What I Do: St. Louis pastry chef Sharon Harter

Lauded St. Louis pastry chef Sharon Harter didn’t start baking until well into her 20s. In fact, she didn’t do much cooking at all until she got married at 24. “I got super domesticated when I got married, and I realized that I really loved cooking and baking,” she said. Without any formal training or schooling, Harter landed the pastry chef position at Bar Italia and made it her own for over a decade before moving on to work for places like Scape, Polite Society and even the St. Louis Blues. Then the pandemic hit. Here, Harter shares why she loves what she does, how she helped found Bakers for Black Lives and what it took to get back on her feet after losing her job to Covid.

“I started off making these amazing birthday cakes and throwing huge parties for my kids and just baking for friends and family. They all had blowout birthdays. … Cooking and baking are my love language. It’s my self-care.” 

“My sister was dating [Mengesha Yohannes], the owner of Bar Italia. … They didn’t have anyone doing desserts. It was so informal. My sister was like, ‘I told Mengesha you like to bake, so he wants to meet with you.’ He knew I didn’t have experience. … I ended up staying about 15 years. My kids grew up there.” 

“As soon as I left Bar Italia, I started to get noticed. I even had Food Network reach out for me to try out for one of their shows, but I chickened out. I know [Tyler Davis], who had done it, and he was like, ‘Girl, it is so stressful.’” 

“And then I got poached again, working for the Blues. In the off season, I got to travel for support trips. I did food for a PGA tournament. It was very hard work – it was good money, but insane hours. It’s like you don’t get any sleep. They just threw me in – I had never done anything like that before.” 

“I started doing the desserts for Polite Society and The Bellwether. Then, when everyone was told to shut down, [co-owner] Tom [Futrell] sat us down. For some reason, I thought I’d be able to work a little bit. And he was like, ‘Yeah, as of right now, just plan on not working for eight weeks.’ I’ve never just been let go like that.” 

“I was in total shock. I started making soups and selling them because I was having trouble getting unemployment. I started selling meals and baked goods out of my home, and I was able to live comfortably and pay my bills.” 

“My roommate [Hannah Kerne] and I came up with Bakers for Black Lives standing in line at Whole Foods. We asked all the pastry chefs we knew. The event was insane at Vino Gallery. We had something like a couple thousand desserts, and we sold out in an hour and a half. We ended up raising like $14,000 and donating it to St. Louis Mutual Aid. It was one of the most amazing experiences I have ever had. Everyone had a great attitude – no one was complaining. We were walking up and down the line handing out waters. Even once we ran out, people were waiting in line because they wanted to donate money.” 

“I’m definitely a behind-the-scenes person, and it’s been hard for me because I’m the one who should be speaking – I am the person of color [at Bakers for Black Lives]. Maybe people don’t know that I’m half Black and they just think that I’m some Italian girl doing some kind of white savior thing. Being judged because I might not look Black enough triggered all of these feelings of ‘where do I belong’ from middle school. I’m trying to leave that out of it. It feels good to make money for good causes and actually help people. So we’re going to keep doing it.” 

“It’s quite liberating making my own schedule. At first, it was a lot of comfort food, but now it’s all healthy: very low-carb, lots of vegetables. I make these cute little menus every week. And I started doing private dinners and pop-ups, which I love. Right now it’s all just on social media, but I need to make a webpage and LLC because eventually I’m going to open a cafe.”

Editor's note: An earlier version of this story misstated the co-owner of Polite Society and The Bellwether. It is co-owned by Tom Futrell.