By Carly DeFilippo
In the past few years, macarons have become a staple in the New York pastry scene, but when ICE Pastry & Baking Arts and Culinary Management alum Christina Ha first conceived of Macaron Parlour, they were far from your everyday treat. With flavors that expand beyond traditional French offerings, Christina has always pushed the boundaries of creativity, and her latest venture—the city’s first “cat café”—is yet another unexpected innovation. We caught up with this entrepreneurial career changer to learn about her sweet success.
Did you have another career prior to working in food?
I worked at a nonprofit as the publicity & marketing coordinator. Since it was a small office, it actually meant that I was involved in much more than what the title suggested, so I helped out with such diverse things as promotional mailings, working coat check at events and even some bookkeeping. In a lot of ways, it helped set me up for owning a small business.
What attracted you to the Pastry & Baking Arts program at ICE?
At the time, I lived three blocks away! I was already taking recreational classes at ICE, and I enjoyed them so much that I never looked at another school or program. I applied for a scholarship through the James Beard Foundation and when I won a tuition voucher for ICE, it sealed my fate.
Did your externship help you make meaningful connections in the industry?
I completed my externship at Locanda Verde under Pastry Chef Karen DeMasco, and was hired full time when the externship ended. I’m still friends with a lot of the people that I worked with, and they are all doing so well; I often find fellow Locanda alumni in the kitchens of my favorite restaurants. Working with Karen also opened a lot of doors for me, and she was a great mentor to have along the way.
Walk me through your career path from ICE until now.
While I was in school, my now-husband Simon and I started a business together called Macaron Parlour, selling macarons at the Hester Street Fair, as well as other holiday and food fairs. We worked around my class schedule and then my work schedule at Locanda Verde. Then, while still at Locanda, I went back to school for the Culinary Management program. After that, I did a short stint as the opening pastry chef for Smith Canteen, and once that settled down, Macaron Parlour became my full-time job. Since then, Simon and I have opened two bakeries. Most recently, I opened Meow Parlour—NYC’s first cat café—with a friend, so I am now also a professional cat wrangler.
Are there any honors of which you are particularly proud?
In 2012, I won a number of different scholarships available to ICE students—from Les Dames d’Escoffier, Women Chefs & Restaurateurs and the American Institute of Wine & Food—which was amazing and incredibly helpful financially. More recently, Food & Wine called me the “ultimate cat lady,” and that title really tickles me.
What is a typical day in your working life?
I usually start my day at the East Village Macaron Parlour, which is where our production kitchen is located. I get there between 7-9 am, depending on the day, and produce macarons, cookies and all of our other pastries with the team. Even as a business owner, I put in my 40+ hours in the kitchen, but I also spend a decent amount of time on the phone checking in with Meow Parlour. We usually finish baking around 6 pm, and then I head to Meow Parlour to check in on the staff, the cats and handle anything that needs to be addressed. Once I’m home, some evenings I do paperwork and bookkeeping for all three stores. Then it’s wash, rinse and repeat!
What would students be surprised to learn about your job?
I think most people would be surprised to learn that most of the cooks I hire work Monday – Friday, 9:30 to 5:30, like a traditional desk job. It took me a long time to figure out how to make that happen, but today, we’re able to produce everything we need for our online shop, wholesale clients, three bakeries and two market stands on that schedule.
Where would you like to see yourself in the future?
It would be great to see Macaron Parlour expand into a bigger kitchen. Right now, we’re producing a lot out of our shop, and Simon and I are always surprised by the boundaries we can push out of this little space—not to mention how easily the staff steps up to the challenges. Aside from that, ICE Dean of Business & Management Studies Steve Zagor keeps threatening to invite me back to speak to one of his classes, so maybe I’ll be back at ICE soon! Maybe I’ll even get a chance to talk to Simon’s class (he’s currently enrolled in the Culinary Management program) and share a story that embarrasses him.