One of the reasons I started my website, Marlothomas.com, is that I wanted a place for women (including me!) to come together and dream. Women should know that they don't have to hang on to an old dream that has stopped nurturing them -- that there is always time to start a new dream. In that spirit, I'm so excited to introduce a new series called It Ain't Over, profiling women who have pursued -- and fulfilled -- their dreams and passions, no matter what their age or circumstances. I find these stories endlessly inspiring. I hope you do too.
By Lori Weiss
Step into Gail Dosik's West Greenwich Village studio and you'll see a world filled with whimsy and color -- jewel tones and pretty pastels, princess dresses and picture-perfect piping. The fanciful drawings on her desk might lead you to believe she's simply brought home sketches of the designer dresses she'll be selling next season, but then, as a decadent aroma fills the room, you realize something else is cooking. Long gone is the signature couture for which Gail was so well known. She's traded it all in to bake cookies. Designer cookies.
It all began on a treadmill, a morning ritual that she never missed. As a sales rep for designers like Carmen Marc Valvo and Victor Costa, Gail needed all the energy she could muster to keep up with the demands of the fashion industry. But beyond that, the miles she logged helped to melt away any extra calories she may have consumed during her other ritual -- preparing weekend feasts for her friends.
Gail was a woman whose days were filled with fashion, but whose mind was filled with food. "By Wednesday of every week," she recalls, "I was putting together my grocery list. I'd be talking about the next season's styles, but I'd be thinking about what I was going to make for dessert Saturday night."
"I'd always begin with dessert," she adds, with a sparkle in her eye. "Key-lime mousse and brownies or chocolate pecan pie -- and then I'd work my way backwards. By the time I got to the appetizers, I couldn't think anymore!"
So while she tried to concentrate on the clothes she'd be presenting later that afternoon, Gail couldn't help but be distracted by what she saw on the television in front of her treadmill. "I was mesmerized by this woman on The Martha Stewart Show," she says. "She was taking apart a cabbage and painting each leaf with tempered chocolate; then she peeled each leaf off and reassembled them all into this beautiful chocolate replica. You could just feel the love she had for what she did. And that’s the moment that I had this revelation -- I realized that you could work at something you love."
But while that chocolate cabbage may have changed the way Gail saw things, she still thought of it as something she might do after she retired. "I was in my early 40's and I was just thrilled with the idea that one day, I might have a second act -- until of course, I got downsized. That kind of changed my timetable.
"It was April of 2003, just a couple years after 9/11 and a lot of people were taking stock of their lives," Gail recalls, "and it was at that point I said 'I'm done.' I knew I needed to do something that had meaning." And while she wasn't quite sure where that journey would take her, she knew it was going to be a sweet one -- one that had more to do with desserts than the latest designer fashions.
"For a minute I considered becoming a chef," she says wryly, "but then I realized I'd have to butcher a chicken and decided I'd rather make puffed pastry instead."
Feeling the pressure of her fiftieth birthday approaching, Gail figured the fastest way to get her new career underway would be to work as an apprentice. But as she walked the streets looking for an open door, she stumbled on a piece of advice that would chart her course.
"I met a baker while I was making my rounds, and he told me that even if I only wanted to make chocolate chip cookies, I needed to get my street cred; I needed to go to school and learn everything I could," she says, recalling the fear she felt at that moment. "I knew he was right, but I was terrified I wouldn't get in or I'd flunk out. I thought, What if I’m not artistic? I didn't want anyone to find out I'd gotten a D in 7th grade art class! Damn you, Mrs. Christensoen!"
But Gail forged ahead, applying for classes at the French Culinary Institute in Manhattan. She wrote an essay about her life and about how she'd been mesmerized by the perfect confections she watched her aunt bake when she was a child. She met over and over with the school's admission staff, in an effort to convince them that her love for food would outweigh her lack of commercial experience.
"And I got in!" she laughs. "I thought it was my passion that wowed them, but looking back, it may have been my persistence!"
Gail was the oldest person in the class, but she didn’t care. She was in heaven.
"How great is it to go to school and have your classroom be a kitchen!" she says, smiling. "l learned to make tarts and puffed pastry, croissants and wedding cakes, and graduated with honors. Beware those students who return to school at mid-life -- they really ruin the curve."
But it was an internship she did after graduation that brought her closer to her calling. "I was working with a very famous cake designer. Everything she created was like a work of art and it became clear early on, that I couldn't sculpt a thing. There I was back in 7th grade art class! But by a stroke of luck, we were sharing workspace with a woman who decorated cookies -- cookies that she would then use as decorations on cakes. As I watched her, I realized what was getting in my way. I needed a flat surface! Give me a cookie as a canvas and I become an artist!"
It wasn't long before Gail was up to her elbows in dough, opening One Tough Cookie, a boutique bakery, where she creates one-of-a-kind cakes and cupcakes decorated with designer cookies."
"I'm very big on the kid’s circuit," she chuckles, as she put the final touches on a tri-level cake covered with bi-planes and little pilot boys. "There's nothing better than making something a kid goes crazy for, and there are never two that are the same. I ask a lot of questions, especially when I'm doing princess cakes. I want to know what kind of dress the birthday girl will be wearing, her hair color, her favorite things. And nothing leaves here without matching candles. You can't put a red, white and blue candle on a cake that's done in pastels!"
Clearly, you can take the girl out of fashion, but you can't take the fashion out of the girl.
Gail's cookies seem to bring out the kid in everyone. Brides-to-be often order them as wedding shower favors and as a unique way of asking their girlfriends to be their bridesmaids; advertising agencies routinely ask Gail to re-create the products for campaigns they're pitching; and she was recently commissioned to do a special cookie-decorated cake for a gastroenterologist, with the cookies replicating the intestinal tract.
"That took quite a bit of Googling," she says with a sly grin -- "and a whole lot of piping."
But more than just starting a baking business, Gail found a precious recipe for life. "Everyone thought I was crazy to do this, to walk away from a lucrative career to bake cookies and cakes. But this has been so liberating for me -- to be able to think like an artist."
"It's so important to find your passion," she says softly. "To find something that adds meaning to your life. It took me a long time to realize it, but it really is possible to do what you love and make a living."
One Tough Cookie delivers custom made, cookie-decorated cakes throughout New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut -- and ships designer cookies nationwide. For more information, visit www.onetoughcookienyc.com.
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