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Baker's new business takes the cake

CHARLESTON, W.Va. - Petra Vasale Newkirk was only too happy to pay her culinary dues in jobs where she was challenged to create elaborate desserts or make soup.

Her focus was on learning everything she could and being ready for the day when she would open her own business.

That day has come.

Last week, Newkirk helped put the finishing touches on the signage for her Quarrier Street storefront, Cakes by Appointment. Her commercial kitchen is set up and has the health department's seal of approval.

Lights that look like frosted flowers are put together - Newkirk did that herself - and are hung. Walls are painted, new flooring has been installed, and chef's coats with her logo embroidered on them have arrived.

"I'm now taking orders," Newkirk said.

Don't just think three-tiered wedding cakes with elaborate fondant ribbons - although Newkirk does those.

"If someone wants a German chocolate cake for dessert on a Friday night, I want them to call me," she said. "If they want a coffee cake for a Sunday, I can do that.

"And everything is homemade from scratch," she added.

She can accommodate Kosher and halal food preparation rules and has developed gluten-free and vegan recipes.

"I want to be able to serve the entire community," Newkirk said.

 The 29-year-old Charleston native has known she wanted to be a chef since she was a teenager.

The decision actually came during an emotional time for her family. Newkirk's mom was very ill, and her dad, Tom Vasale, a landscaper, was busy trying to tend to four children.

"It was my junior year and I remember him telling me, 'You can't wait to figure out what you want to do with the rest of your life. So what do you want to do?'"

"At one point, I wanted to be a surgeon," Newkirk recalled. But then she realized she didn't want to go to school for that long.

At the same time, she was fascinated by the Food Network - so she told her dad that's what she wanted to do.

And she has never turned back.

Newkirk has two degrees from Sullivan University in Louisville, Ky. - baking and pastry and culinary arts, working double time to complete both in two years.

Newkirk was delighted to learn that the fact she can't draw anything better than a stick figure doesn't hold her back from creating works of art on cake.

"I'm always laughing with my dad about how when I used to paint and mix paint colors as a kid, he would say, 'Petra, you don't know when to stop. You always make mud.'"

She sometimes sends her dad photos of works in progress and asks, "Should I stop? Am I making mud?"        

When she graduated from culinary school in 2002, Newkirk moved to Lexington, where she held jobs as pastry chef at the Hyatt Regency Hotel and at Idle Hour County Club.

"I had the time of my life," Newkirk said. Her chef at the country club, John Schweder, challenged her in every way.

"We did buffets for hundreds and dinners with plated desserts," she said. "He knew I would do whatever he asked. I love to be challenged."

Still, Newkirk knew she wanted to return to Charleston. And when her husband, Joe, a Lexington native, found an engineering job here four years ago, they knew it was time.

The couple now has a 4-year-old daughter and until Newkirk set up her business, she worked for Ellen Beal at Ellen's Ice Cream on Capitol Street, preparing the lunch menu and helping to manage the store.

"I had a really great four-year run with Ellen," Newkirk said. The partnership isn't over - after all, ice cream is a great accompaniment to cake.

While Newkirk has the skills for a full-service restaurant, she knew that's not what she wanted.

"I decided my passion was in the cake," she said.

She loves parties, too, and that's one reason the Quarrier Street space appealed to Newkirk. It has space for a party room that she envisions will be perfect for birthday celebrations and other small gatherings such as wedding or baby showers.

"I can have up to 40 people there. It's not for the huge functions, because I'm just one person," she said.

Kids' parties might feature a decorate-your-own-cupcake component, she said.

Newkirk credits family and friends for helping her in the decision and process of setting up her own business.

"The family support I have is ridiculous," she said. In every way possible, she sought out local businesses for supplies and materials. Local artist Sharon Harms, a longtime friend of her dad's, designed her logo and helped with her signage, telling Newkirk that when she was new in business, she had mentors help her.

"I told her to pay it forward someday," Harms said.

Cakes by Appointment is located at 1030 Quarrier St. For information on cakes and parties, call Newkirk at 304-550-5055 or visit her website at www.cakesbyappointment.com.

Contact writer Monica Orosz at monica@dailymail.com or 304-348-4830.


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