Cooking is a magical process. That’s one of the four foundational beliefs that make Paula Austin of Joseph the thoughtful chef she is.
The others are as simple. Cooking is a system of communication; cooking is a keeper of tradition; cooking is an act of love.
Austin folds those beliefs into each recipe along with the other carefully selected ingredients each time she cooks — and the goal is joy.
“I don’t think that anybody that has a piece of cake in front of them doesn’t smile,” she said. “I think it’s an instant joy and transports them to a different experience.”
Austin has baked herself into the joy of food from childhood, deepening her experience through a variety of experiences along her path to opening The Vanilla Stag bakery inside Market Place Fresh Foods in Joseph.
“As a child, I loved watching the crafting of the menu, the careful selection of ingredients and all the magic that followed in the kitchen — how something simple could be transformed into something special and how much joy careful cooking brought to those around the table,” she said.
Her understanding of what made a good meal was spicy, too. She grew up in a large city, so she was exposed to a variety of foods and flavors and learned how to surprise and please the palate, she said.
She attended a boutique cooking school in Portland called The Chef’s Studio where she was able to work closely with ingredients. Then she and a classmate took their talent to performance level with a pop-up dining experience called “The Irreverent Spoon.”
“I have a degree in theatre design so the first thing I did was create experiences,” Paula said. “There was the magic of opening the curtain and there’s this whole world that is created that is just there to enjoy. We can walk away from our everyday life to enter a different environment.”
That experience allowed 40 people, sitting at long tables for a communal dinner, to observe the chefs at work.
“People love to see the cooking aspect,” Paula said. “They loved to see that we were working. My partner and I were great at that, we danced in the kitchen together very well, we knew our space and it was a wonderful partnership.”
She continued to challenge herself and broaden her skills in a variety of settings, including working as a pastry chef at a gluten-free restaurant in Washington state.
The gluten-free work brought her more joy, she said.
“People that couldn’t have desserts for a long time would come, and I would be called out of the kitchen to talk to customers who said “I haven’t had cake in so long a time and now I’m able to have it!” There was a meaning to what we were doing that was not about making a buck; (it was about) people that haven’t been able to enjoy sweets or treats.”
Her skill with gluten-free cooking is such that two of her most popular desserts at Vanilla Stag are gluten-free, but 80 percent of the customers who buy it are not on gluten-free diets.
She and husband Bodhi moved to Wallowa County for a simple life in touch with nature a year ago and became involved in the county’s Slow Food Movement.
Opening a bakery wasn’t in their plans, but she was invited to come aboard at the newly remodeled Market Place Fresh Foods in Joseph. Her slow food dedication means that she purchases her herbs from Nathan Slinker’s greenhouse on Alder Slope and her farm fresh eggs from a neighbor down the road.
Her intention and attention in using wholesome “live” ingredients with respect simply deepens the joy for chef and customer alike.
“This is my chance to bring magic into the world in a larger scale than ever before and share my passion for cooking with the community that is my home,” she said.