The Cake Whisperer

Written by Marilyn Hawkes Category: People Issue: November 2014
Group Mid-Level
Character count 2500

Baker Tracy Dempsey extends a helping hand to ailing fans while whipping up her legendary cakes, pastries and confections.

“It’s my way or the highway. If you have a good idea, let’s hear it. But bottom line: When you’re here on the clock, you’re mine.”

Formidable words for an otherwise soft-spoken soul like Valley pastry chef Tracy Dempsey. But that’s her introductory line for employees at Tracy Dempsey Originals, the Tempe-based bake shop where she whips up sweet and savory desserts, baked goods and confections.

Following stints at Cowboy Ciao and Lon’s at the Hermosa Inn, Dempsey started the business in 2009 – and it has expanded steadily ever since, along with the chef’s culinary cachet. She currently makes desserts for 10 notable Valley restaurants, including Citizen Public House, The Gladly and Crudo. Her bacon brittle is available at Bashas’ grocery stores. Her marshmallows got the attention of Oprah Winfrey’s people, and she’s baked wedding cakes for such Phoenix food stars as Chris Bianco and Aaron Chamberlin.

No wonder she gives newbies the third degree; sitting atop this tongue-tantalizing empire, she has precious little free time, working in the kitchen six days a week alongside her four employees and pushing paper on Sundays. But when her friend and colleague Jennifer Caraway asked her in 2011 to join the board of The Joy Bus, a local nonprofit she founded that delivers wholesome and nutritious meals to homebound cancer patients, Dempsey says it was a “no-brainer.”

“I don’t know anybody who hasn’t lost a friend or family member to cancer,” she says. In recent years, Dempsey lost her sister-in-law and mother-in-law to cancer, as well as close friend Lisa Giungo, a Phoenix chef and restaurateur who died of lung cancer in November 2013. Caraway started The Joy Bus in 2011 to honor her friend Joy, who succumbed to the disease in 2012. Dempsey joined the board and serves as vice president, soliciting both exposure and donations for the fledgling nonprofit, which currently feeds meals to five to eight people each week. Local donors include Crooked Sky Farms, Red Bird Chicken and Gluten-Free Creations Bakery. “We’re trying to identify vendors who might be willing to donate on a regular basis,” Dempsey says.

Caraway cooks the majority of Joy Bus meals, but Dempsey pitches in whenever she can, expanding her epicurean expertise beyond the desserts for which she’s known. On a recent week, she prepared and delivered brown rice and red quinoa salad, roasted chicken breast and roasted vegetables from Crooked Sky Farms. “To round out that meal, I made a salad of cantaloupe and watermelon with a light lemon verbena syrup and a vegan, wheat-free chocolate chip cookie,” Dempsey says. “There’s a real emphasis on good grains and fresh produce with very little manipulation.”

After preparing the meal, Dempsey and one of her cooks delivered it to a single mother with Stage 4 breast cancer. “The food made her so happy. She gave me a hug and I was walking on air after that,” Dempsey says. “It really puts things in perspective and reminds you how lucky you are.”

Back in the kitchen, Dempsey frequently dreams up new recipes and changes her menus regularly. “We’re always in a constant state of evolution. I get a hankering for something and then say, ‘Let’s put that on the next menu.’” Sometimes the chefs will offer suggestions, but most of the desserts are Tracy Dempsey innovations that blur the line between sweet and savory. Recent creations include a peach and green tea financier (small French cake) with pistachio ice cream and a Mexican chocolate brownie with corn chip ice cream for House of Tricks in Tempe.

Dempsey has earned a reputation as a “mean mother in the kitchen,” a moniker she clearly relishes, to maintain quality control as her business broadens. She employs culinary students so she can train them from the beginning, and that includes her present crew. “I get them when they’re still able to be taught and molded to my ways because they’re fresh out of school. I teach them to own what they do. I tell them, ‘You can take this experience anywhere you go and parlay it into another position somewhere in the industry,’” she says. “They’re like my children. I’ve watched them blossom and grow.”

When business tapers off during the summer months, Dempsey teaches baking classes in her commercial kitchen and plans to offer a pie-making class sometime around Thanksgiving. Year-round, she makes her signature bacon brittle and her marshmallows, available in a variety of flavors, from toasted coconut to lavender.

Down the road, Dempsey would like to expand her bacon brittle business nationally. She almost caught a big break last year when O, The Oprah Magazine contacted her about the marshmallows. She packed a box with marshmallows and bacon brittle and shipped it to the magazine. “But we didn’t make the cut,” she says.

The bacon brittle has a loyal following and Dempsey plans to capitalize on that. “I think that could be the bread and butter to enable me to do other things, and maybe bring in another employee so I don’t have to be in the kitchen all the time,” she says.

“Then I can contribute more to The Joy Bus. It’s how I give back.”

Fresh donations for The Joy Bus project

On Board with Nutrition
Good nutrition is vital for cancer patients, according to Dr. Vershalee Shukla, a radiation oncologist with 21st Century Oncology and a Joy Bus board member. “During the treatment, it’s important to eat as healthy as you can because you need to maintain your body so it’s strong,” she says. Here are some nutritional recommendations from the American Cancer Society:

Eat protein to help repair body tissue and keep immune systems healthy. Good sources of protein include fish, poultry, lean red meat, eggs, low-fat dairy products, nuts and nut butters, dried beans, peas, lentils and soy products.

Ingest monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats (found in vegetable oils and seafood) to store energy, insulate body tissues and transport vitamins through the bloodstream.

Consume carbohydrates in the form of fruits, vegetables and whole grains to fuel the body for physical activity and proper organ function.

Drink plenty of water to stay hydrated.

For more information, visit cancer.org.

Check it out!
To learn more about The Joy Bus, visit thejoybus.org