Lisa Donovan – A Recipe for Happiness

Lisa-Donovannew2Lisa Donovan can tell you the meaning of life. And she may not know it, but it will come out as a perfect metaphor for baking.

In her work, Donovan is a fan of traditional recipes. Her affinity for antebellum culinary treasures is evident in the dessert menu at Nashville favorite, Husk, where she is the pastry chef. I looked at the restaurant’s menu, which changes daily, and was instantly drawn to the pecan butter cake, a Southern classic.

There’s nothing new about butter cake. That’s what’s good about it. If executed properly, butter cake will always be happiness on a plate. Add ice cream and you’ve reached enlightenment. To properly prepare a time-honored dish, especially a cake, one has to follow the recipe – replace one of the ingredients with something else and it’s just not the same. The history of American baking has been handed down through those carefully-taught and closely-followed techniques. They don’t change.

donovanCALLOUTThat’s probably where Donovan finds her balance: On one side, there’s her love for the history of baking and recipes that have stood the test of time. On the other side, there is recognition that in the story of a life, change is a plot driver. It’s necessary. Donovan understands the fluidity of life.

“All those little dots have connected to form this thing that I don’t think even I could have imagined. I went through this really intense phase that I’m just now recognizing as an important part of how I found happiness and contentment with my work … accepting what I thought were my weaknesses – which were that I have massive flights of fancy, and I have long daydreams and wild ideas. I like to travel and I like to move around, and I have a really short attention span for things that I am not really passionate about. That used to create this sense of urgency in me that wasn’t necessarily a good thing.”

Donovan had wanted to be a writer, but found that she desired more. She was never going to be happy sitting at a desk all day. “At some point I had this turning point – I think it was in my late twenties – where I realized those were actually my strengths. I recognized my … my dynamic personhood.” That was, for me, the turning point as far as building a career. “

Once she accepted the truth about herself, she says, she was then able to really look at her life in a different way.

“What’s being offered to me in a creative way, and also in a practical way? For me, that [offering] was in the kitchen. You have to also go with the story that’s being given to you, versus the story that you always imagined for yourself.”

Accepting who you really are and what you’re made of is the only way you’re going to get the best result. It’s like making that butter cake – you can gather up butter, sugar, eggs, flour and milk and try to make potato soup, but you’ll only end up disappointed. If you really want to be happy, take those ingredients and bake a cake.

Once she accepted who she really was, her career opened up in ways she never imagined. She started out waiting tables at Margot, owned by Nashville restaurant icon Margot McCormack. Tandy Wilson was executive chef there at the time. She later followed the Wilsons to City House, where she ultimately became head pastry chef. She talks about her time there:

“I felt like I was in the right place with the right people. To this day, there are very distinct tones of everything that I discovered about myself when I was Tandy’s pastry chef. “

One of the things Donovan discovered about herself is that self-acceptance is not the end of the process, just as mixing the batter is not the end of the process for making a cake. You have to take the step of putting the cake in the oven. You select the perfect baking dish. You make sure you preheat the oven to the correct temperature. After that, it’s out of your hands.

“It’s more of a letting go. You can’t really control it but you can be really present and make sure that the time you’re spending is actively making opportunities exist.”

buttermil2One of those opportunities that Donovan herself created was Buttermilk Road Sunday Suppers, Donovan’s wildly-successful pop-up restaurant series. She spoke of a time when she had stopped cooking to focus on her family and her writing:

“But I missed cooking for people in a way that I was really, really, completely taken aback by. In the same way that I felt sadness for not being able to write, the whole time I was writing I felt sadness for not being able to cook for people. And that’s how Buttermilk Road happened. I thought, ‘What if I just [do this] once a month – and invite 30 people?”

What began as a tiny spark of inspiration became something much bigger.

“We started doing it at these little places and it grew. And the menus became more detailed, and bigger, and we couldn’t keep it at 30 people and we were selling out in 12 hours. It was great to do something that people seemed to really respond to. So Buttermilk Road just came out of that need I had to continue cooking for people.”

It’s that very practice of being open to her inclinations, and seeing opportunities to follow them, which drives Donovan’s outlook these days. It’s impossible to predict what’s coming, but it’s entirely possible to be ready when the right thing does appear.

“And now I’m really thoughtful about choosing the things that are going to continue to open up opportunities. So, in that sense, I feel like I have control. The control that I’m exercising is just hard work. Keep working hard; the opportunities will be there. That’s as much control as you have over anything.”

It’s a philosophy as simple and perfect as butter cake.

What’s next for Lisa Donovan? See her at Music City Food + Wine September 20-21 in Nashville, TN. Check out Savor the South Weekend, September 26-28 in Greensboro, NC. Also near and dear to her heart is the Southern Foodways Alliance. This year’s SFA Symposium, October 23-26 in Oxford, MS, is sold out, but keep up with the latest here.


By Pearl Amanfu