Keeping Her Grandmothers’ Recipes Alive
At Buttermilk Boutique, alum Tie Whittaker creates high-end pastries with the nostalgic flavors of the desserts she ate growing up
One of Tie Whittaker’s favorite courses in the BU Master in Gastronomy program was Food and the Senses. Students explore food practices and the human senses through scientific, cultural, and historical lenses. “In one unit, we learned a lot about how the tastes and smells of certain foods kind of play on your memories,” says Whittaker (MET’12). “I loved thinking about that.”
One food from her childhood brought back particularly fond and vivid memories for Whittaker: her grandmother Angel’s buttermilk pie, with its creamy custard filling and its buttery crust. The pie had such an influential effect that it inspired the name of her North Carolina–based dessert company, Buttermilk Boutique.
Whitaker founded the company from her home kitchen in 2013. She started out baking classic tarts, pies, cookies, and cakes, and has expanded her repertoire over the years. Among her specialities today are inventive plated desserts, chocolate bonbons and truffles, and macarons in fun flavors. Her desserts are available wholesale; she also does personal commissions, including wedding and celebration cakes, dessert tables, and catered events.
“Buttermilk Boutique began as this kind of back-in-the-day bakery, and has become more of an upscale, luxury bakery that incorporates those established flavors from my grandmothers’ recipes into innovative and jaw-dropping presentations,” Whittaker says.
But she’s still making one grandmother’s buttermilk pie and adding her own twist to other sweets. “I love doing things like taking my grandmother’s recipe for red velvet cake and translating that into a crème brulée, or taking her sweet potato pie and translating that into a mousse that I might put between a brown sugar macaron. It’s just fun to see how far I can push the envelope, while still invoking those nostalgic memories through the flavors.”
Whittaker’s creativity has brought her some recognition. In 2021, she participated in the North Carolina Restaurant & Lodging Association’s 2021 Chef Showdown, which challenged a group of North Carolina chefs to create dishes using local ingredients. Whittaker won Pastry Chef of the Year for her plated dessert, The Aficionado, a realistic-looking smoked mousse-filled chocolate cigar that she served with buttermilk chocolate cake, peach-infused whiskey ice cream, caramelized cocoa nibs, a spiced miso pecan lace cookie, a grilled peach sphere, and a chocolate and coffee bitters whiskey foam.
In Her Grandmothers’ Kitchens
Whittaker’s love of baking flourished at a young age—in the kitchens of both her grandmothers. She would watch as they worked deftly through each step of a recipe, sometimes helping them mix cake or cookie batters. “They were avid bakers and made things for their community, for their churches,” she says. “They taught me about all the different types of cakes and what made them moist, and showed me why they loved baking. That’s where it all started.”
As a teenager, Whittaker dreamed of becoming a chef, but her family discouraged the idea. “My father told me that I wouldn’t make any money as a chef and that I needed a different career path,” she says. He encouraged her to attend law school instead. Whittaker graduated from Xavier University in Cincinnati with degrees in political science and international affairs, then took the LSATS twice. “It just didn’t feel like the right path for me,” she says. “I walked into that second test thinking, I can’t do this. And that was that.”
Whittaker moved to Inglewood, Calif., to be near Angel and figure out her next steps. The two often got together to bake for community and church events. Their pies were always a hit, and they decided to start working on a plan for a pie business. But shortly after they began drafting their plans, Angel was diagnosed with terminal cancer.
After Angel passed away in 2010, Whittaker knew that she wanted to pursue a baking career: “I had decided that I wanted to keep my grandmothers’ recipes alive—that was one of my biggest goals.”
The BU Metropolitan College gastronomy program was the perfect combination of hands-on culinary training and the study of the role of food in the world.
“I was learning all the things that I hadn’t learned cooking with my grandmothers—the science behind why pâte à choux rises, for example,” she says. “Being at BU was one of the best times of my life. I met some really great people who I’m still really close to.”
After graduating, Whittaker worked at two now-closed bakeries in the Boston area—helping decorate elaborate, showstopping wedding cakes at Cakes to Remember in Brookline, Mass., and rising from cake decorator to bakery manager at the Belmont, Mass., gluten-free bakery Glutenus Minimus, run by Natalie McEachern Costello (Wheelock’07).
In 2012, Whittaker moved to the Raleigh, N.C., area to be near her other grandmother, who also received a cancer diagnosis, but is now in remission. She landed a job as pastry sous chef at the Carolina Country Club, an experience that provided her intense on-the-ground training. “I think of that job as where I started my fine pastry journey,” she says. “I’d always been a baker, but I’d never dealt with things like chocolate sculptures before.” She worked for an exacting chef, and her two years there were rigorous. “He was fast, thorough, and kept the cleanest workstation. I learned chocolate work, sugar work, and more about French pastry. My love of chocolate developed there too—he taught me how to make bonbons. In the end, I was more polished, and I attribute my speed to him. I came out a better chef.”
Today, Whittaker is a pastry chef at an independent living facility in Raleigh; she runs Buttermilk Boutique on the side (she’s worked out an arrangement with the facility, where she can use its commercial kitchen to make her commissioned desserts). The mother of three works every day except Sunday, often up at 3 am to start baking and working 10- and 12-hour days. She makes almost 300 desserts for the residents each day. “I do two regular and one sugar-free. I’ve learned they have their favorites—they love chocolate and they love pie,” she says.
Despite the early mornings and long hours, she says that she has found her calling. “For me, baking is a stress reliever,” says Whittaker, who hopes to open a brick-and-mortar location in nearby Clayton, N.C., later this year. “I get in my zone and can let go of whatever is bothering me.”