She's still eligible to compete in the Great American Cake Show.
"I've got several cakes in the back of my head," she says. "They'll probably show up in the next competition."
Genelle Balan, executive pastry chef at Elkridge Furnace Inn
If you've had the good fortune of attending one of the themed teas at The Elkridge Furnace Inn, like the one celebrating Charles Dickens, or listened to readings of Edgar Allan Poe in between six courses of a dinner based on the cities where he lived, you can thank pastry chef Genelle Balan.
Balan, 29, didn't set out to be the queen of sweets. She thought she'd be a writer and attended a year of college majoring in English. Even so, her love for literature and art didn't go to waste. Instead, she turned those passions into a career as a pastry chef, where she mixes food with the arts every day.
"Desserts are visual. They taste good, but you can do so much artistically," says Balan, the daughter of Elkridge Furnace Inn's owner and chef, Dan Wecker.
Balan grew up in the kitchen, she says. Her dad took her on a catering job when she was an infant, strapped into a carrier on his chest. She was 8 years old when her parents bought the inn on Furnace Road, saving it days from demolition. She worked with friends and family to restore the historic building, which was once a tavern and an iron forge in the 18th century. When it opened as a restaurant, everyone helped out.
As a teen, she found conditions in the kitchen too hot for her comfort, so her dad moved her away from the stove and under the tutelage of pastry chef Marcia Senapathy. When Senapathy moved on, Balan stepped into the role. She was 19.
Working with pastries is a multifaceted job. Not only does she plan and create the desserts served at lunch and dinner, but she also makes them for on- and off-premise catering events, such as weddings. Add savory tarts, like the ones on the tea menu, homemade ice cream and sorbet, and sometimes helping the sous chef if needed, and the young chef gets a physical workout.
Already, rolling out tarts and truffles is taking a toll on her body. She has carpal tunnel syndrome in bothhands.
But this is just a small challenge for the young chef. She's been through more difficult circumstances, including losing four brothers to a rare genetic auto-immune disorder. Her youngest brother, Cameron, is alive today because of the bone marrow transplant he received from his sister 10 years ago. She also has an adopted brother, Matthias, 24.
Everyone's involved in running the restaurant, except Genelle's mother, Donna, who teaches French at Howard Community College and the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. (Genelle also met her husband, Matthew, at work.)
"It's brought us closer together," Balan says of the family's struggles. "We care about each other and want to support one another. When tempers flare, you have to find the place where you can go back and say 'I'm sorry.' "
Still, the pressure is on to continually push the envelope to stay competitive, she says. The whole staff collaborates regularly on menu items and events to attract customers. And Balan is learning to incorporate more savory ingredients with sweet, such as strawberries served with basil sauce or chocolate truffles with chili powder.
Over the winter holidays, customers raved over her port wine and pomegranate crème brûlée. The meadow cream crepes didn't win as many fans, though. Balan was inspired to create the cream, made with lavender, mint and juniper berries, as described in Brian Jacques' Redwall series. Its brownish color turned people off, even when she tried to hide it in crepes.
So Balan gave up on the meadow cream crepes. But she will continue to try new ways of blending artistry and taste.
"I want to please the palate. At the end of the day, people still want to eat the cake."