Baking for both sides of Capitol Hill’s Gluten Divide: Q&A with Toby Matasar

Toby Matasar is rapidly diversifying her mini-empire of baked goods on Capitol Hill.

A second-generation pastry chef trained in New York and Paris who moved here in 2000, Matasar gained a loyal following running Eats Market Café in West Seattle for a decade. Following the cafe’s 2015 closure, Matasar started a new venture, the Niche Gluten Free Café and Bakery on 12th Ave across from Seattle U, which coincided with her own transition to a paleo diet. In 2017, she bought Crumble & Flake on E Olive Way from acclaimed baker Neil Robertson.

The two daytime eateries are now doing brisk business serving both sides of the gluten divide. Matasar continues to expand and adapt their menus, and she speaks with enthusiasm about her evolving craft and growing clientele. I asked Matasar a few questions about her upcoming plans (French ice cream! Candy!) and the challenges she faces balancing decadence with dietary restrictions.

Is baking a science, an art, or some sort of alchemy? It’s both a science and an art. Those are good words to describe it. There’s definitely a science side to it—you have to be willing to be very technical and the procedures have to be the same every time. There’s definitely an art to it, too, because it’s very visual—you have to know what the bubbles are supposed to look like on your caramel, what the batter should look like. You can’t just look at the picture in a book and expect to get it right if you’re not aware of the ripeness of the fruit or the humidity for certain cakes and cookies and whatnot. Also, a lot of art goes into the techniques for plating, which is the beautiful part because I’m the worst artist. This is my only medium—I can’t draw at all!When you started the gluten-free place did you have to learn the craft over again without gluten? All of the little idiosyncrasies I have for my recipes, I had to just say, “Okay, don’t expect it to look like that because it’s not going to.” I got my original recipes and took out the flour, then I’d look at what happens and decide: more or less liquid? More or less fat? As I continued it’s gotten a little easier. My friends who’ve been eating my pastries for years tell me they can’t tell the difference—they don’t know whether or not this is the gluten-free one.

Is that the ultimate vote of confidence? For sure. There are a lot of gluten-free things that you know it’s gluten-free the moment you take a bite. Because I have to eat gluten-free and I’m not willing to lower my standards of what I want to eat, I wouldn’t expect that of my customers either.

Do you find that your gluten-free clientele are more appreciative because it’s harder for them to access the good stuff? I get people who are beside themselves when they come in to Niche. The sad thing is that’s where the industry is at right now: a completely underserved population. We’re in this business to take care of people and provide them with delicious food and there are very few [gluten-free] places like that in Seattle. It’s supposed to be a relaxing experience. You’re not supposed to be frustrated and anxious while you read the menu. You’re supposed to sit down, relax and enjoy yourself.

I’m glad that people have found Niche. They get their experience and I’m happy to provide that. People say, “Oh my God, you just saved my life!” Wow, okay. That’s a little more than I thought I’d be able to accomplish here, but thank you.

I’d imagine they make for loyal customers. We know their names. Consistency is crucial; they know they’re gonna get the same awesome thing. So many people order the exact same thing every time—it’s funny how people apologize for that because 90% of customers order the exact same thing every time. Consistency is really crucial. If you disappoint them they’re not gonna come back.

As far as Crumble & Flake, you’re taking over from another baker.  How’s that going for you? It’s still in transition. I haven’t fully accomplished everything there that I want to yet. In the beginning there seemed to be some confusion as to whether I was changing it to gluten-free. Why would I possibly change Crumble & Flake? I started as a French-trained pastry chef and now I have my little patisserie. I bought it because it’s amazing and fantastic. Neil accomplished wonderful things and created magnificent product.

For customers, it’s a comfort thing. They wanna come in and see their babies—their little pistachio croissants, Kouign-amanns, macarons. I wouldn’t take that away from people. But I am looking forward to adding new items. We’ve already added sandwiches. I always like Parisian patisseries where you can get a nibble of something savory and sweet. So we’re working on some more savory items. And then obviously we’re about to do a bunch of Valentine’s Day stuff.

Is that your ‘Super Bowl?’ Valentine’s Day and Mother’s Day are enormous.

You’ve run a bunch of businesses now. What do you hope to accomplish? What are your next goals? It all depends on what space you find. Sometimes you’re thinking of one venture and then a different space comes available.

When I was in Paris I learned French ice creams, which are made very differently than American ice creams. They are exquisite. There’s nothing like them. Anyone who’s been to Paris and gone to Berthillon knows what I’m talking about. People always ask pastry chefs, “What’s your favorite thing to make?” and I always say ice cream. You can do so much with it, endless flavors. You can do anything you want and be so creative. I love my French ice cream.

You’re eventually gonna branch out into every other food group. There’s gonna be a candy shop at some point too! People love it and it makes them happy. That’s what it’s all about.

Is there anything big coming up in the very near future? Breakfast started at Niche, we changed our hours so we’re breakfast/lunch now. Our new menu starts this week and it’s got more breakfast items, more vegan and more paleo. We only added to the menu, we didn’t take things off. We’re focusing on sticking with healthy things that sometimes go to the decadent side. The waffle-inis certainly aren’t vegan or paleo, but they’re good. Sometimes I say, “Eh, this one doesn’t have to be healthy, just delicious.”

Crumble and Flake is located at 1500 E Olive Way. You can learn more at crumbleandflake.com. Niche is located at 808 12th Ave. Learn more at nicheseattle.com.

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