Something’s cooking out in Montauk. Or baking to be more precise. Billy Bertha Jr., the pastry chef at Gurney’s since 1977, has been expanding his line of traditional pumpernickels and ryes, experimenting with vegan desserts and helping to produce the next generation of bakers, with his kitchen being as much of a classroom as a working part of a restaurant.
This year Bertha (shown above) won the American Heart Association’s contest for baking the best vegan cake on Long Island. “So for me this was a little different,” he says. “I’m used to using butter and cream, but with my baking experience and knowledge I can take a recipe and make it better.”
He test-drove his creation, a chocolate raspberry cake, on some children, and when they gobbled it down, he knew he had a winner.
To make the cake, he substituted soy milk for cream and used whole wheat flour instead of cake flour (for that extra-healthy bump) and cocoa powder, no milk chocolate. To make the cake moist, he used vinegar and applesauce instead of butter, and the chocolate mousse contains tofu. For an extra spike of chocolate, he added a dash of crème de cacao liqueur and used raspberry jam for the filling.
The cake is now on the menu at Gurney’s, in keeping with their body-conscious spa choices. It’s also available as a whole cake, through Gurney’s Beach Bakery, the thriving wholesale business that Bertha helped launch four years ago. The goods are available in local IGAs as well as at Schmidt’s in Southampton.
It’s been a long journey since Bertha arrived in Montauk at the age of 19. He already had experience working in a bakery. His neighbor, who he recalls as “a strict German man,” opened a bakery in Brentwood, where Bertha started working at age 11. Attracted to a job advertised in Gurney’s bakery, which included room and board, Bertha packed up his brand new Porsche to find out that he didn’t know as much about baking as he thought.
“You could do a different recipe every day of your life,” he says. “If any baker tells you that he knows it all, that’s absolutely false, because you can learn something new every day in the bakery.”
Which he is passing along. The bakery now has six employees; Bertha teaches kids and interns and envisions himself, in his later years, teaching at a culinary school. “I just like to go to work and do my job,” he says. “If you like your job you’ll do much better. Our first ingredient in everything is love.”