As a pastry chef, Kate Holowchik has the ability to look on the sweeter side of a rough situation — an ability that is coming in handy, from her pandemic-launched doughnut business Lionheart Confections to her forthcoming storefront at the soon-to-open High Street Place food hall, debuting in March 2022.
Prior to the pandemic, she crafted desserts at Capo, Lincoln, Yvonne’s, and elsewhere, before landing at Ledger in Salem. But when the restaurant shutdown began in March 2020, “I knew there was a target on my back because pastry has always been looked at as a luxury,” Holowchik says. “We’re always the first to get cut from any program.”
After she was furloughed and her position was given away — which she says she only found out about on social media — Holowchik knew it was time for a big move. “It was either, after 19 years of doing what I’ve been doing, learn a new skill, or stop making excuses and start doing my own thing,” she says.
She turned to friend Derrick Teh of the popular Malaysian-inspired pop-up Sekali, which has also flourished during the pandemic, for advice on setting out on her own. Without the overhead of a brick-and-mortar space, a pop-up seemed like a smart way to wade into the water, especially during an uncertain time. And as for what she’d serve, after years of crafting beautiful plated desserts, one sweet treat stuck out: Customers always raved about her doughnuts.
“It’s this cult following with doughnuts,” Holowchik says. “It’s one of those trends that’s not going to go away. It’s so part of the American culture that I knew that I could find my own unique voice within the New England doughnut scene.”
When it came time for the name, she wanted something that roared — especially after working in male-dominated kitchens where she felt silenced. “I wanted to show that women are tenacious, that we’re strong; we shouldn’t be counted out like we always are. Even the term ‘female chef’ shouldn’t be used anymore, but that’s a whole other conversation. I mean, we’re chefs,” she says with a laugh. “As a woman in the industry, it’s a constant game of proving yourself, and it gets frustrating, but it’s one of the things I’m always up to the task for. And I wanted to have a name that was strong.”
Since fall 2020, customers have flocked to pop-ups for her Willy Wonka-like confections that are as delicious as they are beautiful, like her favorite ube cinnamon roll doughnuts and even savory nacho taco-inspired numbers. She posted Instagram stories of lengthy customer lines at venues like Reign Drink Lab in Dorchester and Somerville’s Bow Market, and it wasn’t long before High Street Place reached out to offer her a spot at the forthcoming downtown Boston food hall.
While she’s looking forward to her upcoming restaurant space, now’s also a time for some introspection on the present. She advocates on Instagram and elsewhere about the changes she feels the restaurant industry needs to make to survive. She’s been mulling past work environments, too; at one restaurant, she says, “I would go in every day and have a panic attack in the downstairs bathroom before I started my shift because of how aggressive the culture was there. That doesn’t need to happen anymore.”
And then there’s the staff shortage. She bristles when she hears restaurant owners blaming the industry-wide issue on so-called lazy staff members who’d rather stay on unemployment than work.
“For me, that conversation is infuriating because I’m very much about self-advocating, and I’ve been in really rough situations,” she says. “I came from the generation of cooks where you work for pennies and you don’t ask for much, and you’re told that being there is a privilege, and you deal with whatever garbage you have to deal with and that’s that. The only control you had was picking where you worked, but then ownership would basically dictate what your career was going to look like. And that gave power to people I don’t think necessarily needed it.”
As Holowchik sees it, no wonder so many bartenders have taken jobs as brand reps, or chefs have shifted over to larger hotel restaurants or catering careers for more stability. The pandemic has restaurant workers asking themselves questions. Was my executive chef very verbally abusive? Did I work 80-hour weeks and miss holidays with my family? What do I actually want to do?
“As an owner myself, I want to make sure I’m empowering my staff. I don’t want them to look at working for me just as a paycheck,” she says. “I want to make sure that they’re learning and feeling good about their jobs.”
While hiring staff is still a ways off, Holowchik is excited to welcome customers when High Street Place opens its doors early next year — an opening date that’s been a moving target. “The space is gorgeous,” she says. “We want to do justice to it, and we want to wait for some of the restrictions to come down. People are starting to come back to the Financial District, but I think since the delta variant, a lot of people got pushed from September all the way to January for coming back. So it’d be nicer to see more people in the area.”
In the meantime, those looking for a sweet fix can find announcements about upcoming pop-ups on Lionheart Confections’s Instagram account — or might be lucky enough to find Holowchik occasionally selling doughnuts in the High Street Place lobby in a preview of what will hopefully be a much sweeter 2022.