Former Hollywood exec Gesine Bullock-Prado is baking up a storm in Vermon — and savoring life life never before.Photo Credit : Mark Fleming
Here’s how Gesine Bullock-Prado describes her conversion experience, her on-the-road-to-Damascus (or rather, Norwich, Vermont) moment, when she transformed from an unhappy Californian to a dyed-in-the-wool New Englander.
“On an innocent getaway to Hanover, New Hampshire, to catch the homecoming football game at [my husband’s] alma mater,” she writes in her cookbook-memoir My Life from Scratch, “something peculiar happened…. Just as we crossed the state line … as we drove over the upper Connecticut River on the Ledyard Bridge and headed into Norwich, Vermont, I subconsciously began to pull up stakes everywhere else and started planting them in the Green Mountains…. Small towns kindly introduced themselves and courteously disappeared from view as we drove along the thick pine-lined roads. I’d found home.”
Before that trip, Gesine (pronounced “Geh-ZEE-neh”) was an attorney living in Los Angeles, plodding through her days as vice-president of Fortis Films, attending glamorous parties, flying first-class. With her famous sister, Sandra Bullock, she was producing movies and launching television shows, and she knew she was living the dream. But it was someone else’s dream. She hated the fake-friendly chitchat with sycophants, the growing pile of bad rom-com scripts to read, the friendships that soured with the phrase “I have a script that I was hoping you could pass along.”
Then one day her mother, Helga, was diagnosed with cancer. As Helga got sicker, Gesine turned to her most reliable comforts: butter and sugar. She baked sticky buns, apple pies, and French-style macarons, kneaded her frustrations into danishes and focaccia, learning as she went. She relished the simple exchange of handing someone a homemade pastry and receiving a genuine smile in return. She began talking about baking everywhere—in script meetings, on sets. And after her mother died in 2000, the idea of “someday” being happy, of “eventually” doing what she loved, made no sense in a world where longevity isn’t guaranteed.
Her baking skills had progressed to the point where she knew she had talent. And all the practice was making her a better person. “My base personality is incredibly impatient,” she says, “but in order to become a great baker, I had to learn patience.” The macarons she made as Christmas gifts for clients and associates at Fortis Films had created a following around Hollywood. And the work of learning and perfecting each recipe soothed her grief. “My mother collected recipes,” Gesine says. “She was an opera singer, so her thing was to wow people, and she was going to find the hardest thing there was and master that. I have some of that in me. I really enjoy the great tasks, like laminated doughs and elaborate cakes, but my approach to them is to figure them out, perfect them, and show people that they can do it, too.”
Then Gesine and her husband, Ray, made that fateful visit to Vermont. In short order, they packed up their things, flew across the country, and simply settled in. Ray, a storyboard artist for films such as X-Men and The Hunger Games, traveled back and forth to L.A. for work. They acclimated to seasons even more extreme than the ones she’d grown up with, first in Germany (Helga’s homeland) and later in Virginia.
The ultimate plan was to bake professionally—maybe open a mail-order macaron operation. But Gesine needed a commercial kitchen, and when Ray found a small shop at the edge of downtown Montpelier in 2004, the mail-order-bakery idea morphed into the full-service Gesine Confectionary, an instant-hit pastry shop that provided a gathering spot for a recurring cast of regulars, plus a growing stream of passers-by. Between rising daily at 3:30 a.m. to turn out croissants, tarts, cakes, and cookies and managing a small business, Gesine wrote My Life from Scratch, which brought the attention of national magazines and television. But now when she found herself in TV studios, she was doing work that she actually loved.
“My temperament is far better suited to New England,” she says. “Even the weather. The not-easy part appeals to me. The history, the forthrightness.” Looking back at her old life in light of Hollywood’s current moment of reckoning, she says, “It shows I wasn’t totally off-base. I was rightfully perturbed by the whole system.” With pastry, she says, she’s working in a more elementally joyful medium.
After five years of running Gesine Confectionary, when the rigors of ownership began to interfere with her love of baking, she closed her shop to focus on writing books and teaching. She and Ray bought a 1794 farmhouse near Hanover that had once served as a tavern and stagecoach stop. They renovated the kitchen; planted sugar pumpkins, currants, and strawberries; and turned the carriage house into a baking studio called Sugar Glider Kitchen. Since then, Gesine has produced five more books; the latest, called Fantastical Cakes, comes out in November. She calls it “the book I wanted when I first started making cakes”—a guide to both making delicious from-scratch cakes and learning to decorate them like a pro.
And she’s back in the TV game, this time starring in the Food Network show Baked in Vermont. In each episode, she bakes several dishes on a theme (puff pastry, maple syrup), with the camera following her as she teaches a class or hosts a party. Ray pops into each episode, tapping a maple tree, chopping wood, sneaking a taste. Off-camera, he’s a little more judicious about his visits to the studio. “I was her taster for years when we had our bakery,” he says. “When she does her books, I still taste. But I have to do moratoriums sometimes.”
Now that he’s working more with the documentary filmmaker Errol Morris, who’s based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, “he’s home more than not,” Gesine says. She calls him over to take a seat and settles into his lap. It’s a happy scene, but it begs a question that Hollywood movies never seem to answer: When all your dreams come true, what happens next?
For Gesine, it’s doing more of exactly the same thing: being here in Vermont, baking through the seasons, and teaching. “That’s my great love, to teach people the things I know,” she says. “You know you’ve found something you should do for the rest of your life when you’re excited to learn something new about it every day. I’m a professional baker, but I love that I’m also still a student. Always.”