Long after the standard workday has ended, North Carolina pastry chef Tabatha Pickett moves through her home kitchen. She might be up past 2 a.m., baking pineapple cake, icing cinnamon rolls, or decorating a three-tiered wedding cake with handmade white chocolate seashells. “When I finish a cake, it makes me feel good that everything came out just like I wanted,” she says. “That’s what I get my thrill out of.”
Pickett, who, I’ll just go ahead and say it, is the secret weapon of deliciousness for Duplin Winery in Rose Hill, North Carolina (and two other locations in South Carolina and Florida), has been baking since she was a girl growing up in Maple Hill, North Carolina. She spent afternoons after school scouring for recipes and tinkering at the oven, experimenting with confections featured in magazines from the library such as Field & Stream and Better Homes & Gardens. She even perfected the cookie recipe on the back of the Quaker Oats old-fashioned oats canister (she shares her version below).
“When I came home from school, my mama had the ingredients all ready for me,” Pickett says. “I knew I liked to cook, but I didn’t realize that’s what my gift was.” When her classmates at Pender High School caught on, she started a business on the bus: Her rotating inventory included to-go packs of chocolate chip cookies, peanut brittle, candy apples, and lollipops.
In her home economics class, Pickett was the first to be called upon to bake the hard-to-make-rise French bread and yeast rolls for teacher appreciation days. It was there that she caught the attention of her homeroom teacher, Mrs. Pam Bradshaw. “She saw it in me,” says Pickett, who counts Bradshaw among her mentors. “But I wanted to be a secretary, and I always liked numbers. I wanted to be a bank teller.” After briefly pursuing banking, Pickett set that goal aside and went on to work at Burger King in Camp Lejeune for seventeen years, ultimately becoming the restaurant’s manager. From there, she had a career epiphany and enrolled in culinary school at Cape Fear Community College in Wilmington, where she won the “best dessert” award using a pound cake recipe from Bradshaw’s class.
A tip from a friend led her to a job opening at Duplin Winery at Rose Hill for a line cook. The fateful night when she successfully cranked out 250 rolls for a last-minute dinner show catapulted her to pastry chef. Eleven years later, the humble and unassuming baker, whom everyone calls “Chef Tabatha,” stays busy making more than one hundred seasonal cheesecakes a week across the three wineries. (The other locations are in North Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, and Panama City Beach, Florida.) She tops her signature “Tabatha’s cheesecake” with raspberry, chocolate, caramel, and strawberry, and also makes such flavored cheesecakes as pumpkin, s’mores, sweet potato, banana pudding, butter pecan, gingerbread, and red velvet. She’s also responsible for Duplin’s addictive homemade crackers served alongside muscadine wine tastings.
For the newly opened Panama City Beach location, she debuted two exclusive items: Key Lime cake and Key Lime cheesecake. “I feel like I’ve been baking all my life,” she explains. “I just love the look on people’s faces when they take that first bite of my dessert. They act like it makes them so happy.”