Rachel Klemek starts this particular Thursday a half-hour late, at 6 a.m., knuckle-deep in milk, yeast, flour, sugar, salt and soft butter.
Minutes later, Klemek, owner of Blackmarket Bakery in Irvine, switches her attention from croissant dough to one of the biggest challenges of her 60-hour workweek — a birthday cake that looks like a Chinese mahjong game.
The mother of four sweats every detail. On this cake, details include frosting that resembles no fewer than 16 Chinese mahjong tiles and side frosting that looks like a wooden fence. Another detail is the phrase "Happy Birthday," written in neat and, she hopes, correctly spelled Chinese.
"I think it would be better if we got someone who knows Chinese to write the characters," Klemek, 39, tells her secretary.
Klemek considers herself a baker, first.
But artist — or, at least, artistically inclined, iconoclastic baker — comes a close second.
In the five years since she started Blackmarket as what she describes as "an underground" bakery, in an industrial park near John Wayne Airport, she's dazzled clients with creations that include huge dollops of personality — a chocolate on chocolate on chocolate cake called "Total Eclipse;" a tiny pool table tableau known as "The Billiard Cake;" a chocolate-vanilla concoction named "John Doe."
If Batman baked bread, he'd probably work in a kitchen like this.
Stand at Blackmarket's front door and you'll see a pirate-themed T-shirt hanging from a pole in the middle of the room, though, in this case, the typical pirate skull has been swapped out for a photo of a cake. The walls are lined with cookies, chocolate bars, tarts, puddings and all manner of baked good, each item packaged and emblazoned with an ingredients-listing sticker.
Much of the lighting in the shop comes from bulbs placed in fixtures that look like UFO-shaped cakes, situated so they appear to be flying through the room. And, if you glance up at the ceiling, you'll see a flag (again with a pirate theme), and on the flag you'll read Klemek's motto:
"Flavor will prevail."
She hopes she's right.
In recent months, Klemek has expanded her wholesale business, adding workers and building into a space next to her original location. She's doing this - in the teeth of the most severe recession of many lifetimes - with a faith that straight-laced, retail grocery chains will be hungry (literally) for mass quantities of her non-traditional, spectacularly detailed baked goods.
Eventually, Klemek plans to work more on packaging, marketing and product development.
"I would like to see the brand grow while keeping the quality and homemade aspect intact," Klemek says.
"I want to be tinkering with wacky ideas and trying to make something unique."
As a kid, in North Carolina, Klemek learned baking from two primary sources — her grandmother (think of her as a doctor of pancake-ology) and her father (a maestro of pies.) Baking and eating cookies, bojangles (a biscuit), breads and other delicacies were forms of communication, a way of showing — and sharing — family love.
Flash forward to the early 2000s.
Klemek, then in her early 30s, earned an anthropology degree from UC Irvine, and recently attended the Culinary Institute of America in St. Helena to get a certificate in baking and pastry. And while she loves working as a baker at places like Zov's in Tustin and Melisse in Santa Monica, she feels something less than love for many customs of commercial baking — the mass production of routine, overly complicated and, worst of all, boring pastries.
Her dream was simple: she strives to make products that rely on a short list of ingredients — eggs, flour, sugar, butter and no additives. (She also relies on homemade caramel as a semi-secret ingredient, a practice that gives a distinct Klemek taste to all her pastries and cakes.)
She also wanted to make stuff people would eat and, at times, laugh at or think about.
A retail outlet wasn't conducive to those dreams. But a wholesale business, with a quirky kitchen in an unexpected location, was.
"When we opened our shop, the Atkins diet was very popular," Klemek says. "So we thought about going underground."
At least nine clipboards hang from the industrial, stainless steel refrigerator that stands against the far wall of Blackmarket's kitchen.
Each clipboard holds a bunch of papers containing the specific orders for each day of the week.
Every day, a big part of Klemek's job is yanking that day's clipboard from the fridge, figuring out what's on tap and rescheduling or tweaking the lineup to fit that day's changing needs.
Then while writing orders on her medium-sized whiteboard, hanging on the other wall, next to the restroom, Klemek ranks the items from to-be-made-first to the last one, debating which item will take a shorter time to make.
Part of being a baker