An Interview with Baker and Writer Lisa Donovan

Photo cred: Heidi Ross

It's fitting that today marks the one year anniversary of These My Bitches because today's bitch is both one of the first women I asked to participate, and one of the reasons I started this series. Like fellow Bitch, Agnes, I met Lisa when I joined a book club in East Nashville in 2007. Lisa probably doesn't remember that's where we met, but I remember because I was completely freaked out and Lisa looked me in the eye and smiled her warm, welcoming smile. She knew I needed kindness in that moment, and she gave it to me. That is Lisa in a nutshell.

Strength recognizes strength. I think Lisa saw it in me that day in 2007, and I've seen it in her more times than I can count. It continues to fascinate me that the most compassionate, warm-hearted women I know are also the strongest. I learned first-hand this summer how much bravery and strength it takes to walk away from The Big Thing. When that happens, you need people you can look to who are living their life with purpose and following their heart. Lisa is that to me. Meet today's bitch, Lisa Donovan!

Photo cred: Yve Assad

What do you make and what is the name of your business?

I’m a baker and a writer. I don’t really have a business name, but a lot of folks remember the Buttermilk Road tag and so I have a hard time shaking that. I should probably do something more with it, but I get so disinterested in trying to feed (or understand) an online presence. I’m more interested in the work and the actual doing versus the talking about doing. The work is actually enough for me. I’m a terrible 21st century sales person. I long for the days when doing the work was what people cared about.

When did you first learn about this field of work?

Baking, specifically, came about very naturally and unintentionally. I sold baked goods out of my apartment when the kids were babies and I was a waitress. John was an adjunct professor at, literally, seven different schools and we could never make ends meet. Hell, we didn’t even HAVE ends to try to meet. We were scrapping hard and trying to stay true to our work WHILE raising babies.

At the time, I was so focused on visual art and writing and felt really strongly about going back to school to get a PhD in Art History. I wanted to be the next Dave Hickey and I was really dedicated to that. Life happens, you know. I loved baking. And people were responding so enthusiastically to it. It started to provide us a bit of income. And it made me really happy. All of the things I used to internalize and study deeply about art started to transition into thoughts on food, readings on food, studies on food, practice on food. It was some kind of cosmic push that lead me to Margot and working alongside Anne Kostroski and Tandy Wilson who were opening City House at the time. 

Anne really was the first one to tell me that I had talent, that I was good, that I could be a pastry chef. I had no idea. Once the veil was lifted, I, of course, clung to it with all of my heart and spent the energy that was on reserve for my work in the art world and poured everything I had into learning and teaching myself and watching and focusing. When I want something I can get intense and really impassioned, it’s the Scorpio in me. I want to be not “the best” but always “my best” and I took the work and being true to it very seriously. I’m making it sound super intense and not at all fun but I had so much fun during that process of learning. It was kind of pure joy. Hard, but pure joy.

How did you know it was what you wanted to do?

I felt excited and moved. We all have something that lights us up, right? I would wake up in the middle of the night with ideas. I would tear through a five hundred page book on food history without blinking and eye. I started keeping notebooks about recipes and food thoughts as intensely as I had once kept sketchbooks. I loved it with all of my heart. The fact that all of this came to fruition while I was an exhausted parent of two toddlers who was filling out graduate school applications by the light of the moon was enough proof to me that it deserved all of the energy and spirit I could offer it and that it would require to do it well and right.

What was your path that lead you to where you are now?

Oh wow. I mean. Every detail is important. I wouldn’t even know where to begin to answer that question because I’d have to start storytelling about “that one time when I was wandering the streets of Belgium when I was 7….”

When you get to be my age - though I know I’m still young, I am approaching 40 and you start to think about the “how” and “why” and you start to shake off the unnecessary old tropes that you feel you have to tell everyone about who you “are” and about your past - I think the only way to answer this question is to say that it all counted, it all mattered. It still all counts and it still all matters.

Photo cred: Yve Assad

Why did you decide to start your own business?

I don’t think I ever decided that. Ha! If I’m Queen of anything, it’s making something great out of absolutely nothing. I’m the ultimate survivor mode person and if there is a way to make some scratch on something I’m good at, I will. I would say yes before someone changed their minds and do something better than even I thought I was capable of. I’m a perfectionist and, to a fault, do things with my whole entire heart. It’s fucking exhausting. I exhaust myself. I’m painfully enthusiastic. Somehow, businesses happened because I said yes to absolutely every damn thing and meant it. I’ll be the first one to admit that I’m a shit business person. I’m really good at working, at making, at thinking. But total shit at being a business person. I’m still trying to get over that hurdle.

What was the best piece of business advice you’ve been given?

I’ve always designated certain friends onto a superhero council. They don’t know it, I don’t tell them this but they are the ones I check myself with. Recently, a good friend who is also in the food business said to me and my husband, who is currently launching a big project that is requiring a lot of his nerve and patience, that we should have a group of people that we consult on big decisions. They don’t even have to be “good friends”, he said, just people who we value as good examples of where we want to find ourselves in our careers. 

This was a very similar concept to my council, except I appreciated that it was more deliberate and outward. It’s good advice. Especially if you find yourself in a position of great success or potential great success, which can be overwhelming and make you feel detached from your real life. Having a solid group of people to run big ideas and opportunities past and expect pure honesty from is solid. Even if you don’t agree with them, you are giving yourself a venue to see all angles of a decision and their outcome. 

I’ve seen a lot of folks become successful and surround themselves by total “yes men” and get swallowed up by their own egos and lives. What IS that? How do you detach yourself from the folks who likely know you best or who truly have your best interests at heart? I’ve seen a lot of folks stray very far from who they meant to be in the name of “success”. I think keeping a few solid folks’ opinions close at hand can help you navigate those waters in a healthy and happy way.

What was the most difficult part of starting your business?

I think as someone who doesn’t quite feel like I’ve started a business, the answer is just that: not really knowing how to be a “brand” in this world. I think I’ve lost out on a lot of opportunities because if something feels even the slightest bit disingenuous, I shut the whole thing down and hide like a weirdo until I can make sense of it again.

That aside, I think the equation to do the thing that I imagined possible (my bakery) barely exists anymore. It’s much harder to simply find an investor these days who genuinely has your best interests at heart and open the place that you know will be good and honest and draw people toward your work. The entire industry has become such a big business that expectations are so high and, frankly, a bit gross for something as simple and lovely as food should be. 

My daddy is really supportive of me, but he can’t write me a check or buy me a building to open the restaurant of my dreams. I ask a lot of questions and try to find the timeline of other people’s successes for a clue, a hint, some tool that maybe I can learn from, but most of the people and places I respect all started with a big chunk of family support, a total safety net, a big ass cushion that gave them room to build something real and honest. That’s not the case with the potential investors I meet. Everyone wants you to be fabulous and big and make them millions practically right out of the gate. And, worse, they want to take half of everything you’ve built and worked so hard and so long for - and sometimes MORE than half. It’s a weird game out there right now. So weird, in fact, that I think I might be done with it.

Can you name the biggest lesson you’ve learned?

Well, I’m learning a lot about who I am. I think that I give myself grief for having such high expectations of myself and of just about everyone. Which is, in essence, me saying that I’m being hard on myself for being hard on myself. Jesus effin christ. Listen to me! Ha! I’m trying to be softer and kinder to myself and see that I have done a lot of good, hard work and that it has yielded good results - that I don’t have to be in such fierce survival mode anymore. 

My lessons right now are very different than what they were when I started this whole thing, obviously. Food used to be a way to reconcile a bit of a broken heart. It nourished me. Food brought me a sense of control over variables that felt like pure chaos at the time. It likely saved me in a lot of ways. Trust me, there is nothing I hate *more* than a damn sob story but, honestly, there were some terrible things that happened to me before I came to Nashville that I don’t really care about featuring as part of my persona because there are more important things about me than that, really. 

I fled here like a refugee with a two year old son, truly looking for safety and a better life. Thank god for what followed: John Donovan and food and the gift of the work that I was able to do. When I think about that girl, that 24 year old single mother, I feel proud that I worked hard enough that I currently get to think about something as luxurious as being “genuine” and “fulfilled” in my work. So, perhaps the biggest lesson is the one I just realized: I’m fucking lucky in so many ways and I should take a second to be damn proud for getting myself here.

Failure you learned from or that helped you improve the way you work?

I’m a terrible manager of other people. I will always assume that you will do your best and be dedicated to being your best, without a lot of direction - simply, and wrongly, because that is how I learned most everything in a kitchen. And, some folks will rise to that, but a lot won’t. It takes time to learn how to deal with that in a way you’re proud of or, more importantly, in a way that is useful to your team. 

I had to admit, after Husk, that being a boss was my biggest failure. It was a big job and I fell short there. What I hope is, if I ever have the chance, that I can create a culture in my own bakery that provides me an opportunity to put my cooks in a position for success and happiness. It has to be the first thought, not something you’re trying to figure out when you’ve got two pastry kitchens in two different states at your behest and you’re buried in two services a day, seven days a week. I needed time to learn that. I know I expected too much of the people I hired and it makes me very sad to think of the lost opportunities within that. 

What would you do with 2 more hours a day?

I would read. And write. I would take turns reading and writing.

What has been the biggest sacrifice you’ve made?

I don’t work in that kind of currency. I can’t. 

What is your greatest success (or something you’re most proud of) related to what you make?

I had this moment at the Southern Food Writer’s Conference a few years back where I read a piece that I wrote about how I came to food through a kind of strife and hunger and how I found an MFK Fisher essay called How to Cook a Wolf. I was the first speaker of the day and I had to put about three shots of bourbon in my coffee cup just to get through, I was so nervous speaking to that crowd! 

The conference was full of people I had admired and respected for so long. I made John Currence and Ed Lee cry. John T. Edge stood and applauded. Kate Krader at Food and Wine followed up by publishing a piece about women and their mentors and an edited version of my essay was published in that spread. It was a great moment of success because it married who I am, at the core, as a writer with the hard work I had been doing as a chef and I felt, for the first time maybe in my whole adult life, like I had OPTIONS and a door to walk through toward the things I always knew I was capable of.

Photo cred: Christina Oxford

What’s the first app or website you open when you wake up in the morning?

Usually BBC news, but the news has just been so terrible and hard these days that I try not to look until I’ve had enough coffee that I can brace myself. 

Where do you go when you need inspiration for your work?

Travel is essential for me and I love it so much. But when I can’t travel, I take long drives with loud music. It’s my best medicine. 

How do you decompress at the end of the work day?

With John Donovan, on our couch, my feet in his lap and either hot tea or a gin and tonic. He’s my best everything. 

What’s the hardest thing about being your own boss that isn’t obvious?

I’m terrible at gauging my own success or reach. I feel like I do things in a vacuum, sort of. I’m always surprised when I realize people are paying attention to what I’m doing, ha!

Photo cred: Cheryl Day

Lastly, and most important, what is your favorite TV show and what is your favorite snack?

Like, favorite TV show of all time? I Love Lucy. And, don’t even care, I love Quantum Leap like you wouldn’t even know. Scott Bakula in ladies’ dress? A hologram of Dean Stockwell smoking a cigar womanizing his way through space and time? That show seals the Lisa Donovan nerd deal. 

Favorite snack? Chips. I just want to eat all the chips all the time.

All photos courtesy of Lisa Donovan

P.S. Meet last week's bitch:  Fitness Instructor, Katherine Tisha Wilson!

P.P.S. Full list of My Bitches here.

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