Mary Lee Montfort is a successful baker and small business owner. After beginning her culinary career in the kitchen of the Union Bay Café in Seattle, Washington, she went on to open her own successful small baking business in 2004, Mary Lee’s Desserts. Mary Lee is an advocate for Marriage Equality and the LGBTQ Community and as such, proudly participated in the Chefs for Equality Galas in Washington DC. Mary Lee believes in passing things forward and has covered all of the costs of designing, producing, distributing, and marketing her cookbook herself so that she can donate all of the profits from each sale to three charities – World Central Kitchen, The Trevor Project, and St. Jude Children’s Research hospital.
This interview transcription has been edited for length and clarity.
Joe: Mary Lee, thank you so much for taking the time to be here. I’m really excited to talk with you about baking, your book, your charities, and so much more!
Mary Lee: Thank you! I’m excited to be here.
Joe: So, I’m curious. How did your baking career begin? And what really made you fall in love with it?
Mary Lee: First of all, I come from a family of great home cooks. My mom was an amazing cook, and an excellent baker. So, we were always surrounded by home cooked foods, wonderful cakes, and cupcakes. I think that really gave me the foundation to appreciate it.
But professionally, I got my start in Seattle at the Union Bay Café, which was a wonderful restaurant. Chef/Owner Mark Manley hired me totally green! But I had worked in advertising for a long time, but my dream was to work in a restaurant. Mark loved for his line cooks and pantry people to be green, so that could learn from him, and suddenly I found myself in charge of his desserts. It was trial by doing. We made everything in-house and it was an amazing experience. I loved working at that restaurant.
Joe: So, you mentioned that you started in advertising. When you went to school and started your original career, did you ever think that baking would become your profession? What inspired you to make that career change later on?
Mary Lee: Advertising was such an intense business. I used to joke with those who I managed and would tell them, “all I want to worry about is a Crème Brûlée.”
It was always about – what have you done for me recently? You could bust your behind for clients every day and it just didn’t seem to matter. And so I just got into this mode of really wanting to be in food. And so, I decided to look for a job doing that – even though I was inexperienced. Union Bay Café was really a dream job for me. I used to sing on my way to work and on my way home. Now, it’s not a glamorous job. With all the cooking shows, people sometimes forget how difficult and messy it could be. You know, I cleaned five pounds of squid every day.
Trust me, that’s not glamorous. But I loved doing the desserts, and to me that was very Zen. You know, there was a discipline to it. It was a quiet part of the day, and I loved it.
So, flash forward and we had two amazing little boys and moved to Virginia for my husband’s job. When our second son was about four years old, I knew that I had to be baking – I had to do something I love while still being at home. So, that was the start of Mary Lee’s Desserts.
I did a lot of research and realized you can have these small cottage businesses if you get licensed and such. I ran that business for fifteen years out of our home in Virginia and it was amazing. The boys would come home, and I’d be in my chef’s jacket and baseball hat in the kitchen.
Joe: Everything was made-to-order at Mary Lee’s Desserts, right?
Mary Lee: Yes and that was interesting for some people. We’re so used to just popping into a brick and mortar bakery and grabbing something. So, there was a bit of a learning curve for clients because they had to know that I was really just baking for them. I didn’t just have any baked goods that just sat around. They were always specially made for someone. But once they got in the groove, they understood that it required planning ahead to get these orders.
Clients learned that so much attention and love went into everything. I never had helpers. I baked everything. Nobody was in the kitchen. In fact, you can ask my husband. That was the running joke. Once the kitchen was sanitized and everything was clear, no one walked in. It was done!
So they understand that. But I always would be so appreciative and mindful how I would bake for each client. I would never slap something together last minute. I would always treat everything I baked with thought, care, and love. I would even talk to the cakes when I put them in the oven! I always wanted things to be perfect.
But it was not just about how everything looked – I also wanted everything to taste amazing. No use looking perfect without taste!
This really set Mary Lee’s Desserts apart and set a standard. People loved the homemade recipes that looked amazing and tasted even better. At that point, Costco cakes and such were so big that many had forgotten what real homemade desserts tasted like. I did work to educate and share how delicious and special baked goods can be when they are made with care and from scratch. It was a process that took a lot of work, but I kept clients for fifteen years, which was a joy for me.
Joe: For me, I’ve really come to appreciate baking as such an art. Maybe it’s because over the last couple of years, my wife and I have gotten into the Great British Baking Show! But really, I’ve learned that it is art and to master it is such a challenge. Every work of art requires a lot of inspiration. Where do you draw your inspiration from as a baker?
Mary Lee: That’s a really interesting question. You know, a lot of my favorite desserts that I make and that are in the book are what I would call, “Americana”. They are somewhat old fashioned. I always say to someone that if you had a grandmother who was an excellent baker, this is what she would have made. So, there’s really something about the authenticity of American baking in the past that I love to bring forward and update a little bit, but still respect what makes it special.
People love my traditional recipes – like my Boston Cream Pie or my German Chocolate Cake. I also make cupcakes that are truly balanced between the cake and the icing. A good cupcake should be fabulous. Moist cake – just that little bit of icing to offset and kind of excite your tongue.
For decades I would subscribe to food magazines and search different food sites. So, I would draw inspiration from a lot of different places. But I would say that a lot of it is old school.
Joe: So, I know that in your career, your friendship with David Hagedorn was very influential. How did your business and your career change because of your friendship with David?
Mary Lee: David has been amazing with me since the moment we first talked on the phone. This was probably early 2007. David is a cookbook author, a writer, a restaurant critic, and he’s the founder and co-chair of Chefs for Equality. He’s an amazing man and at the time, he was doing a series for the Washington Post called Chef on Call. In this one particular article, he was teaching a couple how to prepare dinner. It happened to be Shaina Smith, who is a very good friend of ours. But at the time, worked for my husband. So, in the article, she was fixing dinner for the boss – my husband, Rick.
Then, David found out that I had this business, and everything came full circle. Later in the same year, he invited me along with a few other fabulous pastry chefs to do another Chef on Call article on the Washington Post. Eventually, the Washington Post then asked me to do recipes – and they wanted two recipes in their 2011 holiday edition. It was difficult for me to know what desserts to use for this. I didn’t want to go too simple, it was the Washington Post, after all!
But I still wanted it to be accessible and something everyone would like. So, I shared my M&M Bars with the Washington Post, and it was the reader’s favorite recipe and most downloaded recipe in 2012. So, the M&M Bars took on a life of their own.
Anyway! It all goes back to David! The exposure for a tiny business like mine was incredible. Just to be in the Washington Post and to have them share my recipes, it was amazing and huge for me. David and I are still good friends to this day and both he and Shaina are huge advocates for my cookbook. They threw me a launch party last December with the Who’s Who of the D.C. food world. It was an amazing event! So, they’ve been fantastic.
Joe: I’d like to get into Chefs for Equality and learn more about the organization. Can you share what they do, and what you’ve done to participate in their work?
Mary Lee: David Hagedorn founded and is the co-chair of Chefs for Equality. The event started in 2012 and it’s a gathering that brings the best chefs in the D.C. metro area food world together. You see chefs from the best restaurants, top mixologists, the works. So, it began as a charity event to support the fight for marriage equality. So, it’s part of the human rights campaign effort. Then it evolved to encompass and fight for all levels of equality for the LGBTQ community.
David asked me if I would bake and create swag bags for the first event. So, every guest at this incredible event got one. It was held at the Ritz. To be asked to bake for this event – as a small business owner – it was amazing. I was absolutely floored and so excited to be a part of this amazing organization.
Of course I said yes and did the M&M bars. I individually wrapped them in bows. And I baked just about every year and made the swag bags. One time there were about six hundred guests and I decided to do three different cookies in a box for six hundred bags. The baking was no problem. But I didn’t think about building out six hundred boxes, and individually wrapping them with decorative paper, and then loading them. It was a lot of work. I ended up pulling in some ladies from our little Episcopal church and told them what we were doing. They were excited to help support the cause and the LGBTQ community and they made such a difference. It was amazing. They assembled so many little boxes, cut the paper, and they were right there beside me every step of the way. These kinds of events really bring out the best in us.
Joe: Remind me, how many of these events have you done? I imagine there might have been a delay with Covid.
Mary Lee: So, I’ve done just about all of them from 2012-2019. After 2019, Covid shut everything down. I will let you know if there is another one coming because it certainly would be worth the trip down from Philly!
Joe: I would love to go! Please keep me posted since it’s not a far drive from Philadelphia. Anyway, I’d like to get into your cookbook. So, this is your first cookbook, and obviously you’ve been baking for a long time. So, what made you decide to create this book?
Mary Lee: A lot of it was because of Covid. I look back on those early dark days in the first few months. It was terrible, and everyone was just afraid and knew nothing. Our younger son, Nick, was sent home from college. Like so many other kids he was thinking he would be going on Spring Break soon but never was able to even get back on campus. It was a real tense three months, and no one had good information. I kept thinking it would be over in a few weeks but by the time we got to June, I knew I just couldn’t sit around anymore. I had to do something. I had to be productive. I started thinking – what if something happened to me? I realized my boys wouldn’t know how to make my desserts. This has been my life’s work, and this felt really crushing. If something happened to me, I wanted my boys to know how to prepare my recipes. Jack or Nick didn’t have a clue. I had recipes written in binders but that would be so hard to decipher.
So, that was the genesis of the cookbook. I needed to get my recipes together and write them in a way that my sons would be able to understand. So, I started doing that. And I rekindled my love for writing – this goes back to my advertising days. I love writing and more specifically, writing in my voice. When your read the book, you should almost be able to hear me speak. I wanted this to be a cookbook for everyone – for the experienced and novice bakers.
I worked on it very a very long time. It really took about eighteen months from start to finish. I had the misconception that I would be able to do the entire design by myself, and I quickly learned that this was not going to happen. And that’s how I found BookBaby!
There are a lot of companies that say they are self-publishers, but their focus is very narrow – and not what I wanted. I wanted a very professional finished product. I approached this the same way I approach baking – seeking perfection. And BookBaby was just phenomenal. I remember filling out a form online and soon after, Avery Bacchues was calling me. It wasn’t an auto-generated email, I heard from a real person. He called me and introduced himself, and let me know that he’s here for me and he would love to talk about my project. I was so floored and so impressed with Avery and his personality. He was so helpful guiding me throughout the entire process. He really gave me the confidence to make this happen. The people at BookBaby made this so special.
During the design process, Jeremiah Winkler was fantastic. He supported me through all the different proofs and held my hand the entire way. He’s an absolutely awesome person. For a first time author, this made such a big difference for me. Jeremiah never left my virtual side as I worked through the design process. I am so thankful that I got to work with both Jeremiah and Avery. In the end, we got this amazing cookbook!
I really wanted it to be user-friendly. It had to be readable and accessible and filled with vibrant pictures. The final product ended up being just that. It came out amazing.
Joe: Yes! I loved the pictures in the book. Did you take them?
Mary Lee: The pictures came from three different sources. I had actually contacted the photographer from the Washington Post, and I asked for permission to use some of his work. I let him know about the charities that the book would support. He actually had all of these really cool pictures of my backing pans and equipment, I had no idea! They never showed in Washington Post articles, but he allowed me to use all of them.
Then there were two weddings that I had done desserts for – and I was in touch with the professional photographers from those weddings. So, I had three professional photographers who allowed me to use their works. That was phenomenal.
After that, a lot of the photos are mine. Through this creative writing process, I also learned about pixels and different apps that you can take a photograph and have it adjusted to look sharp and beautiful.
Joe: Something that really stands out about the book is its accessibility. It’s so easy to navigate, and the way you’ve written it is very clear. I think it makes a ton of sense for bakers of all levels. To me, I think it’s a book that needs to be in your kitchen regardless of skill level or experience. I know that was your mission, and you certainly achieved it.
Mary Lee: Thank you. I appreciate that so much! People will either post and then tag me or see me personally and tell me that they are enjoying and succeeding with my cookbook. I can’t ask for anything more than that. People will tell me how they made and loved my pumpkin cookies, or my German Chocolate Cake. Whatever they bake, they come back and tell me that it was fantastic. I did my best to make it so that there was appeal in every recipe – I wanted there to be something for everyone.
Joe: I do want to get into the charities that the book supports. But before that, I want to ask you one more baking-related question. I want to know – what are your three favorite recipes in the book? You can pick less or more if you want. But this will help me star them on my own!
Mary Lee: People always ask me some version of this question. To me, it’s like asking who my favorite child is! In the book, I’ve really only included recipes that I love. I also included family recipes that I never sold. But, if I had to pick, I would choose the recipes that have an emotional tie. For example, my younger son Nick is twenty-three now and his favorite cake is the peanut butter chocolate cake. It’s really fun to make.
You can also do a mint version of it. They’re great cakes to make because they’re fairly easy and straightforward but have a big “wow factor”.
Those are two favorites and then my older son Jack, who is twenty-seven, has always loved the pumpkin cookies. They’re soft and cake-like. People really respond to them because they’re very different. He still asks for them, and that brings me a lot of joy.
I also have some offbeat favorites – like the old fashioned chocolate pudding. It’s fabulous. I love making it. When the kids were in middle school, I used to get invited to teach their classes how to make chocolate pudding. And then, years later, they would remember and tell me that they still make it for their families. That just brought me a lot of joy. So, I really enjoy making everything in this book. Well, maybe there is one recipe I don’t love to make – my carrot cake.
Full transparency – I just find carrot cakes to be a complete pain to make!
Joe: I love carrot cake!
Mary Lee: Well, you can try it. You might get a lot of joy of that recipe!
Joe: We’re recording this exactly one week before Thanksgiving and I’m excited because there is a lot of good stuff in here to help us diversity and bake this holiday. I’m excited to go through your cookbook and pick something unique to bake for my family.
I do want to now get into arguably the most meaningful aspect of your book – and it’s that you don’t make a dollar off any of your sales. That’s something really special that I want to share. It says a lot about you, and I just want to give you an opportunity to talk about why you chose to make this a completely charitable book and what made you select your three charities? (World Central Kitchen, the Trevor Project, and Saint Jude Children’s Research Hospital.
Mary Lee: This was very natural for me. As soon as I decided to write the book, I knew instantly that I did not want to profit from it. It just felt right for me to have this be a vehicle for charities. So that was a very easy decision. I try to urge everyone to purchase from Bookshop because I earn the highest royalty rate there – making 50% of every sale. So, this allows me to donate much more three ways than I could if I sold elsewhere. I also am selling the book in three independent bookstores – all owned by women.
So, about the charities, I wanted to do something in the food world. This felt natural. So, I wanted to support World Central Kitchen. They really do God’s work. Jose Andres does amazing work there. Whether it’s a natural disaster here in the U.S., or something happening around the world, he is always taking care of the first responders. He’s a boots on the ground person who runs towards disasters to help. I was just blown away by their mission to provide meals in response to humanitarian, climate, and community crises. I’m so proud to support World Central Kitchen.
Saint Jude Children’s Hospital is a lifelong charity for me and my husband, Rick. It also was a lifelong charity of my parents. The children who are cared for at Saint Jude’s receive cutting-edge medical treatments and pay nothing. Their families pay nothing. So, donations mean everything. It means a lot to support Saint Jude Children’s Hospital because they are saving lives and making such an extraordinary impact.
And then I’ve always wanted to support the LGBTQ community. One of my husband’s college roommates came out to us in 2017 and mentioned that he’s transitioning to become a woman. Marty, then Marcia, only lived two years as her true self and died after major surgery in 2020. I wanted to do something for Marcia, and support the entire community. So, The Trevor Project does suicide prevention work for LGBTQ youth across the United States. It’s a fantastic program and one that I immediately knew I wanted to be involved with.
When I tell people that I don’t make a penny off this book, they sometimes are taken aback. People really appreciate supporting these three wonderful causes. As of now, I’ve donated almost $11,000 to these charities – split three-ways. I’m incredibly proud of this. I’ve had strangers ask me where they can buy the book because they’re so moved by the charities it supports.
Joe: Yes so not only are you getting a cookbook – which already brings so much value to your life. But with purchasing it, you also are doing something that is so meaningful. You’re helping people. You’re making a difference. It makes this book so much more special. And also, you created this book as something your children can use to remember you – it tells a story of your life and your values. That makes it really special. I hope people continue to buy it and enjoy it because it’s just amazing to see a project like this happen.
Mary Lee: During my fifteen years in business, no one got a recipe out of me! I come from a family of cooks with three older brothers. We’re all good cooks but no one ever got a recipe. So, it’s a joke in my family that now everyone finally got some recipes – but have to pay for it. Of course, it’s for a good cause!
Joe: My last question is if you have any other projects you’re working on! Is there anything you’d like to share with those watching and reading?
Mary Lee: Well, my book came out at the end of last year and Covid was still an issue. And this holiday season things are better; I’d like to push for more donations and reach $12,000. So I have three author events coming out in December and it’s going to be fantastic. They are question and answer sessions at independent bookstores!
One is at Bards Alley Bookstore in Vienna, Virginia. It’s a wonderful, woman-owned bookstore. It’s actually the store I baked for during my only time in retail. The event is December 4th
Another is at Bold Fork Books in D.C. The entire bookstore only sells cookbooks. It’s heaven for foodies. I did a lot of Christmas shopping there last year. The event is December 5th
The third event is at a brand new woman-owned bookstore called Scrawl Books. This event is December 12th.
Joe: Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me about your book, your work, and your charitable mission. It means a lot and I wish you the best! I hope many more buy your book because they will love it – and they will contribute to three amazing causes.
Please remember that you can purchase Baking the Best of Mary Lee’s Desserts on BookBaby Bookshop!
Mary Lee: I really appreciate you having me. Remember, I’m always here if anyone wants to get a hold of me! You can visit my website and reach out. I’m here to help – even if it’s just a baking question!