By Muriel J. Smith
ATLANTIC HIGHLANDS – The Flaky Tart, the little bakery at 145 First Ave., and its owner, Marie Jackson, has been nominated for the fourth time and are finalists for the James Beard Award for the Best Bakery in the country. Finals will be announced March 23, with a formal ceremony taking place in Chicago, Ill., to present the awards to the winning entries.
“If we win, I’ll be the first one to book a flight to Chicago,” an animated and exuberant Jackson said. Then she added, with no less enthusiasm and joy, “but I’m not holding out any great expectations. Did you see the other names on that list?”
Jackson is the only New Jersey bakery to be included on the prestigious list of nominees, and one of only two culinary experts in the Garden State to be up for any national honor. Two other chefs have been nominated for Best Chef in the Northeast Region, which includes New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia and Washington, D.C. Though this is the fourth time The Flaky Tart has been nominated, there’s no less thrill each time, this very bubbly, high-spirited mother of three explains. Although there was a certain special kind of pride when she was nominated the first time.
Jackson’s grandfather, born of Polish parents and brought up in South Amboy, was Jackson’s mentor when it came to the culinary arts. She still remembers loving the smells and texture of the breads he made, and asking him to please teach her how. He loaned her his cookbook, “Beard on Bread,” and told her if she could follow directions she could cook. “He was thrilled when I was nominated that time,” she says wistfully. “Heck, he was thrilled when he saw a story about me in The New York Times!” Her grandfather eventually gave her the book, filled with all his handwritten special notations, and Jackson was on her way to excellence.
It can be any number of things that put this baking wonder on Beard’s short list. According to the rules, any baker can be nominated and more than 34,000 are for a variety of different categories. From those thousands, a select group of culinary notables narrow the list to the final few; this year, there are 24 others vying with Jackson for the top title. That short list is then sent to a panel that makes the ultimate selection.
Jackson graduated from Red Bank Catholic High School before learning her culinary expertise at the now defunct New York Restaurant School, once a leader in culinary academia. Since then, she’s taken numerous courses, attended dozens of conferences and programs, been to France a few times, and continued to pour her own high standards to excellence in everything she did. Today she says one of her talents is being able to surround herself with excellent workers, and setting a standard of excellence her outstanding team can carry on.
That, she explains, was vividly evident over the past couple of years when the Jacksons – her husband Darrell and his family own Ship Ahoy Beach Club in Sea Bright – faced a barrage of bad luck, any part of which could have vanquished a less formidable family. Marie was diagnosed with breast cancer; while battling that, she had another issue which required surgery on her neck; she came out of that surgery paralyzed and faced, in addition to the chemo treatments, intensive physical therapy and hospitalization to get her mobility back. Then there was Super Storm Sandy and not only was Ship Ahoy washed out, but so was the homestead in Oceanport where Marie grew up and her brother still lived.
But, this indomitable spirit bubbles; it’s all behind them now. Her cancer treatments are finished, she’s got almost full range of motion, Ship Ahoy is up, running and well back in business, and the Flaky Tart crew kept up the high standards and unbeatable quality of the bakery during Jackson’s absences. Although today, she doesn’t always work a full 40-hour week, she knows her name, reputation, and bakery are all in the good hands of her staff. “I set the standards,” she explains, “but the team maintains it. It’s our culture of excellence.”
Although everything baked, mixed, kneaded, cooked, blended and stirred at the Flaky Tart is popular, the owner’s personal favorite are her croissants. Get this baker talking about her croissants and it’s like hearing someone say they won the lottery.
“They’re different every time. They’re wonderful to make because it’s so difficult to get it right,” Jackson said. “I’m still working on it. It takes three days and working with the dough is so exciting; there’s the curve, the feel, the texture, the flakiness, the taste. It’s amazing what changes come about with only four ingredients – yeast, flour, butter and cream. And I learn something new every day. Heck, did you know that even the flour is different depending on when the wheat was harvested?”
While croissants are the anchor at The Flaky Tart, along with the wonderful croissant sandwiches also offered there, her macaroni and cheese is another walk away favorite. Seemingly unusual to offer mac and cheese in a bakery, doesn’t seem that at all to this culinary genius. She attributes her trips to Europe where she saw bakeries through France offered more than just breads, they offered other savories as well.”
I’m not French, I’m not a French bakery, and I just like to offer what the people will like.” Her mac and cheese has Gruyere and cheddar, the crumbs come from the foccacia bread she makes, it just seems natural to offer this comfort food along with the other specialties.
The Jacksons live in this community, which is the reason why Marie chose the location on First Avenue for her shop. With twin sons and a daughter, she wanted to be sure to be near them and available as much as possible. So when the business at this location closed down, Jackson quickly scooped up the opportunity to work across the street from where her children go to school. She’s been there eight years now, setting a change of pace and practice from the work she was doing for 16 years at Ship Ahoy. “My husband and I agreed shortly after we got married, “she said, “if I could go on to college to learn culinary, I’d help him out at Ship Ahoy. We did it for 16 years,” she laughed.
Exuberant, upbeat, happy, with an infectious laugh and ever-present smile, Marie Jackson is the epitome of the fighting spirit, the victor in every challenge and the baker who has a culture of excellence that doesn’t allow anything but the best to come out of the kitchen.
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