After years of working in the biotech division of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office and teaching overseas, Del Ray resident Emma Cech was finally honing her true craft at L'Academie de Cuisine when she was diagnosed with celiac disease.
But she didn't let that stop her from finishing the program or pursuing her dream of opening a bakery.
"I can't eat anything with wheat, barley or rye," she sighs, recalling the frustration of not being able to taste her own pastries while attending culinary school because of the gluten found in most baking flours. "I had to rely on other people's taste buds, which isn't something I wanted to do."
Cech followed up the one-year program with a six-month internship and then began exploring potential bakery sites in October 2010.
"I had planned originally to spend more time working for other people, but working in pastries and not being able to taste anything just makes it too unrewarding and difficult," she said. "You don't know what you're sending out there."
Hence the birth of the area's first gluten-free patisserie, The Happy Tart, soon to be located at 2307A Mt. Vernon Avenue.
The gluten-free industry is a growing one, with celiac disease now affecting 1 out of 133 people in the United States.
"A lot of other cities have gluten-free bakeries—New York, Pittsburgh, Annapolis, Sperryville [Va.]—but there's nothing here, and there's such a need for it," she explains. "My goal is to use my classical training at L'Academie and my food science degree [from University of Delaware] and provide really high-end, gluten-free pastries."
This full-service patisserie will sell everything from tarts and cakes to french bread and pizza crust, with each recipe featuring a combination of at least six flours, such as brown rice, tapioca, cornstarch and buckwheat. The bakery will also be available to cater weddings, birthdays and other affairs.
Cech credits the with helping her through the sometimes murky process of opening a small business.
"It was great to have the center to say people have worked with these [contractors] before and they're good. They've been fantastic," she praises.
She is also grateful for her taste-testing husband and two teenage children.
"My kids are my biggest critics," she smiles. "And they don't like the fancy stuff. They just want a plain chocolate cupcake," which, by the way, will be available for purchase at The Happy Tart. "And I'm hoping I'll get more customers than just gluten-free [eaters], because in Del Ray there isn't a French bakery."
Renovations are still taking place within the former garage, and Cech hopes to have the space open by Oct. 1, just in time for .
Until then, visit The Happy Tart website for updates and to peruse the menu.