WOMEN OF THE IRISH FOOD INDUSTRY: HELENA VUKOVIC – GLUTEN FREE BAKER
Helena Vukovic is the brain and the body behind The Flourless Baker, a small enterprise, based out in Mount Merrion who supplies local businesses with gluten free desserts and bakes.
She sent me a sample of her macarons at the start of the summer and here is what I had to say about them at the time.
How did your career path bring you here?
It’s certainly a million miles from where I started in college. Yugoslavia was no more when I finished college. I was living in Croatia which had gained Independence 15 years earlier. We lived through a war. My dad fought in it. Post the Yugoslav break-up, things became quite difficult. Rijeka was my home city in the North of the country, an hour from Zagreb. It was, an industrial city & under Tito, everyone in Yugoslavia had a job. Working in the shipyard, one of the biggest in Europe was the goldmine of jobs. Driving trucks made the economic wheel turn & it was a very sought after position too. So unsure of what to do, I trained as a professional truck driver, graduated, got my degree & then … struggled to get a job in what I had trained in failing to see things had changed, the country was changing & was moving towards a more modern democratic state rather then the socialist country it was beforehand. I very quickly realised Rijeka had changed and that I would have to as well. I studied and passed a diploma as a traffic technician but it was done half willingly. I knew I needed a job, I had an interest but I didn’t have a dream apart from bettering myself.
I left Rijeka in 2012 when my father passed away. I needed to escape & chose Makarska, halfway down the coast on the Adriatic Sea & worked in a bakery. It was, and remains a stunning location frequented primarily by Czech, Polish & German tourists at the time. As a young teen I worked in several bakeries and fast food jobs in Rijeka, various jobs but primarily front-of-house customer service types so it was easy for me to slot back into that role. I didn’t have to think about it and unknown to me at the time, I didn’t have to think about the pain of my dad’s passing. He had been very ill. I was also escaping that reality as much as I was seeking opportunities elsewhere. The face wore the mask.
It was a natural link for me as I love food. Croatian bread and baking was always something that was in our family home and my dad was always cooking. It rubbed off on me somehow. Makarska was busy for the summer season and when it calmed down, I relocated again, this time to Split, working in a large supermarket. As soon as summer came around again, I was back to Makarska. This pattern continued until a friend at the time mentioned he was going to Ireland – I’d honestly never heard of it.
One day in October 2015, while working in Makarska at the very end of the season, I decided I was going to “Irska”, Ireland in Croatian. I quit my job, told my mum in Rijeka and was in Ireland a week later. It was expensive to travel and I had limited funds, enough maybe for 2/3 weeks and really had no idea if I was going on a holiday or was this more escapism? I had little English, little knowledge and no plans, but I was on a plane to Dublin. I arrived on a very, very, wet evening at Dublin airport, the very opposite to what I had left in Markaska.
I was lucky. Two weeks later I went for an interview with Insomnia Coffee Company. Despite having little experience of both the coffee business and the language they took me on. I began as a “training barista”, went through the gears, eventually becoming a “Supervisor” in the newly refurbished Stephens Green Branch before managing two of my own stores. I spent 5 years learning and then Covid came and Ireland shut down.
I am gluten intolerant. Not allergic but I feel horrendous after consuming flour. My partner is a chef. One day at home, April 2020, sick of only being able to find mass-produced tokenism gluten-free produce in stores and bored out of my absolute tree with the lack of anything to do aside from yet another film on Netflix, I decided to make Amaretti Biscuits. They are such a simple biscuit but when made right , absolutely delicious! Egg Whites, Sugar & Ground Almonds! I baked them & gave them to my partner to taste and he looked me with an eye that said “people would love these”.
He gave some to his customers to try and came back to me saying “bad news, people loved them you have to make more”. Within two weeks I was making cookies, flapjacks, lemon and white chocolate muffins and chocolate lava cake. I was going crazy with ideas but having such fun. We were tasting these cakes every night. While I needed a little encouragement, it was becoming obvious that I had perhaps found a little niche for myself. Finally. The Flourless Baker was born!
How does your career fulfill you?
I enjoy seeing people happy from food, I get happy from food. It’s a pleasure to be able to get up, get your chef gear on and bake knowing that you have to be at your best in order to give people the best. The greatest compliment someone can give me is coming back to get more of my product. I can’t ask for better fulfillment than that.
As the business has grown over the last year and a half I’ve now adapted the product offering. I’ve tested myself. I’ve gone to Paris to bake and see how I can take french baking ideas and incorporate them into baking without flour. I have strengthened the brand and given it a possible platform to expand over the course of time. I’ve also been able to bring one or two Croatian ideas into the offering. I never want to lose sight of where I come from.
What are your professional ambitions? What’s next for Helena Vukovic?
Well considering two years ago I was a manager for a large coffee chain with no idea of what was around the corner I suppose I am very much taking each day at a time but that’s not to say I don’t have further ambitions. Right now I am a supplier for some of Ireland’s nicest places to get a great coffee and food-to-go but I very much recognise that The Flourless Baker needs its own hub so to speak so next year will, fingers crossed, see my own bakery open whereby I can interact more directly with customers and allow my personality to be somewhat reflected in a place of work.
Right now I am fortunate to be able to kitchen share within Eileen Bergin’s Merrion Tree Bistro. It’s given me an amazing opportunity to work in a professional HACCP environment, interact with the HSE , ensure I am doing things right and of course, develop new ideas. They are also a client and you can taste my baking in the bistro.
There are so many people who can’t eat flour and sometimes get overlooked. It’s less common now, Ireland really is a beacon of hope for Coeliacs in Europe. We are VERY good at providing options for those vulnerable to food restrictions but I know I can offer even more.
Name one in the Irish Food industry that inspires you.
When I came from Croatia I had no intention of opening my own business. Or at least, I hadn’t thought about it. That being said , I was always aware of food ans in particular have always taken an interest in good, gourmet, food-to-go. I read about Eileen Bergin & her venture as founder of the Butler’s Pantry and the way she slowly expanded her business over the course of time, a self-employed woman working in an industry so dominated by males at the time and building her own brand off the back of never compromising on quality and listening to her customers. She always maintained consistency. From setting up with very little money but with an absolute passion for what she was doing, I found that story quite inspiring and even more so now that I work in one of her kitchens!
Also Darina Allen & her fantastic school in Cork. You cannot but be inspired but people like this who, driven by their passion, have created hundreds of jobs & inspired lots of other people to go forward in food. Not sure there is a better inspiration.
In your opinion, what challenges face women in the Irish Food industry?
I think the challenges facing us as women are the same that face so many business owners in 2022. I have never looked at myself as unequal. I am a baker who happens to be female. I will learn and make mistakes as I go. Have successes & failures and use them to my benefit. I think the short-term “challenges” are economic ones. We are talking amidst a huge European economic & geopolitical crisis which I believe has yet to really fully hit home. Maintaining our businesses over the next 18 months and managing both a shortage of staff and increased costs will remain my priority challenges to make my business provide customers the highest quality food at an affordable cost.
What do you think can be done to raise the profile and visibility of women in the industry?
This is a difficult one for me because of my outlook in life. It’s very difficult to stop someone from doing what they truly believe. It might not work out – but if they have something of high quality and something people want and they can deliver it successfully to the public then you are making yourself visible. I personally believe issues for women in business are still highlighted by unequal pay, certainly within the more corporate sector but in terms of a woman who has her own business and her own drive, she can make herself as visible as she wants with the right perspective. From my time working in Ireland, I have never felt different or made to feel inferior. In my time within Insomnia Coffee Co, the head office had more women than men. Yes, we had a male CEO but the really hard work, the work which involved the day-to-day running of Operations, was all done by women.
What is the proudest moment of your career path so far?
Well retrospectively, getting on a plane to come to a country I’d never heard of and beginning a new life makes me very proud of myself. It took A LOT of guts for me to up and leave.
But more immediately, in May 2021 I received a call from the Operations Manager in Insomnia. Ireland was beginning to reopen, Covid was “under control”. I was already working for myself and I was busy but was I busy enough to go out on my own? “Are you ready to come back to us” was the question asked on the phone. A million thoughts raced through my head. Do I want to go back? Can I afford not to go back? If I do go back how will I develop? How can I find time to make new cakes & build on my existing client base? What if Ireland closes again? I told her I would tell her the following day. I already had a stall on Sundays at Herbert Park Market which I had opened in September 2020 whilst insomnia was closed. I would bake midweek for the very few clients I had at the time, then on Saturday evenings would be back in the kitchen baking for Sunday morning. It was a fantastic way of meeting people, getting feedback and seeing if there was something in this. After a few weeks, people started preordering their cakes because I was selling them out. So I actually began to have orders there every Sunday for collection. People WANTED to buy my cakes. That gave me the confidence to go forward.
After I got that call from my Operation Manager, I went home, spoke with my partner & decided I would take a leap of faith. The following day I emailed offering my resignation and I guess you could say made myself very proud. (And scared)
What advice would you give your younger self?
I am in my mid 30’s now. I am honestly sure I wouldn’t change anything about how my younger self operated. I learned respect, I worked hard very early in my life in Croatia – we had to. I learned that you get nothing for nothing. I learned to be kind and I learned very quickly that people will walk over you if you let them but that also people can be extremely helpful and supportive. All of that knowledge has me where I am today. Perhaps, knowing what I know now. I would encourage a younger version of myself not to settle. There are always bad jobs and bad environments but you have to believe that there is better and that you can achieve it. Never settle. Never make someone else happy at your expense or that of your comfort zone.
What are the top skills required to do your job?
I think you must know what people want and then, whenever possible and to the best of your ability, be able to give it to them in new and exciting ways. So knowledge of your market and current market trends are vital. If you want to be in front of the public you must have people skills – this is something that isn’t really in my nature but that I am learning to do all the time. You also need organisation. Is this a skill? Or perhaps a discipline. A kitchen without organisation is chaos. I also believe you need honesty – with yourself – don’t put something out if you are not 100% happy with it. 90% isn’t enough for me. I want my customers to be happy so I picture myself as one of those when working on something.
Are you a savoury or sweet person? Please tell us what’s a real treat for you.
I think the answer is in the profession on this one. I don’t cook. I CAN cook but I really don’t. My partner would tell you I make super Bolognese or Tortillas and perhaps I do but it’s where I draw the line. For as long as I can remember I LOVED sweets. So much so that I had black teeth as a kid! The dentist kept a close eye on me. It was insufferable for my parents. Hiding in corners to eat sweets. I have a little bit more discipline now.
We are fortunate enough to go skiing every year. It’s my CheeseALooza Festival. French cheese & French alpine food is just the most delicious experience. Fortunately, 99.9% of the delicious savoury options in France during winter involve cheese, potato, meat and eggs so gluten isn’t an issue. I can look at the patisserie section & drool but that’s as far as I can go.