By Nikki Vargas
Francis Legge (aka Chef Scottish Francis) is owner and executive chef of the newly launched Secret Shortbread Society somewhere in the Astoria neighborhood of Queens, New York City.
I was born and raised in the Highlands of Scotland. My father was in the military and traveled around the world a lot. Every time he would come back to the North of Scotland, into the Highlands, my grandmother—who had an orchard—would make the most incredible desserts, from pies to tarts to shortbreads. I always grew up loving and adoring her recipes. We’d pick the berries ourselves and make the tarts from scratch. Everything I learned in Scotland from my grandmother has been very special and close to my heart.
The shortbread is the original cookie, in my opinion. It was about a year ago that my wife and I first conceptualized the Shortbread Society and were getting ready to launch it. I was working as the executive chef and part owner of the Astoria bakery Sugar & Water, and she was working as a clinical director for a cosmetic dermatologist. Because of coronavirus, we both lost our jobs. I really wanted to go back to my Scottish roots, something that is very important to me, and do something that New York City hasn’t seen before.
There are a thousand donut shops, there are a thousand cookie shops, there are a thousand bagel shops, but there are no shortbread shops in the city. That’s why my wife and I really wanted to start this family-based business and pay homage to my family’s recipes. I had thought about this for years, but it was COVID that made us decide we’re doing this now, we’re going to launch this, we’re going to commit to this every day, and it’s going to be a full-time job. We truly wanted to work together and create a family business where we just answer to each other and have no bosses. It was so important for us to actually do and create what we want.
We were preparing, packaging, and getting everything ready to launch the Shortbread Society—even thinking of opening a shopfront—and then coronavirus hit. We were about to be a part of these street festivals, fairs, and the Tartan Day Parade, but then COVID truly shut us down. We sat around for three months thinking of what we were going to do, while perfecting our shortbread recipes. That’s when we decided to do the secret version and actually launch.
When we first decided to start the Secret Shortbread Society, we wanted to keep it a bit of mystery. That’s why we don’t have a shopfront, that’s why we keep it all mysterious online, that’s why you have to pay in advance before you get the address to come pick up your shortbread. Especially for a social media-based bakery and business, we were really trying to organically grow followers. All of the Astoria blogs have been supportive—it truly became like a community helping us do what we want. I know everyone in Astoria, I know all of the dessert people, so it was great to see everyone step up, want to see what we were doing, want to support it, and be involved. It’s a different breed of people who decide to randomly turn up somewhere and pay money for something they haven’t seen or tasted. We really love and appreciate those people.
I think it’s more fun in today’s age—especially with social media—to play with your food. I was told never to play with my food, but this is me playing with my food. What I really want to be is the Banksy of bakers, basically, with pop-ups serving crazy desserts. In the future, we plan to have Shortbread Society gatherings, once we can gather again. We’ll have masked meetings where people turn up and find all of this crazy food. Exactly like a secret society. We have aims and goals to really take Shortbread Society to the next level. We’re really trying to push that.
About six years ago, when I started my donut voyage, I met up with an owner in Astoria and he was opening up Gossip Coffee. It was such a beautiful location, finished and ready to go, but they didn’t have desserts. I convinced them to do donuts. I found out immediately that Astoria is such a family neighborhood, a loving area, it’s really one of the nicest areas in the city. It was an up-and-coming foodie paradise, especially around 30th Avenue where you have all those restaurants right around Gossip Coffee. I was totally drawn to this place. We even sold our house on the Upper West Side to move to Astoria.
As the pandemic comes to a close, or as we try to figure out a vaccine, I hope everyone is able to go back to work and do their thing. I think it’s about recreating and reinventing what the restaurant industry is right now. I don’t think it will ever go back to what it was before COVID. I think adaptation right now is so important. I think outdoor spaces are so important. I think outdoor food events have to come back as soon as possible. Even though I love the restaurant experience—being served your favorite food is the highlight of anyone’s day—walking around outdoors is a lot better than sitting indoors right now. I feel like in the next year or two, it’s going to be more about open-air events where you’re not stuck in an air-conditioned environment. The Shortbread Society really taps into that.
Our next pop-up location for delivery is going to be Jersey City. We’ve started looking at different shops to work with as well. For example, there’s an ice cream shop in the East Village that wants to do an ice cream flavor with us, so we would do a pop-up for a weekend there. The Shortbread Society is ever-evolving and can go anywhere. In the future, we plan on doing pop-ups all over the city in really bizarre, crazy locations. We have some great ideas coming up. We want to keep this evolving and have it become a fun experience that you have to keep watching out for.
If anything, quarantine really brought my wife and I together and made the Secret Shortbread Society come out quicker, better, and stronger than it would have been. COVID did help the Secret Shortbread Society in a way. It freed us both up from our jobs to now live our dreams, passion, and shortbread. I just wish my grandmother was alive to know I am doing this with her recipes.