Tell us a little bit about yourself.
My name is Holly Wiest. I’m a 31 year old pastry chef and owner of Cotton-Top Pastries in Helena, Montana.
I was born in Singapore to two 4th generation Montanans and spent the first three years of my life living in the middle of a jungle in Indonesia while my father worked as a chemical engineer at a cement plant. Eventually we made our way back to the states for a brief stint in the Bay Area, but made our final move home to Montana the summer before I entered second grade.
I’m a daughter, sister, girlfriend, and mom to two dogs and two cats. I’m a cardigan enthusiast, avid audiobook listener, unabashed NPR Sunday Puzzle participant, antique and dish collector, and lover of cheese and carbohydrates. I enjoy hikes, travel, dog walks, long walks on the beach, and cozy nights at home.
Holly, your bakery is full of the most delicious things and I have been a fan ever since you opened your business here in Helena. Tell us about your journey to pastry chef.
Oh that’s a long and winding road. Though I didn’t know it at the time, my journey to pastry chef began at my grandmother’s kitchen table, icing Christmas cookies at our annual cookie party. My Grandma Nadine always had a full cookie jar and took great pride in baking the most delicious sweet treats, pies, and cakes. She was the star baker in the family, and loved to bake with her granddaughters. I always enjoyed my time with her in the kitchen, but had no idea it would eventually turn into my livelihood.
I spent my school days preparing for a career in the arts. I was going to study advertising and live in a big city, I was absolutely certain. I would not be dissuaded, it was my calling. I graduated from high school early and began taking college courses as my peers were entering their junior year. After a year of generals at a community college, I applied to my first choice school, was accepted into the Advertising-Art Direction program at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco, and with my parent’s semi-hesitant blessing, moved to the big city…where I promptly learned that I did NOT want to work in advertising.
Despite my dislike for my chosen course of study, I loved the city, the food scene in particular – it exposed me to so many unfamiliar experiences; ethnic food, world-class bakeries with their crusty sourdough bread, street carts, elotes, dim sum, endless farmers’ markets with heirloom vegetables and exotic fruits I’d never heard of. Unfortunately I quickly learned that an 18 year old can’t afford to live in downtown San Francisco without being enrolled in some sort of student housing – so I packed up my belongings and flew home to Montana to re-evaluate my life.
My exposure to exciting new foods in San Francisco sparked an interest in the culinary arts. I began cooking at home and reading every cookbook and food related magazine I could get my hands on. I thrilled my family with enchilada casseroles and horrified them with a vile beer-cheese soup. Having learned the hard and expensive lesson of counting your eggs before they’re hatched in the terms of education choices, I was encouraged to enroll in a culinary program that put me a little closer to home. I found the Culinary Institute of Montana in Kalispell, enrolled and moved up to the Flathead Valley where I would spend the next two years fully immersed in the ins and outs of the food service industry. It was a life changing decision. I learned how to breakdown a chicken, make the perfect stock, and cooked my way through the mother sauces and their variants. We catered events, wrote menus, learned how to cook with the seasons, and worked in restaurants. We traveled to Italy and France, hunted for truffles, drank wine, and ate ourselves sick on camembert. My eyes had been opened, and I had found my place.
Despite my savory training, I always worked in bakeries – over the next decade I worked and baked my way through Kalispell, Helena, Whitefish, Asheville North Carolina, and eventually I moved to Yssingeaux, France to pursue a French Pastry degree at the Ecole Nationale Supérieure de la Pâtisserie. I spent a year building on to my 10 years of baking experience and honed my french pastry skills. Then it was time to come home to Helena and bake for myself. Cotton-Top Pastries was born a year later – I’ve been baking for the Helena Farmers’ Market for three and a half seasons and will finally be opening my studio space at the base of Reeder’s Alley to the public with regular storefront hours in February. I couldn’t be happier, more excited, or more terrified! ha!
Beyond baking, what does your perfect day look like?
A leisurely morning without an alarm clock. Tea on the couch. A dog walk. Browsing antiques. Cooking or going out for a good meal. A day without deadlines, schedules, or timelines is always a good day.
What’s your favorite thing to bake?
I love baking anything that relies heavily on method and food science – pies and croissants/other laminated dough are generally my favorite. I like being able to recognize the subtle improvements I can make to the final product by simply adjusting things like the temperature of butter or mix times, etc. When you make the same recipe over and over again you really allow yourself to get to know it – you recognize chemical reactions and can make adjustments to create the texture and taste you find ideal – you can really tweak it and make it your own. Focusing on technique and science also helps me avoid baking burnout on my less than favorite baking projects.
What book do we need to immediately go out and buy?
Because of my profession, I spend most of my time with cookbooks – the one I go back to over and over again is Tartine by Elisabeth Prueitt and Chad Robertson. The photographs are beautiful and the recipes are consistent, well crafted, and meticulous in explanation. If you can’t get to San Francisco to eat at Tartine, making something from the book is a close second.
One of my favorite questions to ask is about advice. If you could tell your 20-yr-old self a few things, what would you say?
Stop worrying so much! and specifically, please stop worrying about societal time lines – follow your path and do what feels right – you don’t have to have a ten year plan. You don’t have to be on the same trajectory as your peers. RELAX GIRL.
Tell us about a person who’s had a big impact on your life.
My very first culinary school instructor, Hillary Ginepra, was a great person to learn from, not only from the perspective of cooking, but also as a woman in what is most often considered a man’s world. She never pulled any punches, was brutally honest, held me to a high standard, and gave me the tools I needed to succeed in the chaotic food service industry. On my very first day of class, listening to her talk about the restaurant industry, I knew that I had finally found my place in the world. Women who own small businesses are also a source of inspiration – the downtown Helena business corridor is always my first example; most of the businesses on Last Chance Gulch and 6th Avenue are women-owned and operated.
What are some words your friends would use to describe you?
First and foremost – emotional. But also, driven, kind, brave, bossy, funny, and detail oriented.
What do you value most in a friendship?
I have a very small circle of close friends – I can count them on one hand. They all posses similar qualities, but the constants are; honesty, vulnerability, patience, passion, consistency, a sense of humor, and a love of eating.
Podcast or magazine?
I spend a lot of time listening to podcasts and audio books while I’m working at the bakery – so much so that I would be totally lost without them, so my “castaway” answer has to be Podcast. However, I really enjoy food and baking magazines – some of greatest inspiration has come from periodicals like Bake From Scratch, Gourmet (R.I.P), and Cook’s Illustrated.
Coffee or tea?
Black tea with milk and a little sugar, always and forever.
Chocolate or vanilla?
Both, but vanilla if I have to choose. I’m totally fascinated by the different varieties of beans and their tasting notes, as well as the vanilla industry in and of itself – the process of growing, pollinating, and harvesting the vanilla orchid is done almost entirely by hand. Much like wine and coffee, both vanilla and chocolate are incredible examples of terrior – a perfect illustration of how ingredients and products are influenced by their environment; sunny days, rocky soil, humidity, rainfall…there are so many factors that affect flavor development and growth!
Introvert or extrovert?
I N T R O V E R T. Starting out at the farmers’ market was a real test for me – I was so used to being tethered to an oven without public interaction that I really had to dust off my “people skills”.
Rural or urban?
This is such a hard question. I ultimately moved back to Montana because of an undeniable pull to the landscape, lifestyle and my family…but it was not without hesitation – I had to make many sacrifices as far big city living was concerned; cultural diversity, unending food options, access to museums and live music/shows. All that being said, moving home was undoubtedly the best decision I’ve ever made. I love to travel and visit new places and big cities, but I’m always happy to come home to our little mountain town.
Dress up or dress down?
Dress down. Jeans and Birkenstocks are always my first choice.
Cats or dogs?
I have both and love both, but I’m definitely more of a dog person.
Sunrise or sunset?
Sunrise. Going to bed early is my greatest thrill.
Detailed or abstract?
Call or text?
Please text me.
Fiction or non-fiction?
Fiction, unless we’re talking true crime.
Salty or Sweet?
Both, preferably at the same time.
Here’s the big question about Montana… tell us why you love living here.
The people. The wide open spaces. The vast and diverse landscape. The unfettered access to the wilderness if you drive 15 minutes in any direction. The culture of land stewardship and drive to protect our resources. There’s something magical about this state. Like so many, I grew up dreaming about getting out of this small town, but when I finally ventured out, the further I got away, the more I wanted to come back.
What’s a lesson you are currently learning?
When and how to ask for help, and how to let go when someone offers assistance. I’m also navigating the grieving process and learning how to move forward after loss in what feels like a totally unfamiliar world.
For what in your life do you feel most grateful?
The unwavering support of my family and friends – I spent almost a decade moving wherever the wind blew me and changing my mind about what I wanted to go with my life. Every crazy new idea, every cross country move was met with nothing but encouragement and enthusiasm when I needed cheerleaders, and council when I needed help. My loved ones have always been a tremendous source of strength –
My Mom for teaching me to get involved with causes I feel passionate about. For showing me how to open your heart and home to others in need. For keeping me company at markets and events, for stamping millions of boxes, and packaging thousands of treats. For the early mornings and late nights. For the words of encouragement and love. For moving heaven and earth to help make my dreams a reality.
My Dad for teaching me how to get things done. How to work methodically, take great care in your craft and pay attention to details. For always showing up to every event, pie pickup, and pop-up market just to say hi. For fixing any and everything. For building any and everything. For being reliable, constant, and present in my life. For helping me with math homework all through school, even though it came at great emotional cost for both of us. For always supporting me, even when we didn’t see eye to eye.
My sister for being my best, truest friend. For teaching me how to stand up for myself and not take people’s shit. For being my strength when I’ve been weak. For saying what needs to be said, even if it stings a little. For being an example of strength, grace, and resiliency even in the most devastating circumstances. For being my person, my comical relief, brain twin, travel buddy, constant companion, crisis counselor, on-call vet tech, and creative consultant.
My late brother in law, Ian, for teaching me to live big, love hard, laugh often, throw caution to the wind, go on adventures, stand up for the little guy, step in when there’s been an injustice, and to never take a moment for granted.