Big Sky Culinary Institute student Xavier Gonzales-Graybill is a walking-talking disciple of the rare mix of science and art that makes up the baking process.
His academic happy zone is the University of Montana’s Missoula College kitchen and bakery, with its assemblage of high-tech freezers and old-world rolling pins. It’s here that Gonzales-Graybill and his wingman, UM freshman Kevin Mayerchak, create sheet pans of cakes, cupcakes, breads and bagels for all Grizzlies to enjoy.
“Baked goods can bring people together,” said Gonzales-Graybill, while demonstrating the dough-cutting machine. “The smell of fresh baked goods can bring a sense of peace.”
For Gonzales-Graybill, that sense of peace has not always come easy. Adopted as a child after spending time in foster care, he “went down a long road of alcohol and addiction” in his late teens and early 20s. Those addictions led to prison and dark times, he said.
While incarcerated, and with many months to reflect, Gonzales-Graybill said he came to the realization that his true calling was baking.
It was a calling that harkened back to his childhood.
“My grandmother is Italian — a complete Sicilian — and a great cook,” he explained. “For her birthdays I would try to make her a birthday cake. It was a boxed cake mix, and I’d make it in the middle of the night. It was super terrible, but I was like 7. Still, I guess you could say I’ve always had a knack for baking.”
Gonzales-Graybill enrolled at Missoula College two years ago, his sobriety and schooling going hand-in-hand. He has since become a baking force of nature at the college and now operates the college’s coffee bar, the Iris, and takes requests for custom cakes and other confectioneries.
Along the way, he’s made the Dean’s List and racked up a 4.0 GPA.
“I wanted to prove a point to me, to my parents, to my probation officer, that I can be somebody again,” said Gonzales-Graybill who, in addition to studying culinary arts, is studying business management and entrepreneurship through the Davidson Honors College.
Missoula College’s Big Sky Culinary Institute now has 20 students. It offers two paths for those interested in pursuing education in the culinary arts. The Certificate of Applied Science is for students wanting to work as an entry-level cook — or simply want to advance their cooking skills — and a more advanced associate degree for those, like Gonzales-Graybill, who want to manage and operate a food service business.
Michelle Boller, the college’s Business Technology department chair, said Gonzales-Graybill has done “a phenomenal job” with the Iris Coffee Bar and its student staff. It was his idea, she said, to produce the baked goods in-house rather than have them supplied by an outside bakery.
“The coffee bar is doing a lot better this year, and it’s become increasingly popular,” she said. “Xavier has such ambition and enthusiasm. He is impressive.”
Gonzales-Graybill has been instrumental, she adds, in expanding sales for the college’s baked goods, including a recent campus cookie kit promotion for Valentine’s Day. And he took the lead when the culinary school started selling its baked goods at Lighthouse Espresso.
Chef Instructor Amy Nack has worked with Gonzales-Graybill for four semesters and watched him come into his own in that time. A pastry chef and baker herself, Nack said succeeding in baking requires a unique set of skills.
“You really need to learn patience because you can’t rush bread,” she said. “Xavier has come to learn that. He’s got the artistry, too. His heart is in that.
“He does everything with heart.”
That includes Gonzales-Graybill’s enthusiasm for planning events as a student life activity coordinator. Student coordinators plan events for fellow students, and Gonzales-Graybill has orchestrated a number of activities on campus. That includes the Griz Attack outdoor games competition and a Mardi Gras murder mystery party. Baking and event planning go hand-in-hand, he said.
“He plans these events from top to bottom,” said Emily Ferguson-Steger, director of Student Engagement. “He’s as loud and excited as you would want a student life coordinator to be.”
Matt Parkey, restaurant director for the Big Sky Institute, has spent time getting to know Gonzales-Graybill as he made his way through the culinary curriculum and encouraged him to expand the bakery offerings, including one of the house specialties — bagels.
“Xavier has seen more things than most people, and he’s always been very open and real about his past,” Parkey said. “He’s taken the cards that were dealt him and reshuffled the deck.”
When he graduates, Gonzales-Graybill dreams of opening a bakery that caters to pets and their humans. His experiences at the institute — marketing his products, perfecting his craft and setting prices — will be valuable when he opens for business.
In the meantime, he’s anxious to add to the college’s confectionery offerings.
Next on his agenda: bear claws.
“Missoula College has made me a part of its community, they believe in me,” Gonzales-Graybill said. “No other university would have let me do this.”