Healing and happiness, one pastry at a time
It’s 3 a.m. and Maddie Brehm ’15 is ready to get her hands dirty. Over the next eight hours, this young and earnest pastry chef will create dozens of edible art — macarons, chocolate éclairs, petits fours, chouquettes — that will end up enticing customers at both Patisserie 46 and Rose Street Patisserie in Minneapolis. To say this longtime home-baker is living out a dream is an understatement; baking saved her life.
For most of her childhood, Brehm went undetected with Lyme disease. She fought brain fog, chronic fatigue and stomach cramps that practically shackled her to the bed. She avoided dairy, gluten, soy, sugar — anything she thought could potentially make her feel ill. “I got sick when I was five,” she recalls, “and I was finally diagnosed correctly at 16 or 17.”
To keep her mind off the persistent malaise, she spent hours sifting flour, beating eggs and measuring sugar. “For so long, I was really just living one day at a time,” says Brehm, who grew up in Eagan, Minnesota and earned a bachelor’s degree in Asian Studies and Language Studies. “I was anxious a lot and had trouble connecting with other people. Baking became my way to communicate. I was creating versions of all the things I couldn’t have because of food sensitivities. And that was OK. I was content just watching someone eat and truly enjoy what I made.”
By the time she started at St. Kate’s — her health finally in check after a year of antibiotic treatment — Brehm began to flourish. She made the dean’s list and the prestigious Phi Beta Kappa honor society. She founded a club for commuter students and served as its president. She became a Senate member, orientation leader, writing tutor and teaching assistant for two English as a Second Language (ESL) courses. And through it all, she continued to turn out delicious confections for family and friends.
But she never intended baking to be her career. She was set on being an ESL teacher. Things changed after a fall semester in Japan.
“I was living with a family in a very old, traditional house with one burner on the stove and no oven,” she says. “I felt like I had lost my voice, that I couldn’t fully open up and share myself through what I knew best. I missed baking so much that when I returned to the United States, I think I baked 12 hours straight!” Brehm decided baking wasn’t just a pastime. It would be her work. After graduating, she entered a pastry program at Gastronomicom in Cap d’Agde, France. What followed was an internship at La Passagère, a Michelin-star restaurant in Juan-les-Pins with a staggering view of the French Riviera.
“I had no experience in a professional kitchen and I barely spoke French, but there I was — because France was on my travel bucket list — and I held my own,” she says. “My time at St. Kate’s definitely helped me navigate a kitchen full of men, including a chef who didn’t speak English. The University’s supportive, womencentric environment taught me how to be a leader, how to communicate, how to organize myself, how to help other people and, most importantly, how to stand up for myself.”
Back in the Land of 10,000 Lakes, it’s 11 a.m. and Brehm’s ready to call it a day. She sleeps when most people are awake, and she labors away (Friday to Tuesday) when loved ones like her mom, Barbara O’Toole-Brehm ’83, are tucked in bed. Yet, even with an unorthodox schedule, Brehm finds solace in the art of baking. “Sometimes in today’s political climate, I feel guilty for just wanting to make cake,” she says. “But I think that it’s very important to have those little pieces of happiness in your life.”