In the moment, my grandparents could have never known they were shaping my future. I spent weekends with my father’s parents, Grandma Hilda and Grandpa Ralph Flodman and they were some of my favorite days learning about love, food, and how small acts of kindness can set the tone for an entire lifetime. My parents and all of my grandparents were farmers and food provided the energy they needed to work and there were no days off. Dessert was an integral part of every meal so they had morning coffee with dessert, lunch with dessert, afternoon coffee with dessert, and supper with dessert. With four desserts per day, they needed several options on hand to get through an entire week.
On Fridays after school, I went to Grandpa and Grandma Flodman’s house and Grandma and I would sit together
and make a list of all the baked goods we would prepare on Saturday. Once that list was made, we would make our grocery list of what we needed from the store to make it all happen. Grandpa would take me with him to the store to get the contents of the list and it was the slowest drive every time. I remember frequently asking him whether his truck goes more than 15 miles per hour since a 10-minute drive took a half hour. As I matured, I recognized that Grandpa wasn’t slow, he was intentional. At the store, he took time to stop and talk to everyone he knew. Compared to today when we race to get to our destinations and we barely offer a quick greeting when we see someone we know in the middle of our rush. He exemplified that whatever you’re doing deserves your full attention and care.
One of my favorite memories is the weekly tradition Grandpa and Grandma had during our list making and ingredient gathering. Grandma would tell Grandpa to get only the items on the list – no extras. But when we returned with the groceries, Grandma would sit and compare the list with the receipt to make sure nothing was forgotten. At the end of the list, she’d see an entry for a candy bar that Grandpa bought me and a bottle of red wine he chose for her. She would scold him, always with a sheepish smile and their exchange showed me that these small gestures make all the difference in marriage and good living.
Saturday mornings, after we made breakfast for Grandpa, Grandma and I would start baking. From cookies and cakes to cream puffs and pies, we’d bake all day starting with the easiest and ending with the hardest. Looking back, I realize we probably ended with the easiest but it seemed the hardest because I was so exhausted by the time we reached that final baked good. We’d end the day with dinner, dessert, and Grandma drinking her red wine while we watched the Lawrence Welk show together. Sundays after church were difficult for me because that meant I had to go back home to chores and homework, and I’d rather stay with Grandma and Grandpa baking and learning about things I loved.
When summer break came around, I would spend 2 to 3 weeks with my mom’s parents, Grandma Dorthy and Grandpa Don Boyd. Grandma Dorthy created for herself a cake decorating business to help support the family. They had 5 children and baking and decorating cakes was something she could do at home while caring for the children and household obligations. She became well known in her community for her decorated wedding and birthday cakes. Though I wasn’t allowed to help her with the cakes, we would bake Christmas cookies together and decorate them giving me the first glimpse into the world of cookie and cake decorating.
After a childhood of learning how to bake by taste, texture, and feel, I knew I wanted to make a career of it. Not just a career, a lifestyle. After graduating high school, I left middle America Nebraska and headed to Long Island to take a position as a nanny. I learned to cook and become creative with food and after my year-long commitment, I left Long Island for New York City where I became a housekeeper/cook for a very wealthy family. It wasn’t the life I envisioned – being taken in and made to be part of the family. I was more like a servant and I grew unhappy very quickly. I found an apartment on the upper west side where an 8×10 room would become my home and my stove would only hold a 9×13 pan.
My search for restaurant jobs resulted in being turned down repeatedly, so I sought the advice of a general manager of a restaurant to learn how to get my foot in the door. He was firm in his answer: culinary school. Within a week of that conversation, I was enrolled in the New York Culinary Arts and Management School where I completed my education and training in six months.
During that time, I needed to work to earn an income to live so a friend of mine connected me with Paul and Peggy Simon, yes THAT Paul Simon. I became Peggy’s personal assistant as she and Paul divorced. Working for Peggy Simon resulted in additional housekeeping and dog-walking jobs for a number of celebrities including Michael J. Fox.
To complete my education, I was required to complete a six-month unpaid internship. I landed a baker position at a French bakery in Manhattan, on the edge of the Bronx. Chef Jean Claude was difficult, to say the least, unable to keep interns who typically quit before their first day was complete. No matter the abuse, I stayed. I knew I needed to prove my commitment to the craft or I would never work in a kitchen again.
Tip: Never ask an angry man holding a cast iron skillet a question. Chef Jean Claude had approached me one day early on and gave me the assignment to make pastry cream. I’d only done it once and not in the way I had seen Chef do it on a couple of occasions. In response to asking him how he wanted me to prepare the pastry cream, he whacked me on the head with that cast iron skillet and told me to just do it. The trial and error from that experience taught me that it doesn’t matter how something is done, it matters that it’s done well. A (literally) painful lesson that I carry with me to this day.
As I continued to work for him, I learned that Chef Jean Claude loved two things: Coffee and Neil Diamond. It quickly became my routine to arrive at the bakery early every day and have the coffee brewed and Neil Diamond on the sound system before Chef arrived. This resulted in occasional good moods for Chef when I was able to learn many techniques that I know I wouldn’t otherwise if it weren’t for a daily dose of caffeine and a little ‘Heartlight.’
Once my internship with Chef Jean Claude was over, I stayed with him for two more years learning as much about handling anything that life can throw at me as much as I was learning about baking. I then went to work for a high-end catering company where I made a carrot cake for Madonna’s birthday, baked for Peggy Simon, Mary Tyler Moore, and Yoko Ono, along with others on the celebrity scene.
I made a carrot cake for Madonna’s birthday, baked for Peggy Simon, Mary Tyler Moore, and Yoko Ono, along with others on the celebrity scene.
After thirteen years in New York and rubbing elbows with the rich and famous, I decided to return to Nebraska where my children could get a good education and my love of baking could be based on the things I love. I opened my own bakery, Alotta Brownies, in Fremont. My success with Alotta Brownies over the course of 8 years with Alotta Brownies taught me I wanted to do more and reach more people with my message and my passion. I took the leap to open The Omaha Bakery in October 2016, where relationships and community have become as much a part of my story as my most famous pastries.
Welcome back to Nebraska. What have been some of your biggest challenges with the Omaha location and Omaha clientele?
Michelle is a very talented baker. Her kindness reaches out to the community in volumes. I wish her much success with The Omaha Bakery. She works hard for her customers, and she always has a smile for them.
Enjoyed your presentation last night at Ladies Night Out in Central City. As little as I know we are related. My Grandma Helen Nelson was your Grandma Hilda were twin sisters. I remember going to your Grandma’s every year to celebrate their birthdays. Yes the deserts were marvelous.