need three months off to recover. The physical and emotional exhaustion was also leading to something more troubling for Laverty: a feeling of disconnection from her work and the people around her. “From a personal standpoint, I felt I was standing on a ledge.”
As her hand recovered from surgery, Laverty took a hard look at where she was personally and professionally, and decided three months off wasn’t enough. “I questioned whether I was even an entrepreneur anymore,” she remembers. Laverty took her leave after 10 years with The Red Apron to find her passion again. She reached out to Karen Secord, the director of the Parkdale Food Centre, with an offer to volunteer part-time for the next year. “I had always wanted to sink my teeth into a volunteer opportunity but had only ever paid lip service to it,” says Laverty. Secord charged her with leading a new program called the Collective Kitchen that gave community members in need somewhere to come together, cook and securely store their leftovers. Her years of culinary prowess being put to good use, Laverty’s entrepreneurial expertise also found purpose in laying the groundwork for 13 Muesli: A Social Enterprise. There, Laverty acted as the business mentor for the young entrepreneurs in a program that would turn food insecure teenagers into cereal tycoons.
Laverty also took the time to return to her roots as a baker, taking professional courses in bread and sourdough at the highly lauded King Arthur Flour School in Vermont. As the year wound down, she had learned a profound lesson in the power of good food to connect community and found the spark to reignite her entrepreneurial spirit.
Now with Cake Lab, Laverty is taking it slow again — starting with her cakes. A levain (the french term for a starter) is added to the batter and left to ferment for a full 24 hours. This allows the microorganisms — wild yeasts and lactobacilli — to colonize the dough and bring it into a transformative bubbling state. “I really do believe the fermentation period changes and makes the grain more available for digestibility and nutrition,” says Laverty, “because there is a lot of nutrition in grain. There has to be a transformation process that makes those nutritious qualities available. If you are just mixing and baking it — it hasn’t had time to ferment, it hasn’t had time to transform — then you are sort of cutting things off at the quick.”
“We are such a quick society,” she offers, “Any of those Wonder Bread-style breads that I grew up eating were full of dough relaxers and things that would preserve them. It wasn’t flour, water, salt and yeast. It could last on the shelf forever. All of our food went that way. It’s only the last 15 years or so that there is that conversation about bringing things back to simple ingredients and simple ways of doing things and celebrating that and supporting it.”
That slow-food philosophy frames the Cake Lab method where Laverty sources as many ingredients as possible from her community: the eggs are from Beking’s Eggs in Oxford Mills; fruits and vegetables come from Rideau Pines in North Gower; and her flours come from a variety of grains, all of which are grown nearby on organic farms. If anyone at the market balks at the $7.50 price tag on her jarred cakes, all she has to do is point across the room. “I tell them the quality of the ingredients speak for themselves. George (Wright of Castor River Farms), over in the corner, is where I get a large selection of my grain,” she says, “That’s where the value is.”
With her supply chain under one roof, it’s no wonder Laverty is drawn to the unharried rhythm of the farmers’ market, one rarely felt in your typical grocery. It tunes itself to the stories and connections that exist here, shared over a respect for the method as much as the ingredients. Laverty carries this tune with her even when she is not at the market. Often, she can be found sharing her model for better business over coffee and conversation with upstart and established entrepreneurs, many of whom find themselves staring down the barrel of burnout. Her message to them: keep it simple, support local and by all means, take it slow. “You can’t build a business overnight,” she tells them. Sometimes it's better to let things ferment.