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Arlington teen earns state-level recognition for her baking skills
ARLINGTON — At the Petite Sweet Bakery on Olympic Avenue, 17-year-old Arlington High School senior Kat Nixon is honing the culinary skills she’s been dabbling in since the age of 4 and developing professionally since the age of 14.
“I’ve always loved baking,” Kat Nixon said. “I never liked playing outside. I’ve always loved feeding people.”
“We could never eat as many cookies and cakes as she baked, so she’s always taken them to school,” said Betsy Nixon, Kat’s mom. “It was when she made the transition to middle school that she really gained a reputation among her classmates and teachers for her incredible recipes. I think the momentum from that definitely kept her going.”
Kat’s hard work has paid off, not only by helping her get hired at Petite Sweet close to a year ago, but also by earning her distinction at the Puget Sound regional and Washington state SkillsUSA commercial baking competitions for two years in a row. Last year, she took second in regionals and third in state, but this year, she scored first in the regionals at Renton on Feb. 11, where she’ll be returning on April 12-14 for this year’s state competitions.
“It’s pretty basic stuff, actually,” Kat Nixon said. “You have to show the judges you know how to do things like cream butter and sugar together, and how to make bread rise. At one competition, the judges told me I was the only one who knew how to roll dough correctly. Everyone else was just smashing it together.”
In spite of suffering from a cooking timer that died during one of her competitions, Kat received a $500 scholarship for her performance last year. This year, she’s sworn she’ll be more organized in her approach, and she brings with her even more hands-on experience in real-world commercial baking, thanks to her time at Petite Sweet.
“Everything is bigger and faster here,” Kat Nixon said, while alternating between preparing butter — “That’s a lot of what’s involved in pastry” — and putting the finishing touches on a tray of cupcakes. “It’s a great experience for me to have at such a young age.”
Sherie Rzeczkowski, co-owner of Petite Sweet, explained that she started Kat at the ground level specifically to help her continue to develop as a chef.
“It’s repetition and understanding the process from top to bottom,” Rzeczkowski said. “Establishing a solid foundation is as important in building pastry skills as in building a house. Kat has no fear and is willing to jump in and do whatever you ask, from making cupcakes to chopping potatoes. She’s a good team member with a good disposition, which is important when you’re working in a small shop.”
Sherie Rzeczkowski and her husband Joe, the other co-owner of Petite Sweet, originally declined Kat’s job application, simply because they weren’t hiring at the time, but they kept her in mind because of her skills and experience, which also included a stint providing vegan baked goods for the Mirkwood & Shire Cafe just up the street.
“Translating recipes into vegan is actually pretty easy,” said Kat Nixon, whose own diet was only briefly vegetarian. “You can do things like use half of a medium-sized banana in place of an egg. Chocolate is a bit more difficult, but my oatmeal cookie recipe tastes much better vegan, because it’s more chewy.”
“Kat will say you should follow your dreams, and I’ll say parents should support their children’s dreams,” Betsy Nixon said. “At the same time, I never tried to make it happen for her. She’s had to learn on her own. When she came up with the idea of vegan baked goods for Mirkwood, I told her that she needed to talk to them and set up prices that would cover her costs. It’s given her more independence.”
After graduation, Kat plans to devote the next year exclusively to Petite Sweet. Following that, she’s considering a number of different culinary arts schools, although she’s shying away from the more expensive ones because “I’m not paying $17,500 to go over stuff I’ve already learned here at Petite Sweet.” Ultimately, she’d love to open up a bakery shop called “Blackjacks” in Seattle with her friend, Emily “Jack” Duram.