Students at Rowan University are treated to fresh baked goods in the cafteria, more formally known as the Marketplace, every day. There are three people that pump out 600-800 cookies a day, and lead baker Kathleen Pearce heads them all.
Originally a nurse for 20 years, she switched careers at age 36 after learning a valuable lesson from her patients. She has spent the last four years working in the kitchens of Rowan, loving every minute of it. She holds two associate degrees from the Academy of Culinary Arts .
Here’s an interview I had with her:
So, what made you career switch?
“You know, in working with hospice patients for 10 years, what I kept hearing from them was, ‘Don’t wait to do what you want to do with your life. What’s your passion? Find your passion.’ They would tell me in there they were going to travel, but by the time they retired they had a terminal diagnosis. I had several patients in their thirties and forties, and they would say, ‘My life hasn’t even begun, and now it’s ending.’ So it’s a lot about learning from patients, and over time, just processing ‘What is my passion? What do I want to do with my life?'”
Where did you grow up?
“In Michigan, I grew up on a dairy farm. … We had chickens, and we had pigs, and horses, so I grew up riding horses. … I tell people I never had bought bread until I was probably 15; I never had process milk until I left home and went to college, ’cause we got milk straight out of the cow. … I think you learned how to entertain yourself. I grew up on a 200-acre farm, so we had a neghbor that was a quarter of a mile down the road. … We had an orchard, we had a garden, so in the summertime I had a lot of gardening chores, a lot of stuff associated with food.”
Do you think that really influenced you and the way you cook?
“Yes, absolutely. I was used to fresh, so like I said, no processed milk, freshly baked bread, had dessert every night for dinner. I guess just kind of a very earthy philosophy.”
Do you only do baking now?
“Well, when I finished with my culinary degree, I decided I wanted to do baking, so I took classes at the American Institute of Baking; it’s in Manhattan, Kansas, and I’m one practical exam away from having my master’s certification. I just have to take the two day test.”
Now, once you graduated, did you come here directly?
“No, I worked in a farm market in Medford, Johnson’s farm, and then I went to Classic Cake in Cherry Hill. Worked there for almost four years, worked on the decorating side and then went to the baking side. It was interesting being the only female baker.”
What do you think has been your greatest influence on your baking, on your cooking? Would you say it was your life on the dairy farm?
“My mom. I guess as I’ve gotten older, and I’ve looked back and a lot of the things that she taught me when I was say 10, 11, 12, when I went to culinary school, I found out the science behind what she was teaching me. So in essence I already knew what she was teaching me, I just didn’t know why. My mom was a cake decorator, so when we got to pastry classes and we had to decorate a birthday cake, I was done in like 20 minutes and my fellow students were done in like two hours.”
What would be one of your most favorite recipes to make?
“Probably a cheesecake. Just a plain, New York-style cheesecake. It’s just a very classic dessert. It can be as upscale as you want it to be. But if you do it well, it doesn’t matter if it’s plain or if you have cherries on top, it just doesn’t matter. It’s just good by itself.”
Do you have any advice for aspiring pastry chefs?
“Practice, practice, practice! I think the most important thing is to follow your own talent, and your own gifts. And just, where’s your passion? You’re not going to get rich.”