Titans of Toast

Cheryl Graham, the bakery manager at Parker Lusseau, suffered a devastating stroke the week of Christmas; the restaurant community is rallying – and baking – to help.

The Monday before Christmas was, as expected, a busy one at Parker Lusseau, the Monterey-basked patisserie that come the holidays draws hundreds of orders for their elegantly decorated (and phenomenally tasty) Bûches de noël, or Yule logs.

That week, there were 200 Bûche orders to fill, in addition to making all of the shop’s regular menu items and other holiday treats. But it wasn’t so busy that chef-owners Anne Parker and Yann Lusseau noticed something was seriously wrong with bakery manager Cheryl Graham.

In the midst of that busy day, Graham, a former professional baker in her own right who’s been with Parker Lusseau for a dozen years (and who is widely adored by customers and coworkers alike), started having trouble communicating.

“Her speech started getting slurred and she couldn’t write down what she wanted to say,” Lusseau says. In stressful times, he says, Graham sometimes needed to take a walk to decompress and stave off a panic attack, but what he was seeing that morning wasn’t the onset of anxiety.

“We called 911 and they were there within minutes,” Lusseau says.

Graham, a healthy and active 55-year-old U.S. Army veteran, had just suffered a massive stroke. She was taken to Community Hospital of the Monterey Peninsula, and after some tough work to get the VA on board with regard to insurance issues, she’s going to stay there to rehabilitate.

“The worry was getting her the care she needed, and she has a long way to go to recovery,” Lusseau says. “She lost mobility on her right side, her legs are not supporting her.” But, he adds, she can formulate words and short sentences, especially in the morning.

Graham “is amazing at spotting the right employees who will work well together,” Lusseau says. “She came here with a baker’s background but she developed an allergy to flour, and still loved the idea of being in a bakery. Our customers love her. She considers us family and vice versa.”

Because Covid-19 protocols prevent in-person visits, Graham’s longtime partner, Richard Lugo, sits outside her window in the hospital’s acute rehabilitation wing with his cellphone in order to speak to her, says Lugo’s sister, Tracey Lande, owner of online retailer Destination Carmel.

“They’re not used to being apart,” Lande says, “and it’s excruciating for them.”

It’s not clear how long – and how expensive, in the end – Graham’s rehabilitation will be. It’s clear, though, that the food community is rallying the greater community to come to Graham’s aid.

Among the events taking place to help Graham through: On Jan. 16, a group referred to online as “The Titans of Toast” will gather in the courtyard outside of Alta Bakery at the Cooper Molera Adobe in Monterey for a fundraiser, featuring Alta, Parker Lusseau, Ad Astra Bread Co., Rise + Roam and Aubergine, along with Tazzina Coffee, for an old-fashioned bake sale organized by Ben Spungin of Alta and Lusseau. The event starts at 9am and runs until the bakers are sold out – and all proceeds will go to Graham.

Lusseau, backed by Parker and Lande, almost immediately launched a GoFundMe campaign to help defray Graham’s costs and it’s being shared widely online and on social media by others in the food community.

Ron Mendoza at Ad Astra commented he hired Graham as his head baker at Cantinetta Luca, just after she finished a stint at Thomas Keller’s Bouchon Bakery in Yountville. Chef Todd Fisher linked to the fundraiser on his Instagram account, with the hashtag “ourindustrystandstogether.”

And as of this writing, the campaign has raised just over $23,000 toward a goal of $75,000.

“If we raise $75,000, it’s still going to be financially traumatic for them,” Lande says. “But it’s why I’m motivated to ask strangers for money.”

To donate, visit GoFundMe and search for the name “Cheryl Graham.” Or hit the bake sale and buy a treat.

It’s a good way to acknowledge that the kind woman with the strawberry blonde hair and freckles who normally helps you behind the counter at Parker Lusseau right now could use some help of her own.

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