When Megan Forman left New Orleans for college, she didn’t plan on coming back.
There were a lot of things she didn’t plan on—going to culinary school, becoming a pastry chef, marrying a fellow New Orleanian, or opening her own bakery in Mid City.
But that’s jumping ahead just a little. In 1995, Megan had a French degree and no clear plan for using it when she realized that she really loved cooking. Loved it enough to go to culinary school in the days before the Food Network made such a decision glamorous, or even normal. Especially for a woman.
Megan hunkered down in Vermont at the New England Culinary Institute where she spent six months in courses then six months in an externship. Though the pastry side of her training was demanding, she loved it and saw a future with flour and butter.
She took work in New York City and Boston before the siren call of New Orleans (and family) pulled her back home. After serving as Bayona’s pastry chef, and later, helping to open Sucre, Megan and her husband, Jay, began thinking about doing something on their own.
They didn’t know when Gracious Bakery opened in September 2012, that Travel + Leisure, Food and Wine and a host of local outlets would come to sing their praises. They also didn’t know that by 2018 they’d have two additional locations: one on St. Charles Avenue and the other on Prytania Street in Uptown.
They did know how to make delightfully flaky croissants and perfectly-sugared morning buns as well as cakes, eclairs, mousses, scones, and a variety of breads. As a pastry chef Megan had little to no experience in making bread. So she went back to school before opening Gracious, taking a course to learn how. She learned everything she could from everyone she could. Still today, she finds joy in learning new things about baking and beyond.
“The culinary world is very macho. There’s this thing where I know everything and if I don’t know I need to make it up. I’ve evolved, probably with age, where I’m like, let’s figure this out together. We might fail the first time, but so what? I know I don’t have all the answers. It’s so freeing,” Forman says.
Megan and Jay knew they wanted graciousness as a goal post in life and business, so the bakery’s name serves as a constant reminder. In an effort to avoid the stereotypical restaurant environment where there’s a lot of yelling and shaming, Megan began studying how to be an effective manager.
As a result, Gracious Bakery is a close-knit family-like team. That doesn’t mean there aren’t ever problems. It simply means they are addressed directly and respectfully. “Our goal is to be gracious with each other,” Megan explains. “It’s how I want to be in life. I’m always trying to work on myself as a person, to treat others as I want to be treated.”
She’s an intentional team builder and collaborator who values input and ideas from her trusted team. “Fifteen years ago I loved creating new dishes and pairing new flavors. Now it’s the team collaboration. My business is mostly a group of incredibly passionate, talented women. Guys who don’t like to work with women don’t hang around here long.”
Like many people after Katrina, Megan and Jay wondered if they should leave the city and try to put down roots elsewhere. They visited other places and tried to consider a different life, but in the end, New Orleans was hard to quit—its haunting, stately beauty, the streetcars that edge through St Charles and Canal Streets, even the heat. It’s a place Megan finds beautiful in more ways than one. Plus, it’s home.
Her father was a Louisiana farm-to-table guy long before that was a catchphrase. An avid hunter and cook, he was all about good ingredients. He took Megan mushroom hunting and introduced her to new food experiences. Her childhood memories are surrounded with food or the making of it. And now she gets to play a role in providing that for other families, with a little more sugar involved.
“New Orleans has changed a lot since I grew up in Uptown and Metairie,” Megan says. “There were so few restaurants back then. Now there are so many more places, so many more diverse cultural experiences. It opens peoples’ minds.”
Megan’s collaborative team approach to running the business led to one of their newest offerings: donuts. One of her bakers loves donuts, so they began to experiment with a house recipe. That has led to some mighty-fine donuts with unique twists: satsuma or passionfruit rose raspberry, anyone?
Making a really good croissant involves mixing, cooling, laminating, resting, rolling, folding, proofing, egg washing, and, finally, after repeating a few of those steps, baking. To be committed to that process, that level of quality in a world where the quick-and-cheap route is often the easiest, takes a certain kind of person, someone who believes in it, someone who sees the journey and those companions alongside her as the richest part of the experience. It takes someone gracious.