Mayme Gretsch knows something of flowers. The Flor de Almendra––or almond blossom––grows in parts of Spain, and when she recounts its significance to her even now that she’s had some distance on the memory (4500 miles, give or take), her recounting is such that we may as well be standing beside its tree, breathing the fragrant buds, admiring the shades of smoke-white petals, each vignetted by soft, pale pink.
Only in the environment of this particular recollection, it isn’t likely that Gretsch would have been able to appreciate much of this aesthetic at all. It was in the blinding blackness of a Spanish midnight, while working in the restaurant at the renowned Hotel Ferrero an hour outside Valencia, that Gretsch found herself in an unusual engagement with the almond tree, earnestly and expeditiously climbing its limbs with little more than cell-phone and moon light by which to do so.
“I was working on pastry, and there was a dish that was all about almonds. We had an almond ice cream, an almond caramel, and then it was topped with Flor de Almendra, which is a flower from the almond tree. We had our own tree in the back. We’re plating this dish, and the chef is the surgeon and I’m the nurse, handing him what he wants. I wasn’t plating anything because he was just so meticulous. And then a petal falls off of the flower, and it was after eleven o’clock at night. He just looks at me and says ‘Mayme––va.’”
“So here I am like, ‘What?!’ It’s pitch black. I don’t have a flashlight––just this little flip phone––and I’m booking it, climbing this tree, trying to find a flower that has all of its petals. And then I finally find it and run [panting] back in to the chef. He just looks at me and says––‘Thank you.’ I mean, it was an experience.”
And while not every dinner service concluded with Gretsch quite so literally in the weeds, she does recall the experience overall to be a challenge somewhat incongruous to her international surroundings.
“I was there for about four months and I just got my ass kicked. It was the most beautiful setting too, which was so ironic because I thought I was maybe in hell. And I just thought––wow, it’s gorgeous here.”
At Utterly, Gretsch’s Nashville, Tennessee-based pastry operation, her creations are developed under slightly less arduous (and idiosyncratic) circumstances. But perhaps it’s experiences like this one that have helped shape both her work ethic and her product philosophy.
“I like things that require a lot of technical ability, like tempering chocolate, making croissant dough, macarons––all that stuff that’s a little tedious and weird and that not a lot of people want to take the time to do.” And while they may personally not want to make them, locals with access to these “weird” items are demonstrating they sure do want to eat them, as evidenced by the regular and rapid emptying of the pastry cases at the likes of Crema Coffee, where many of Utterly’s treats are stocked each weekend. Her Luxardo Cherry croissant doughnuts (don’t call them the…well, you know) have sell-out star power and her hand-made French canelés draw an intense following upon their fall release.
And while the wholesale model itself may be a departure from her time acuminating her technical abilities in global kitchens, the path on which Gretsch traveled to arrive at her pastry business is one along which she collected an enviable culinary pedigree.
In addition to Ferrero, Gretsch spent time at three-Michelin-starred Arzak in Spain before returning to the US for a year-long stint at another Michelin honoree, Chicago’s Alinea.
“I did a two-day stage [at Alinea]; both shifts were around fourteen hours. I stayed at this hostel and literally had no sleep––it was insane. But I guess I did all right; I got an email and they offered me a job as a Chef de Partie.” Gretsch proceeded to spend a year at the restaurant, after which she was approached about an opportunity to help open a new concept in Nashville. The gig was for a 32-seat spot to be called The Catbird Seat, which would go on to collect accolades including a slot among the Ten Best New Restaurants in America by the likes of Bon Appetit and GQ in 2012, and today continues to be one of the toughest tables to secure in town––if not the entire south.
“I had an opportunity with Catbird [Seat], and at the time I was at my year-mark [at Alinea] and it was a lot of fun, but I just decided that it was probably the right time to check out.”
“Everyone thought I was crazy, especially in Chicago,” Gretsch says of the relocation. “But big cities like that have the power to drain you, and Nashville felt like a great change. You can hear the trains go by and the crickets at night and you can still have city life. There’s been such a boom effect; lots of restaurateurs and independent cooks are coming in, along with other artists and things of that nature that are coloring the city. I never thought I’d end up here, but I’m really happy I did. It has so much to offer, and the community has been great. It’s really close-knit.”
That support and sense of community has been integral to operating Utterly; The Catbird Seat, incidentally, is also the setting for our meeting, as the restaurant that formerly employed Gretsch now functions as her commissary two days per week. She graciously invites us behind the now-hallowed counter of the uncommonly empty kitchen where she’s managing the tricky process of tempering chocolate truffles destined for a coffee pairing.
The double duty of doing things like hand-dipping chocolates and taking meetings simultaneously is a multi-tasking daily drill for Gretsch since launching Utterly; her intrinsic adaptability serving her on the business side as well. Currently, everything from sugaring the doughnuts to operating social media to macaron delivery falls under Gretsch’s sole owner and operator job title.
The seeds of what Utterly would become were planted during her time at the restaurant. “I was working here [at Catbird] and was content but––two and a half years––there’s kind of a pattern that develops. It’s not that I wasn’t learning, but I got what I could get out of it.”
Catbird was also the serendipitous setting for Gretsch’s meeting with her would-be fiancé. “He was sitting right there,” she points to a high-backed banquette in one corner of the room. “He’s a cook too––he was working at Blackberry Farms at the time.” Soon after, the couple identified a shared interest in eventually sowing a foundation for their own individual concepts.
“Cooks are like athletes in a way––there’s a real expiration on how long you can be a line cook. Not that there’s an expiration on being a chef, but there’s a point where your knees are totally cashed out or your hands lock up or you’re just living a harder lifestyle, and we realized that we didn’t really want to do that until we were forty; we decided that we both wanted to work for ourselves.”
Gretsch’s fiancé now owns and operates a food truck, Street Provisions. “It’s basically Tex-Mex; long smoked briskets, fifteen-hour pork.” I can’t help but audibly imagine that the aromas of doughnuts and pork must make them an awfully popular couple.
“I’m sure we smell very weird,” Gretsch laughs.
As for her own operation, Utterly blossomed from an original emphasis on ice cream. “This whole idea just started with doing ice cream. I thought, soft serve is cool, and no one was doing real soft serve with real milk and real ingredients. So that was the first product.”
Initially adhering to a single product gave Gretsch the ability to more closely control what might have been challenging had she launched a full product line. “All the milk is from a local dairy. I use single origin chocolate. I could probably have kicked out a bunch of half-assed products, but I just couldn’t sleep at night. I want to use the best chocolate and the best butter and the best strawberries, and if I can’t, I’m not going to sacrifice.”
Gretsch has since slowly cultivated her line to include a few more deliberately chosen items, including macarons, doughnuts, and truffles. “It’s more about understanding my skill set and thinking, okay, I can temper chocolate––truffles would be fun.”
Each of these offerings stem from Gretsch’s unique style. “I’m not trend-forward, but having that wholesale platform I do need to offer things that appeal to the general public. Hopefully I can guide them into the creative part of what I’m doing; it’s not just a macaron––it’s brown butter and lemon thyme. It’s something a little bit different than your standard chocolate.”
Her extensive travels have also clearly informed what she has decided to create, like canelés. “I lived in Bordeaux for a bit and that’s where I fell in love with canelés. I was there for Christmas and I walked down the street and it just smelled like rum and vanilla––almost exotic––and they’re just phenomenal.”
The growing demand for Gretsch’s ice creams and other confections is providing a sturdy trellis on which her small business has begun to climb. “People seem to be responding positively and demand is going up, but right now it’s more about what I’m capable of doing.”
In the meantime, Gretsch is focused on allowing Utterly to flourish organically, in a way that her time and dedication to quality will consent. “It’s definitely the beginning for me. It was the only way I could really start. This is the hustle moment. I’m not sure what kind of metamorphosis this whole concept will take. I definitely have thoughts, and there’s so much more that I want to do. Starting out a business as one person, I’m just trying to figure out what I can do to make a living, to keep moving forward, and to eventually expand.”
For the moment, that means continuously tending to the business and its development as opportunities germinate. “This is very grassroots. I no longer have a sense of the days of the week––it’s just, always. There are no breaks to stop and smell the roses.”
A few weeks after meeting Gretsch, I happen upon a selection of Utterly doughnuts at Crema Coffee, and since on more than one occasion I have arrived to find the case emptied, I capitalize on my good fortune, ordering a couple of options: one meyer lemon and poppy seeds, and another, a pillowy brioche pocket in which elderflower and vanilla pastry cream has been expertly piped.
When they are presented to me, they are as stunning as they prove to be delicious. I smile at the drift of tiny pale flowers that have settled into a creamy glaze coating the elderflower variety, each bud no bigger than a button, finding their way into perfectly natural formation across the frosted top.
And while it’s not likely Gretsch made any midnight excursions for this particular pastry (although you never know), I can imagine her at work decorating, absorbed in the surgeon-like attention to detail osmosed from mentors met along her path.
Gretsch’s products are a clear culmination of her experience and dedication, a collection reaped from the seeds of a working memory, manifested as lemon thyme macarons or roasted vanilla soft serve ice cream, or as a fresh and delicately-formed doughnut beneath a flurry of edible flowers.
As the sole proprietor and operator of her business, there is no doubt that Gretsch is out on a limb. But with deeply sturdy roots and carefully measured growth, it’s easy to imagine the future of Utterly in full bloom.