This underground baker slays some of the biggest touring acts with her cheesecakes, tarts and tortes at a secret spot high above the Riverside Theater.
Julie Thorsen did something gutsy. The pastry chef started her dessert-making gig for acts appearing at Pabst Theater Group stages as a second career. A former mechanical engineer with We Energies, Thorsen lost her job during company downsizing in the early 2000s and chose a new career path that was less about making money than it was about personal happiness.
That landed her in London in an eight-week pastry arts program at Le Cordon Bleu, where she learned to craft fussy desserts she then gave to actors at the stage door of a West End theater. In exchange, she got to see lots of shows. She returned to MKE with her pastry certificate and the dream of baking for celebrities. Really. That’s what she told Susan Witt when she interviewed for a job 10 years ago at Pabst Theater Group. Witt, whose husband, Gary, is the group’s CEO, told her she could make that happen.
Of the 1,008 shows Thorsen has baked for since then – at the Riverside and Pabst theaters; occasionally Turner Hall Ballroom and Summerfest’s BMO Harris Pavilion – there’s ’70s rockers Journey (mini chocolate mousse, coconut cake, butterscotch pudding), comedian Jim Gaffigan (a cupcake/brownie burger with sugar cookie “fries”) and Radiohead’s Thom Yorke (pumpkin cheesecake, cherry pie, vegan chocolate pudding, cranberry-orange schaum torte and more).
On the eighth floor of the Riverside building, a small cooking staff led by executive chef Kevin Sloan transforms the tiny green-room kitchen into an epicurean engine of imagination. Thorsen not only does desserts but pitches in as the “MVP prep person,” says Sloan. “She’s an underground legend in the restaurant world,” he adds.
While Sloan does his multi-course magic and tends not to stick around to meet the talent, Thorsen gets right in there, making friends with people like Mel Brooks (“I think I love you,” the 92-year-old comedian signed his autograph to her) and talking baseball with the likes of “Breaking Bad” actor Bryan Cranston, an LA Dodgers fan. “I told him I like the Cincinnati Reds, every woman’s favorite team,” she says, “and I was naming all the team members. He just kept laughing.”
And a dream job it can be: “Sometimes I drive home and say ‘I can’t believe I got paid for that!’” She loves the freedom, but the menus do have to show flexibility, so there’s always gluten-free and vegan dishes. Still, she says, few performers want healthy attached to their sweets. Or dessert at all. “American Idol” alum Adam Lambert “came up to me and said he saves all his calories for alcohol consumption.”
Three of Julie’s sweetest spreads
July 2018: lemon bars, mini tarts, yellow mocha cake
Images courtesy of Thorsen’s Instagram: @juliespastries
The Avett Brothers
August 2018: Oreo cheesecake, key lime tarts, mini banana cakes
December 2018: dark chocolate and orange pot de creme, orange shortbread cookies, blueberry cheesecake