“It doesn’t have to be blood, sweat and tears working in a kitchen,” said Sandra Adu Zelli, the owner of Gipsy Hill Bakery, while reflecting on the decades she has spent working in the culinary world. 

Sandra Adu Zelli at home in her kitchen. Courtesy of Jezaira Knight.

Adu Zelli has done it all during her career: she completed a three-year culinary program at the Colchester Institute, worked in MICHELIN star-aspiring restaurants, created dessert menus for Santa Barbara restaurants, collaborated with fellow chefs and started her own business, all while balancing her career with motherhood. Yet, after years of working in high-pressure, fast-paced restaurant environments, the idea of working for more casual eateries and eventually starting her own business garnered more appeal. 

During secondary education in England, Adu Zelli discovered her love of food in her home economics course. With this newfound interest, she enrolled in a culinary program at the Colchester Institute in Essex, where she studied from the ages of 16 to 19. On the side, she washed dishes at a family-owned restaurant in Harwich called The Ship, which, according to Yelp, unfortunately closed in 2015. Adu Zelli spent a few years at The Ship, working her way up to helping with the plating of dishes before they reached the tables of eager customers. Slowly but surely, she gained more confidence in commercial kitchens before moving to Holland for a year to complete a culinary program at the Hilton. 

“As a young chef, I did not want to do pastry. I was a bit of a tomboy and preferred to cook. I always thought that pastry was for girls, even though I was a girl, but I wanted to do what those guys were doing. You know, I love the excitement of a busy service and the pressure and working precisely — I really loved it,” she said. 

Once she had completed her culinary education, she moved on to working in London’s fine dining scene. Working long hours and intense shifts, she would return home after work and practice baking, developing skills that she was not implementing at these high-end establishments. Years later, her focus shifted to more casual restaurants, working alongside famous chefs including Yotam Ottolenghi of Ottolenghi and continuing to delve deeper into the world of pastry. 

“I wasn’t naturally gifted at pastry. It was a hard learning curve for me,” she said. “I persevered, I wanted to be good at it.” 

Adu Zelli and her husband planned to move to Santa Barbara in 2008 after her husband found a position as manager of room service at the Four Seasons Resort The Biltmore Santa Barbara. The pair thought they’d only stay in Santa Barbara for two years, but this year marks 15 years since their move to the area. When they first moved here, she focused on raising their first child while picking up jobs as a private chef to work around her child’s schedule before forming valuable community connections that led to job opportunities.

One of her passions is opening new restaurants, and with many friends active in Santa Barbara’s food scene, she began to see her creative ideas for pastry menus come to fruition. In 2011, Mexican restaurant Cielito was set to open for the following year in the La Arcada Plaza downtown, and owners Gordon Hardy and Karen Phillips approached Adu Zelli to create a dessert menu. Having never cooked Mexican food, Adu Zelli took on the challenge and immersed herself in Latin American cuisine. The job offered her complete creative freedom to develop recipes and along the way, she found a way to bridge the gap between Mexican food and classic European desserts. Learning to make flan seemed less intimidating after years of practicing its French counterpart, crème caramel. 

Five years later, another exciting job opportunity presented itself at Handlebar Coffee Roasters. As a regular customer at Handlebar’s original East Canon Perdido Street location, Adu Zelli became acquainted with owners Aaron Olson and Kim Anderson after many daily visits to the coffee shop with her daughter. Olson and Anderson approached her about a pastry chef position in the fall of 2017 during the construction of their second location on De La Vina Street. Slightly unsure about the level of commitment, she excitedly accepted the position that fulfilled her interest in facilitating restaurant openings and helping other restaurateurs with their pastry needs. Their opening in 2018 was extremely successful. Even though this was not an upscale restaurant with a high-pressure environment, the position still carried a degree of stress for someone who was balancing motherhood while working. It was time for her to take her culinary career into a different direction with more flexibility. 

Gipsy Hill Bakery sells cookie boxes in flavor varieties such as Chocolate Chip. Courtesy of Sandra Adu Zelli.

The name Gipsy Hill derives from Adu Zelli’s hometown in London. Adu Zelli and her husband bought their first home in Crystal Palace, a town resting atop a large hill with sprawling views of London. Their train stop on the way home was called Gipsy Hill, and after working grueling hours at fast-paced restaurants, she would get off the train and trudge up the hill on her way home. The walk home was a time to reflect on the day and enjoy the reward of a beautiful view at the top. It was the place where she felt she first “adulted,” and it serves as a physical metaphor for the series of challenges and rewards she has faced while working in the food industry. 

In 2018, Katie Hershfelt of Cultivate Events organized the Santa Barbara Night Market, a pop-up holiday market in the former-Macy’s building in Paseo Nuevo, inviting Adu Zelli to sell her baked goods at the event. This was Gipsy Hill Bakery’s debut alongside other small businesses. Adu Zelli described the six-week pop-up as exciting but “chaotic,” as she spent long nights baking pastries in Cielito’s kitchen downtown after the restaurant had closed for the night. The day after Thanksgiving, Gipsy Hill Bakery sold out at the Night Market within an hour and a half. A series of local pop-ups in the following months helped this small business garner a growing customer base. 

Along with many small businesses, Gipsy Hill Bakery’s business slowed during 2020 when events were getting canceled left and right. A Bakers Against Racism Bake Sale in Santa Barbara inspired Adu Zelli to get back to baking in June of 2020, which was not only a way to support small-scale bakeries during the COVID-19 pandemic, but also a way to give back to the Black community. Participants in the national Bakers Against Racism movement, which was started by chefs in Washington, D.C. in 2020, donated their profits to a charity of their choice that supports the Black community. To participate in the bake sale, Adu Zelli made batches of brioche that customers could pick up at The Daisy downtown. The community response was extremely positive and the batch of brioche sold out in under an hour. The success of this online ordering resulted in the creation of a biweekly menu from which customers could order and do contactless pick-up throughout the pandemic. Items on the menu often include classic cookie flavors, seasonal galettes and danishes, just to name a few, all made with organic ingredients and organic produce sourced from vendors at the Santa Barbara Farmers Market. 

Working for herself has been a great experience for Adu Zelli, who can now find more time in her schedule for family and other culinary endeavors. For now, Gipsy Hill Bakery’s pick-up orders are on pause while she focuses on wholesale orders for restaurants in Southern California and other local collaborations, including Two Baking Brits, a business partnership with cook and food writer Pascale Beale. Together, Beale and Adu Zelli host a variety of events and pop-up dinners. 

Currently, Gipsy Hill Bakery is in a period of transition with the hopes to scale up further and continue collaborating with other local restaurants in the Santa Barbara area. Customers can stay up to date on upcoming events and projects by following Gipsy Hill Bakery on Instagram

“I love the connection that food brings,” shared Adu Zelli, “and for me, that’s the silver lining of all of this.”

A version of this article appeared on p. 12 of the February 16, 2023 print edition of the Daily Nexus.


Stephanie Gerson
Stephanie Gerson is a fourth-year Art History major and On the Menu Co-Editor. She can usually be found taking long walks, wandering about museums or grocery shopping.