Tracy Obolsky has had 3 hours of sleep, yet she looks better rested than the whole of Manhattan. “We had a party last night for a new female-run surf brand,” she explains. “It was such a chill group of women – including this amazing female DJ. I’m running on fumes, but I still woke up this morning to paddle out.”
Toned and tan – with a smile so broad it garners the descriptor ear-to-ear – the immediate reaction to Tracy is, “I’ll have what she’s having.” (Which, at the moment, is a tall to-go mug of iced drip coffee.) But her buzz is more compelling than simply caffeine: after ten years of keeping the grueling schedule of the city’s culinary elite, this first-time entrepreneur is finally getting a taste of her just desserts.
“When you work in the restaurant industry, you convince yourself to believe that if you put in twelve hours each day, you’re lazy. At a certain point, I just didn’t want to do that. You could put in 70 hours a week, and people could still be judging you for how early or late you’re there!”
Ironically, Tracy first discovered the early bird world of pastry while working the night shift – as a bartender. During the day, the recent Pratt Institute grad found herself watching competition shows about crazy cakes, so she enrolled in pastry school. Yet during her first job, she found her self attracted less to creative cakes and more towards the high-energy intensity of the restaurant world. Working under the now ice-cream-famous Chef Nick Morgenstern, she soon had consulted on such diverse restaurant concepts as Madison & Vine, Cookshop, Five Napkin Burger and The General Greene.
Her first Executive Pastry Chef gig came in 2009 at Esca, where Chef Dave Pasternack challenged her to think outside the realm of familiar ingredients. Four years later, she shifted from that Italian-inspired kitchen to the rustic farm-to-table charm of North End Grill, run by the celebrated Union Square Hospitality Group. The experience was a sort of hands-on Masters degree in management, immersing Tracy in restaurateur Danny Meyer’s warm hospitality style. During the same period, Tracy also made another important change: a move from Fort Greene to the Rockaways.
“I loved living in Fort Greene, but the neighborhood had changed. I was so excited to be out by the ocean, but I was waking up at 6am, getting home at 1am, and working my butt off in a basement. One day, pushing through the turnstile, I realized that I had seen the same overnight subway worker at both the beginning and the end of a single shift. He looked at me like I was crazy.”
Though she hadn’t had time to get to know many people in the Rockaways, one late-night pizzeria, Wit’s End, had become Tracy’s home base. On her days off, she started cooking with the owner, Whit Aycock, making sticky buns in his pizza oven. Around that time, Tracy had returned to Cookshop – where she had previously worked under Nick Morgenstern – but her interest in Manhattan fine dining was waning. When Whit asked her if she wanted to team up, she decided to make a break for it. Off-the-radar and starting her days in the surf, Tracy started baking breakfast pastries out of her home kitchen, then selling them out of a shack in the marina or a summer concessions stand at Jacob Riis Park.
Yet after six months of toting around baked goods on her bike, Tracy was ready to get back to a real kitchen space. Though she had no financial backing, her newfound connections in the community gave Tracy the confidence to look into opening her own space. Spotting an opening down the street from Rippers and Rockaway Beach Surf Club, she inquired with the local landowner. Another project was slated for the space, but when it fell through, he decided to bet on Tracy’s Rockaway Beach Bakery.
“Everything you see here, either I or one of my friends built,” Tracy laughs. From the surfboard embedded with speakers to the starfish pillows, the entire space echoes the baker’s own colorful, laid-back vibe. “My husband insisted we play records in the space, and my friends designed a reclaimed wood counter to house the pastries and cash register. In the backyard, we have just a couple hammocks, but that’s all we really need. I just want everyone to chill out and feel at home.”
As for the menu, Tracy makes no commitments. “Each day, I’m crafting whatever I feel like. If rhubarb is in season, it’s tarts. If I see that we’re running low on something, but it’s already two o’clock – that’s it for the day. I’m learning how to anticipate how much we’ll need to last through the afternoon, but I’m not willing to compromise quality for convenience or consistency.”
Observing the shop at 2pm on a busy Sunday, it doesn’t seem that any of Tracy’s guests are suffering. From a flaky salted honey croissant to a fluffy foccacia or a pile of glossy sticky buns, there were still plenty of treats to go around. When a guest asks about strawberries, Tracy explains – with a genuine interest in educating – that the season is already over in New York City. Then she pulls a tray of piping-hot fruit tartelettes out of the oven; the perfect response, if ever there was one.
“I wake up every morning and head out to surf – usually watching the sun rise, sometimes with dolphins swimming alongside me. Then I ride my bike to the bakery and get to work. In a couple hours, all the other surfers pile into the shop with their wet hair and it’s like Cheers. Everybody knows each other, everyone uses the same [surf] lingo. And when I’m out there with them, there’s invariably someone waving at me from behind a wave, yelling ‘bakery!’ I couldn’t ask for a better platform, a better way to be a part of the community.”
Written by contributor, Carly DeFilippo from Life & Thyme.