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Gillian Opatrny: A pastry chef who doesn't touch the stuff

Gillian Opatrny at work in bakery window

Gillian Opatrny '08 fell in love with cake decorating at Le Cordon Bleu and is now a custom cake decorator at Sweet Lady Jane in Santa Monica, Calif.

Gillian Opatrny '08 is an anomaly in the world of baking: a pastry chef who can't eat her own creations.

At 16, Opatrny was diagnosed with celiac disease, an auto-immune disorder characterized by intolerance for gluten, a protein found in wheat, rye and barley. Eating anything with gluten in it makes Opatrny sick. So how did this celiac find herself in the baking business?

Teapot-themed birthday cake

A teapot-themed birthday cake. See larger image

Cakes were certainly not on the agenda when Opatrny studied at Cornell. Although her family (her father, Donald Opatrny '74, is a Cornell trustee) had always loved cooking together, she didn't take a single culinary course. But she took just about everything else.

"I am probably the world's most indecisive person, and I kind of cycled through all of the majors including economics, art history, psychology, all sorts of stuff," says Opatrny with a laugh. A chance course in sociology "switched on the light bulb" and she graduated as a sociology major, with a focus on inequality studies.

After leaving Cornell, Opatrny worked in marketing at Johnson & Johnson. "I was really fortunate to have that experience, to do a little sociology and a little bit of creative work," she says. But something was missing, and she found work in a cubicle boring.

Wizard of Oz Emerald City cake

A "Wizard of Oz" Emerald City-themed birthday cake. See larger image

So Opatrny quit her job and moved to Los Angeles to follow a different dream. She enrolled in Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts with the intention of learning the necessary skills to start her own gluten-free bakery. "I always wanted to help people out," she says. "That was the initial motivation for me. It was really a labor of love."

When Opatrny told the chefs at Le Cordon Bleu that she didn't eat any gluten, their invariable response was, "Then why the hell are you here?" But Opatrny persevered, relying on notes and texture to judge her cooking. "I think I was the only person in culinary school to lose weight," she says.

At home, Opatrny translated what she'd learned into gluten-free versions. Despite some "epic failures," she had some triumphs, like re-creating the Mallomar cookie she missed. Making the gluten-free graham cracker for it was particularly tricky, she says, and it required special expertise to temper the chocolate so it cracked nicely when she bit into it.

But midway through her courses, her culinary journey took a sudden detour. Opatrny fell in love with cake decorating.

Opatrny has always been creative. She did lots of studio art in high school and spent all her free time at Cornell singing with Hearsay, an all-female a cappella group on campus, though the reason she didn't take any studio art classes at Cornell, she explains with a laugh, is because they included early morning labs.

Cake for a baby shower

A cake for a baby shower. See larger image

Not long after graduating from Le Cordon Bleu, Opatrny landed the prestigious position of custom cake decorator for the new Santa Monica location of Sweet Lady Jane, a famous West Hollywood bakery.

Opatrny acknowledges the irony of her position. "I'm surrounded by cakes and some days I'm elbow deep in cake if I'm sculpting it. But as long as I don't eat it it's not a problem, and I don't." No doubt her employer appreciates that Opatrny doesn't snack on the inventory.

Of Opatrny's many creations, she says her pride and joy is a birthday cake for an Alice in Wonderland tea party-themed party. Another of her more creative cakes was a roulette wheel that the client actually played when he got it home. The cake ingredients include such mouth-watering items as Belgian chocolate ganache, passion fruit pastry cream and English lemon curd; elaborate constructions can cost more than $1,000.

Gluten-free Mallomar

Opatrny's gluten-free Mallomar. See larger image

Opatrny's work station is right in the storefront window so passersby can watch her work. No matter how trivial a task she's doing, she always has an audience. "It's like being in the zoo, but I've gotten used to it," she says. "It's really great for business." The time management skills Opatrny gained at Cornell are a key to her success, she says. "I'm constantly checking orders coming up and seeing what I can do ahead of time so that I'm not at work for 18 hours. It's the kind of industry where you just have to get it done. I don't think a lot of people can handle that."

Opatrny won't be starting a gluten-free company any time soon. "Right now I'm completely committed to my job, and I love every second of it," she says. "I get to come to work and sculpt a dinosaur out of a cake. Who does that? It's so much fun."

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