U.S. chef feeds pie business with passion and positivity
Traveling to Korea by boat all the way from America enabled D. Garrett Edwards to experience the lengths he was going to for a new life.
Unlike a 14-hour plane journey, the 15-day voyage, in which the Portland, Oregon native was the only passenger on a freighter, gave him the time and space to reflect on what he was leaving behind rather than what he was heading toward.
Penning a story along the way about his past, which mostly included disputes with his family, he was able to arrive with a clear mind, ready for a fresh start.
Now, 15 years later, the 61-year-old is the owner of thriving pie shop Tartine Bakery & Cafe in Itaewon, Seoul.
The Korea Herald met him there to hear about the journey that brought him to this point.
D. Garrett Edwards outside Tartine Bakery & Cafe in Itaewon, Seoul last week (Kim Myung-sup/The Korea Herald)
As the welcoming aroma of freshly baked bread and sweet pastry circulated, chef Edwards pointed out that the glamorous woman in a Christian Dior dress on the shop’s logo is his mother -- Ruby Edwards.
“My mother and I had had our differences, so even now, naming the café after her -- some people think it’s a little strange because of our past relationship," said Edwards, who uses the name Ruby on the cafe’s branding.
“But my mother taught me a lot and she was a great business woman, she was a single mother, she raised two children, she had very successful businesses,” he added, aware of the discrimination she faced.
Although she knows her image and name have been used for his business, Edwards explained that it was mostly an act of accepting the past and moving on.
“It’s not so much about her, you know, it’s about me -- that one needs to forgive and one needs to forgive everybody, and they need mostly to forgive themselves.”
With a thriving business and a new American brunch café, Tartine Too, being built across the road, the personable Edwards has plenty to feel good about.
Although he hadn’t worked in the food industry until he came to Korea, everything at Tartine is handmade, fresh and beautifully presented.
The menu features staples such as a classic pecan pie, butter tart hailing from Saskatchewan, Canada, and chocolate brownies.
But Edwards, who writes a jaunty newsletter monthly, also tries out imaginative new additions. The Mcvities Chocolate Biscuit Cake, for example, was introduced in celebration of the British royal wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton. Any recipe not a hit with customers is discontinued.
Edwards’ background -- buying old homes and renovating them to sell -- is reflected in the attention to detail in Tartine’s interior.
Everything is custom-made and decorated, from the rustic crackle-painted cabinets and warm yellow-sponged walls to the electrical wiring. He taught his business partner Lee Young-ho the tricks of the trade too, which Edwards said he picked up quickly.
The kitsch touches that create a cozy vintage feel are added from Edwards’ personal collections, including a vintage Italian chandelier with antique gold arms, an array of paintings and ornaments, and a white porcelain dove sent to him from a friend in America.
A spotlight beaming down above a grand gilt-edged mirror adds some glitz, representative of its stage-loving owner who was once a costume collector.
These are more than just nick-knacks. “When I retired I sold everything I didn’t want to die with,” said Edwards. And this does not go unappreciated by patrons -- usually a grinning couple or group of friends can be seen embroiled in an elaborate photo shoot there, inspired by the romantic fireplace and elegant armchairs. Authentic fare
Edwards was adamant that while the shop should appeal to Koreans, it should remain authentic, hence the all-English language menu.
“I wanted to make an environment that if we lived in Star Trek we could beam it up and put it in L.A., N.Y., anywhere, even with our workers, and it would be successful. That was our goal.”
Koreans, he said, are usually able to read the menu as most words such as “chocolate” and “ice-cream” are familiar. If any questions arise from more unusual ingredients, for example boysenberry -- not a popular fruit in Korea -- there is a team of Korean staff to answer any questions.
“Many people that come to Korea make something that’s from back home, and they basically make it for the expat community.
“Our basic goal is that there are 50 million Koreans and so we want to be busy, we want to be successful, so we don’t discriminate against anybody and we don’t gear it towards anybody,” he explained.
Trial and error
D. Garrett Edwards bakes bread in Tartine’s kitchen. (D. Garrett Edwards)
Edwards’ first glimpse of Korea and his future was not when he docked in 1996. He decided to live here after visiting for two months as a dog-sitter earlier that year.
Having given up full-time work in 1991 to care for a friend dying of AIDS in San Francisco, Edwards had worked in a number of different jobs, often in retail, including a stint as Santa Clause.
After his friend died, he moved around the country and lived for a while in Alameda. Whilst there he remembered his mother saying to him: “When you leave home you can have all you want or can afford,” and he decided he wanted pie.
From there he set on a trial and error course of pie-crust making, each time testing the critical palate of the elderly lady who lived on the first floor of his apartment building. Soon the pie crust was perfected and Edwards was moving to Korea.
But upon his second arrival, he initially moved out to the countryside in Jangheung, Gyeonggi Province, before renovating a small home for himself from a “primitive” old shack in nearby Songchu.
Not wanting to spend any money on it as he knew he could only sell the land in Korea, not the building, he found used doors and picked up tiles from an old farmhouse.
He had always had a garden in the U.S. so wanted plants: “I decided that in my village I would go around and tell people what plant I wanted and if they would divide it and give me so much then I would give them bread.”
One morning he woke up to find a line of women at his gate, all demanding, “Ppang, ppang juseyo!”
“I had a really nice garden,” he said, smiling.
He had moved to Jangheung to help a friend with his Western-style restaurant, Gump’s. He taught him how to make pizza and other Western favorites and helped decorate the place, printing proverbs in Hangeul along the border of the room. He also designed and built the kitchen for their tteokbokki restaurant, Dol-dum-kil.New beginnings
After five years he moved to Seoul and started up Dean & DeLuca Deli in Dong-bu, Ichon-dong. Although he ended up pulling out of this joint venture, he began consulting for Korean food-related companies.
He also met his current business partner in 2000, whom he now credits for the success of Tartine, which they began in 2008 and now consistently features in top 10 lists of bakeries and cafes in Seoul.
“None of this would be possible if I didn’t have my business partner.
“I have a business partner whom when we went into this business we shook hands and said ‘no break up’ so that whatever trials and tribulations we may go through we may think we want to break up, but we won’t.”
Edwards is now on the board of directors for Les Toques Blanche, an international association of professional chefs and industry professionals. And although he won’t reveal the secret recipes used at Tartine, he holds workshops to teach the techniques of pie making.
He is now busy with the creation of Tartine Too, which opens Sept. 1, but still works regularly as a photographer’s model.
Although he is technically retired, Edwards doesn’t seem ready to take a back seat yet. His passion for what he does shows in the vibrant and supportive environment he provides for his staff.
Diverging from the typical Korean practice of long working hours he ensures his staff retain a positive attitude by keeping contracted working times, not enforcing overtime and always paying on time.
He also wants to create a solid foundation for their working lives.
One of their office workers, for instance, began as “service center,” or waiting staff in 2009. As her skills improved, and because she was interested in a career in hospitality, she has been given the opportunity to develop with the remodeling for Tartine Too.
“I want our workers to be happy,” said Edwards, adding that many former employees have since returned to visit.
Despite the trials he has endured over the years, Edwards is content and “truly happy” with his life here.
“A lot of times people just remember the bad, but for me there was just really a lot of good so I want to keep the good.
“I think I’ve become a better businessman now than I ever was before just because I have forgiven her (his mother), I’ve forgiven myself, I’ve forgiven everything and I’ve taken the best.”D. Garrett Edwards
•1991 ― Retired and moved to San Francisco
•1996 ― Came to Korea to dog-sit in April, to live in July
•1996 ― Moved to Jangheung, Gyeonggi Province and helped with menu at Gump’s, decorated dining room and added kitchen to Dol-dum-kil Restaurant
•1997 ― Bought house in Song’chu, Gyeonggi Province
•1998 ― Started acting part time in Korea
•2000 ― Started Dean & DeLuca Deli in Dong-bu-Ichon-dong, met future Tartine business partner Lee Young-ho
•2001 ― Joined Les Toques Blanche, Korea, sold stake in Dean & DeLuca. Began consulting for Korean food-related companies
•2003 ― Started wholesale bakery business
•2008 ― Opened Tartine Bakery & Cafe
•2011― Signed lease for Tartine Too
By Hannah Stuart-Leach (firstname.lastname@example.org