Lani Halliday Bakes Whatever She Wants

“I keep it fun — pastry’s fun!”

The Great Ones is a celebration of humans we admire — and an exploration of why they cook, not just how. With front-of-house vibes, back-of-house talent, and a hardworking yet Zen approach to her career, it’s no wonder Lani Halliday has taken the baking world by storm. We met up with Lani in her new Brooklyn production space while she whipped up a stunning cake and talked to us about her gluten-free-baking journey.

I've always worked in food. My first job was at a pizza place when I was 16. I apprenticed as a bread baker when I was 19, and I developed a wheat allergy, so I couldn't do that job anymore. I explored lots of roles in hospitality: I was a cocktailer, a server, and a runner, and I did all sorts of things in front and back of house all over the restaurant industry.

I moved to New York in 2006 for a relationship; I got married, I got pregnant, and then I moved to the U.K. At that point, I stopped working and became a stay-at-home parent. Fast-forward: That relationship ended, and I was back at my mom’s house in Portland, Oregon, broke and without a college degree.

I didn't really believe in myself, but I knew I had to do something.

I made the investment to go to pastry school, which was a really big deal for me at that time. I didn't really believe in myself, but I knew I had to do something. I'm a super-fearful person. I have anxiety issues, I've had panic attacks, and I've always tried to do what I do in spite of that. Maybe I'm Pollyannaish, or maybe I'm brave — I haven’t yet figured out which. I had two little babies to take care of, and they really motivated me to do my best. I graduated at the top of my little pastry-school class and scored the best internship; I had to do a 12-hour stage to get it.

I moved back to New York, and I worked as a kitchen manager at Ovenly. I put my head down, did my thing, and I worked as hard as I could. I felt like I was behind everyone else in terms of my skill set and my network and all those things, so I just went for it. Then I started freelancing, and I've been doing my own thing for a few years.
Before the miso-chocolate-chip cookie — which blew up this summer — I was known for my stencil cakes. They’ve got really beautiful surface designs on them. It’s a very flexible format, with lots of bold, modern, Pop-y colors. For me, that was a format to create and express the things that turned me on: artists that inspired me, like Josef Albers, Anni Albers, and John Nash and people who work with surface design and color and shape and motif — all those things I wished I had access to but didn’t. The stencil cake was my way of getting in the back door of having a “creative career.”

I was always a creative person and desired a creative career, but I didn't fully explore those interests when I was a young person. It wasn't a path I thought existed for me. I didn't have anyone holding my hand when I was in high school, and I wasn’t a very internally motivated person at that time. I was bullied, and I was just trying to keep my head above water, socially and emotionally. I barely graduated high school. I started to put myself through community college, and I got motivated there. Ultimately, I would have loved to go to Pratt and done the creative thing.

Pastry and baking have this rep for being uptight and ultra-precise, and you can get this sort of staunch, humorless vibe. I am not like that. I'm just not her; she is not me. I keep it fun — pastry’s fun! I'm a fun person who likes to have fun. I work for myself, and I work so much, so I might as well enjoy myself.

I work for myself, and I work so much, so I might as well enjoy myself. 
I've been gluten-free for 20 years, and I've spent a ton of time with ingredients on an individual level. I do a lot of research. I spend money on crazed ingredient manuals that break down the science of every gluten-free flour so I can really understand what's happening scientifically with the recipes I'm putting together.

I don't do things that are ultra-complex. I play on very classic American baking. Sometimes I play with spice, but I really focus on bakery standards and make them more accessible. A lot of things I do are vegan; everything I do is gluten-free — the chocolate-chip cookies are gluten-free, vegan, and soy-free. I love being able to make things that serve many people and bring people together. When everyone can have it, it's just that much more delightful.
I play on very classic American baking. Sometimes I play with spice, but I really focus on bakery standards and make them more accessible.

Let's face it: Pastry and dessert are — I probably shouldn’t say this — wholly unnecessary. Strictly speaking, we don't need sugar and cookies to survive. They're a treat, and I love creating gluten-free things for people who have restrictions but still want a treat. It’s so rewarding to me. I worked at Erin McKenna's Bakery when I first moved to New York, and folks would bring in their 5-year-old who'd never had a chocolate-chip cookie, or a person would stand in the shop and just cry because they were eating a birthday cupcake, and they hadn't had a cupcake in five years. I always loved that return. I work in the back of house, but I'm a total front-of-house person — you create the vibe, you're serving people, you get to create a whole scene of energy where people are just delighting and enjoying and relaxing around food. I just love that.
“When everyone can have it, it's just that much more delightful.”
The bar in New York is super high, and I don't love to lead with “gluten-free,” per se. The gold standard is This is delicious. It’ll happen to be gluten-free, and I frequently give the things that I'm testing to other bakers or chefs or pastry chefs who are antagonistic or hostile toward things that are gluten-free.

I was working on a gluten-free brioche recipe. I brought a loaf to Josh Sobel, who used to run Mile End Deli, and he was just like, “This is so good for brioche period. The fact that it's gluten-free is just insane and unbelievable.” That to me was like, Okay, the recipe is done. It’s ready. He's a well-respected chap, and he thinks this is lit. That’s the approach I take when deciding whether something works or not.

Today I did an almond-polenta cake with cardamom, citrus, honey, topped with a rose buttercream. Almond and rose go together — botanically they’re the same family. This cake is delicious: It's rich, it's dense, it's moist, it's floral, it’s citrus, it’s bright. Rose is a polarizing thing; some people are like, “Oh, it's like Grandma's panty drawer with the rose sachet.” But I really like it.
“I stay in this space of wonder and delight.”

I describe my creative style almost like a magpie: I pick up on little things I like and appreciate around me and pull it all together into something that suits me. I work on what I want. I was putting together a menu for a Southern-inspired dinner pop-up, and I made a pecan pie. I would never make a chocolate-pecan-pie recipe. I don't like chocolate-pecan pie — I don't want to eat that, so I'm not going to make it. I really think, What do I want?!
I like to create things that I would like to eat. I'm like, Ooh, citrus and cardamom and rose and almonds all go great together. Let me do a thing that reflects that. And I'm not really thinking, Is everyone going to love this? Because somebody will. I just believe that and work intuitively, and I record as I go. I get feedback from other pastry chefs and people whose opinions I trust who aren’t afraid to be incredibly nitpicky and critical, which is the kind of feedback I like. Not everyone can take it, and not everyone can give it, but it's incredibly valuable.

“I like to create things that I would like to eat. I'm not really thinking, Is everyone going to love this? Because somebody will.”

Obviously, from a marketing perspective, creating new things is really important. But I don’t have a weird competition with myself where I'm like, If I'm not blowing up my next thing the way this thing is… or, If Pete Wells isn’t talking about my next thing in the same way as these cookies, I'm a piece of shit. I don’t do that.

I'm more delighted by the fact that people really like it. It always blows me away how positively people respond to that cookie. I'm like, Damn, you guys, it’s good, but I love that you think it's real good. I stay in this space of wonder and delight. I'm not thinking about a “sophomore slump.” Fuck that, that’s not how I live, and that's not my internal landscape at all.

I don’t focus on external validation, and I don't read comments. I take a compliment the same way I take a hateful remark — it’s someone else's opinion, and it’s none of my business. Pete Wells of the New York Times said he “joined the very large fan base” of my cookies. So I'm going to make sure everyone else knows that because everyone else cares about what he says. It’s beautiful and wonderful, but at the end of the day, I stay on my side of the street, trying to show up and be humble and do my best and not worry about what other people think of me.

Photos by Vincent Tullo