Meet Klara Sotonova: Her Czech family recipes make for popular US cookies
Accents: The voices of your immigrant neighbors in the Berkshires
For Klara Sotonova’s parents in the Czech Republic, 20,000 koruna was a lot of money. The equivalent of about $800, they had saved that sum for when their daughter would get married. And at 19, a wedding was more or less what was expected of her. Preferably soon.
Instead, Klara asked for that money to buy a plane ticket to America. It was 10 years after the Velvet Revolution of 1989, the events that ended communism in what was then still Czechoslovakia. Many young people were leaving.
“Pretty much half of my school class is abroad,” she says in her bakery in Lee where every day large quantities of Klara’s Gourmet Cookies come out of the ovens. “I remember that during communism everything was dark, gray, kind of sad. Things were changing but not very fast. For young people there were no job opportunities.”
So when a friend told her about a job at a summer camp in the Berkshires and her parents Pepa and Milena emptied the bridal account they’d saved up for her, Klara was on her way.
She grew up in Chrudim, a small provincial town: “I was a country girl, not even comfortable going to Prague! And there I was on a plane to New York, thinking ‘what the heck are you doing?’”
She did not speak any functional English: “They taught us a lot of grammar in school, but no conversation.”
It made her introduction to New York not a happy one.
“That was the worst night of my life,” Klara says, even now still shaking her head. “All the sirens, all the chaos. Not understanding what anybody said made it even more scary.”
Today her American English is fluent, but recalling the stress of that first day in New York brings out her Czech accent stronger: “Somehow I took right subway, got to Port Authority and found bus to Great Barrington.”
There, at Camp Eisner, her pre-arranged kitchen job was waiting. The Berkshire Hills and open spaces reminded her of home. She basically never left the Berkshires since. And never stopped working really hard.
She held four jobs to finance going to Berkshire Community College. She worked at Four Brothers Pizza, Great Barrington Bagel and Camp Eisner.
“And I cleaned two houses. That was a lot of work, but I’ve always been smart with my money so I could pay off each semester out of my savings and after I was done I was free of loans.”
And then came Christmas 2005.
Klara baked some cookies from old family recipes and gave them to friends as holiday gifts. People raved about them.
“Well, first I made the Vanilla Walnut Crescents for Jefferson,” Klara backtracks, laughing. “And that kind of sealed the deal.”
Jefferson Diller from Great Barrington, a chef, became Klara’s husband. Together they started Klara’s Gourmet Cookies, based on about 15 recipes from her mother, grandmother and various aunts back in the old country.
The business has been expanding ever since. Some 3,000 retail clients from as close by as Guido’s and Big Y and as far as California, Puerto Rico and Canada keep the ovens on Railroad Street in Lee busy. Now 36, Klara is working baker’s hours, her days starting at 3 a.m.
When she was little, their daughter Mika, 6, would often be carried in a baby backpack while mom and dad were cleaning up the bakery.
“Baking has always been something I enjoyed doing, but definitely not something I went to school for,” Klara says. “I am a self-taught baker.”
She feels she has proven herself worthy of the 20,000 Czech koruna her parents gave her at 19.
“There were a lot of people in the Czech Republic, friends and some family members, that really doubted I could make it here. So it’s a really cool feeling what I accomplished.”
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