Before mentoring recovering addicts and leading operations at Community Matters Cafe, pastry chef Ashley Anna Tuttle honed her baking skills as a sergeant in the U.S. Army.
by Ben Jarrell • photographs by Jonathan Cooper
Confident and poised, she stood on the edge of the patio in front of Romare Bearden Park in pressed chef whites, bread and fancy butter in hand. Bread that, minutes earlier on this spring morning, my server told me was only available at dinner. Nevertheless, there it sat, delivered by the artist and maker herself who insisted on quelling my disappointment. Despite my slight embarrassment, I wasn’t going to protest.
That was when I met Ashley Anna Tuttle for the first time.
It was May 2018. I was visiting Haymaker restaurant in uptown Charlotte, having just read an article by esteemed food journalist Kathleen Purvis on the worth of this new restaurant’s six-dollar bread service.
Tuttle is a veteran, serving in the U.S. Army for four years and earning the rank of sergeant. It was in this unlikely setting, during her service, when she learned to bake. But, as she had shown as one of only two women in a platoon of more than 30 men, she was unconcerned with the expectations of others.
I, however, had arrived at Haymaker that day with expectations. And the bread delivered. The loaf was light and airy, the butter slightly tangy from the house culture, the textured sea salt adding pops of flavor with each crunch. Fresh cut chives added depth. After my early lunch, I left with a box of pastries that never stood a chance.
Tuttle has since moved across uptown to Community Matters Cafe, in the shadow of Bank of America Stadium, where she provides leadership for a select group of Charlotte Rescue Mission’s Life Skills program. Charlotte Rescue Mission provides residential drug and alcohol recovery support. Graduates of the program may extend their stay by applying for a spot in Community Matters Cafe’s cohort, where they will receive skills training and classroom instruction. Upon completion, many go on to work for local employers, from barber shops to restaurants.
It’s a good gig, Tuttle says.
“I was looking for a culture shift — different [from] the restaurant industry. And I always wanted to teach.”
Her first career wasn’t so public. It was, in fact, top secret. Before graduating from Johnson & Wales University with degrees in baking and pastry and business, and before earning her MBA from Baker College in Michigan, Tuttle diffused bombs for the government. Her role as an Explosive Ordnance Disposal Technician with the U.S. Army took her all over the world. One week she was at a state fair in Des Moines, ahead of the campaign trail for then-President Barack Obama. Another week found her working to “clear” the courtyard around the 98-foot Christ the Redeemer statue that stands over the busy streets and crowded favelas of Rio de Janeiro.
But those jam-packed weeks weren’t necessarily in succession so, with the downtime that is inherent in military service, Tuttle baked — poorly, at first, she says. But she got better. Then she got a lot better.
To bring a taste of home to the troops in her unit, she started taking requests. Cranberry orange cookies made Aaron feel like he was back home in Illinois. While training on the coast of Maryland, Chris from New York insisted on rainbow cookies reminiscent of the cheery glow of an Italian Christmas.
With each tray of cookies, her skills improved. Maybe, she thought, she could make a career of it. Initially hired as executive pastry chef at Community Matters Cafe, she has since been promoted to cafe operations director, allowing her an opportunity to work with both customers and students.
One of those ways is with her mom’s pumpkin rolls, a Thanksgiving tradition when Tuttle was growing up in Florida.
“I love sharing the story with students,” Tuttle says. She and her brother continued the annual tradition after their mother passed away when Tuttle was 13, showing up at holiday gatherings to share the pumpkin roll with family. That custom conveyed to Tuttle’s time in the service. It’s been a recipe that’s followed her throughout her life. It has, however, evolved slightly. Tuttle only made one change to her mother’s recipe — and it was a big one.
“My mom tried using whole pumpkins once,” laughs Tuttle. There was not a second time. Tuttle, however, does get her pumpkins fresh, a task she says is worth the effort. “They’re so much sweeter,” she says.
It’s more work but, unlike her mother, who did all the prep herself for her famous pumpkin roll, Tuttle has help. Joanie, a graduate of the life-skills program, went on to work at Copain Gatherings before returning to Community Matters as cafe assistant manager.
“[Tuttle] has such a beautiful way of teaching,” Joanie says. “But it wasn’t just the baking she taught me. She cared about my life. I started seeing my potential. So many of the qualities I wanted to build in me, I saw in her.”
Tuttle has recently brought on another rock star in the kitchen. Miranda (Brown) Martin, formerly at The Asbury and 2018 winner of the North Carolina Restaurant & Lodging Association Pastry Chef of the Year award, now supports Tuttle as pastry chef at Community Matters.
These days, a success in both the kitchen and the classroom, Tuttle looks very much at home in her chef’s coat. At 5 feet, 2 inches tall, it may be hard to imagine her in full tech gear, dismantling a long-forgotten bomb from World War II on a Maryland golf course. According to Tuttle, it’s her walk that informs people of her former military service.
“It’s how I hold my shoulders — how I carry myself,” she says.
It’s true. I noticed it the minute she delivered the six-dollar bread plate. But despite her confident stride, which might seem intimidating to some, Tuttle’s natural sense of hospitality puts people at ease. Instead of my fragile male ego feeling threatened, the Southern boy in me felt welcome. Tuttle brings that same sense of comfort and grace to cafegoers.
Just like Joanie, the pumpkin roll has made a return. It’s available by the slice on the fall menu at the cafe, or customers can order an entire roll. A big hit last holiday season, Tuttle expects to make and sell more than six dozen this year.
“It reminds me of my mom. One hundred percent,” Tuttle says. “It’s been a recipe, a piece of her I’ve been able to share.” SP
Note: A previous version of this article cites the incorrect name of the nonprofit affiliated with Community Matters Cafe; the cafe is a program of Charlotte Rescue Mission.