Photography by Jody Horton
The life of a bread maker is not for the faint of heart—waking up before the sun, enduring hour upon hour on your feet and keeping an exhaustive eye out for anything that might ruin a batch of dough are the norm. But for Barrie Cullinan of Amity Breads, Pastries and Friends, the commitment required to live this demanding, routine-driven lifestyle is ideal for her efficient, hardworking disposition.
A typical day commences at 3 a.m. when, like clockwork, Cullinan slips on her black Dansko kitchen clogs and heads off to the shared kitchen space she rents on West 4th Street. Within a half hour—after brewing a pot of coffee, slicking back her short, brown hair and tying the strings of her apron—she’s ready to proof the croissant dough.
Proofing takes about two hours, after which Cullinan’s two assistant bakers will have arrived to start their days. As her teammates scatter toward individual tasks, Cullinan will need to focus on the almond croissants that keep her the busiest. The woven textures and flavors of the flaky crust, gooey amaretto soak, cakey frangipane and crunchy almonds must be delicately sculpted into her signature pastries. Cullinan has it down to an art, but credits the quality of local staple ingredients such as whole wheat from Richardson Farms and honey from Boggy Creek Farm as part of the secret to her success. By 6 a.m., the busy team will have produced roughly 100 each of croissants, brioches, baguettes and ciabattas, ready to package and deliver to vendors throughout Austin that day.
During her nine years of working in Austin, Cullinan’s name has been rising slowly but surely across the pastry circuit—first in the quiet whispers of Austin’s rapidly evolving culinary scene, and more recently in the roar of making Bon Appétit magazine’s list of the “Top 10 Best Bread Bakeries in America.”
With that seemingly out-of-nowhere national recognition, Cullinan says she’s suddenly busier than ever. But make no mistake; she’s not complaining. And she’s not changing much in the way she’s been doing business.
“I’m not trying to sell to all of Austin and overload myself,” she says. “I work in small batches, and when I run out, I run out.”
Still, customers continue to ask when Cullinan might take the next big step and open her own shop. “People ask me about it nearly every day,” she says. “I’m getting excited because they seem so excited for me.”
Even amid the bustle and excitement, Cullinan admits that she never rushes into anything, and never even conceived of a life surrounded by giant, silver kitchen mixers, flour-adorned clothing and endless bread baking. In fact, she made her way into the food world through a bit of a back door. Before she became a baker, Cullinan lived in Houston and worked in museum fund-raising. Through hosting numerous dinner parties, she developed a reputation among friends for producing impressively bold, ambitious dishes. With enough encouragement and a leap of faith, she decided to enroll and study at Peter Kump’s New York Cooking School (now called The Institute of Culinary Education).
But bread making didn’t make its way into Cullinan’s life until well after culinary school. “It always seemed so scientific, too mysterious,” she says. “And I always had this fear of the dough falling.”
Soon, Cullinan trained under Paula Oland of Balthazar Bakery in New York City, and the experience provided the spark that made her fall in love with the art of bread making. After four years of training, Cullinan took an additional six months to choose Austin as her new destination. Over the years, as she baked for the beloved Austin landmark Quack’s, then Vespaio, followed by Enoteca Vespaio, Cullinan’s name slowly became familiar as customers recognized her trademark flavors.
After Enoteca, Cullinan became her own boss, and with the relationships she’d built in the foodie community, she had a list of 20 loyal vendors eager to buy her goods. And now, even though her wholesale business is booming, she dreams of her own storefront. Ideally, she imagines it to be a small shop in East Austin, with a community atmosphere so she can easily come from behind the counter to connect with customers. Pies, tarts, cakes, cookies and sandwiches would be on the menu, but she would insist on keeping things as spare and contained as possible to prevent overload.
As per her usual style, though, Cullinan feels there will be a perfect time and place to make that leap, and she’s just not there yet. “There is still so much I want to see, taste and experience,” she says. “I think with travel and time, I will have a much more well-rounded vision that I can bring through in my work.”
Find Barrie Cullinan’s baked goods on the menu at East Side Showroom, Second Bar + Kitchen and Dai Due’s booth at the SFC Farmers’ Market–Downtown, and for sale at La Boîte, Boggy Creek Farm, Antonelli’s Cheese Shop, Jo’s Coffee and Royal Blue Grocery. To order online, visit farmhousedelivery.com or barriebaking.com.