The St. Pete Bakery is buzzing with activity. After all, it's that time of year when calories don't count quite as much and customers are willing to splurge on decadent desserts.
Bakers are assembling cookie platters, gingerbread houses are under construction and mixers are turning out doughs, frostings and fillings while shoppers mill about deciding which prize they'll take home.
It makes executive pastry chef and bakery owner Michael Ostrander beam with pride. Why have his baked goods been so sought after for more than a decade, first at St. Petersburg's Saturday Morning Market and more recently at his bakery near Sunken Gardens?
"Because they're made with the finest quality ingredients not usually found at the average commercial bakery, like chocolate that comes from Switzerland and Belgium," Ostrander said. "I can't tell you how many times I was offered work at bakeries and turned them down because they wouldn't work with quality ingredients."
When Ostrander talks, you can almost taste his passion. The 64-year-old has been baking, consulting, teaching and mentoring for more than 50 years. He will hang up his whisk and apron soon, with plans to retire at the end of February and turn over the operation to a former student.
"Fifty years is long enough," Ostrander said in a recent interview, "and the young chef who's taking over is terrific. I want to play in my garden and have weekends off."
We caught up with Ostrander to talk about his life and a long career that took him from U.S. Army kitchens to hotels and restaurants around the world, including a stint as personal pastry chef for President-elect Donald Trump at his Mar-a-Lago estate in Palm Beach.
Tell us how you started in the business.
I went to vocational school as a teenager in New Jersey to become a baker instead of going to regular high school. I joined the Army and soon started teaching baking. While on assignment in Germany, a son of Gen. George S. Patton, a general himself, was a patient in the hospital where I worked. He called me to his room and wanted to know why the desserts were so good. Two days later I was reassigned. For six years I traveled around teaching Army cooks how to do pastry.
What are you proud of?
That we use the highest quality ingredients. I opened the St. Pete Bakery two years ago because St. Pete deserved a quality bakery. We make everything from scratch, even the croissant dough, and everything we produce is filled with love and passion. I love what I do and I surround myself with people who are just as passionate as I am about pastry.
What was it like working for Donald Trump for a year?
At the time, I was teaching in San Francisco and he invited me to work at Mar-a-Lago. He was starting The Apprentice at the time and flew in to Palm Beach every weekend. He always shook my hand, was extremely polite, never treated me like I was beneath him, always treated me like an equal. He loved pastry and wanted to go all out for his guests.
Did he have a favorite?
He loved my chocolate mousse cake and took one home with him almost every weekend. (Editor's note: That cake can be special ordered at St. Pete Bakery.)
Do you bake at home?
Never. Not once in my life have I ever baked in my home.
Who does the cooking at home?
My girlfriend of 20 years who is Italian-American from Long Island. She learned to cook in her family's kitchens. She is an awesome cook. Nothing ever comes from a box; it's always made fresh.
What do you like to do when you're not working?
I like to fish, shoot pool. I like to listen to karaoke and I love the beach.
Do you have a favorite recipe?
After 50 years in the business, traveling to 18 countries, winning numerous gold medals and pastry competition awards, it's hard to say one is my favorite. But, one of the best pastry chefs of all time, Albert Kumin, created a cake called Chocolate Velvet Cake. I have many of his recipes, but that is a superior item. (Editor's note: Kumin, who was the pastry chef for Jimmy Carter's White House, died in September.)
What is an ingredient you couldn't cook without?
What if you're ordering dessert; what would your choice be?
That's, um, a tough question. Probably a real handmade, quality apple strudel.
Is there anything you'd like to make that you haven't done yet?
It was a favorite of Julia Child — I worked with her once, years ago — it's called the Reine de Saba, a chocolate almond cake. I can't even describe how good it is. I'd like to make that here.
Contact Irene Maher at [email protected]