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Folk Ohio - Columbus Baker Uses Opera As Inspiration

Rachel Hopkin
OSU Center for Folkore Studies
Jonas Laughlin is a former opera singer who turned to baking to help cope with what he calls "vocal death."

A popular Columbus baker was once popular for another reason: He was an opera singer. As part of WOSU's occasional series "Folk Ohio," Rachel Hopkin from OSU's Center for Folklore Studies introduces us to Jonas Laughlin, who turned one passion into another.                                                                                                   



Jonas Laughlin creams the butter and the sugar for layers of a cake.

“And once they’ve sort of amalgamated, you can turn it up and get the air into it,” Laughlin describes over the rising sound of a mixer.                                                                                                                                

Jonas is the owner and head baker of Laughlin’s Bakery, which opened last year in Columbus’s Italian Village neighborhood. Being a baker is not the career path that he originally set out on. 

 “I had planned to be a professional opera singer and was on track for that. I was winning all the right competitions, making all the right contacts,” Laughlin recalled.

But he got a cold, and it worsened and lodged itself in a nerve in his throat.

“It killed my right vocal fold.”  

Laughlin visited doctor after doctor and underwent a couple of surgeries to try to recover his voice, but nothing worked.  He now describes what happened as a vocal death, saved by finding a new profession.

 “It was terrible, I was suicidal, and really baking saved my life. I baked to stay sane. It was an outlet that allowed me to create something and see instant results, and this shop became the sort of outcropping of that.”

A range of Laughlin’s baked goodies are beautifully arrayed across his shop’s counter – chocolate haley cakes, chocolate ganache, lemon pomegranates...

He first began baking as a child, and it became a hobby.

“It was fun and completely recreational, and I became famous for my chocolate cake.  And people would always request that and ultimately that was the first cake I sold professionally was this chocolate cake. And so when I did stop singing, it was something I naturally gravitated towards because I felt like 'I know I’m good at this.'" 

But first Laughlin needed money.  To raise the cash to open the shop, he launched an online Kickstarter campaign. 

In less than two weeks, he’d netted more than $40,000.

Frantic activity followed, and the shop opened just before Christmas 2014.  A framed picture on the wall features the names of all those Kickstarter donors, many of whom are now regular customers.

A year and a half later it’s mid-morning  on a Saturday – Laughlin's busiest day of the week – and the place is full of customers wanting breakfast treats. The atmosphere is very different from when Jonas first got into work earlier today.

“Throughout the week I’m here at 3 am, and on Saturdays I’m here from between 12.30 am and 1:00 am,” Laughlin said.

“It’s very early and I love it. I love the alone-ness.  I love the quietude. I love the focus I’m able to achieve.  I love the anticipation of what it’s going to look like when I open.  And I’ve done all of this with my hands.  It’s the most rewarding, fulfilling work, even more so in many ways than singing.”

But Laughlin has not left singing behind. His former passion influences his current one.

“There’s a liturgy to baking; it happens on a cycle which means that in order to get through what I feel like I need to express, things have to go away.   And much like opera, baking is dramatic so I choose recipes that have a history and a story to tell.”

As Laughlin describes his baking he constantly draws connections with music.

“ People come in all the time and they say “what a departure, how did you find yourself  doing this?”  And I never have time to sit down to explain but they feel exactly the same. Obviously there’s the public consumption of both, right, so you have a cognizance of your audience and what they want.  And both are organic processes.  I’m using organic materials to cook.  I used organic materials to sing.” 

"Folk Ohio"  looks at the state's traditional culture. It is produced for WOSU in partnership with the Center for Folklore Studies at OSU and is presented by Rachel Hopkin.

The Center for Folklore Studies supports the learning, teaching, research, and outreach of folklorists and students of folklore and provides OSU folklorists with a network for cooperation and interdisciplinary dialogue. 

Center activities include: coordinating the folklore course offerings across departments and advising students; Facilitating research and outreach projects of both local and international scope; organizing lectures, conferences, and workshops; and maintaining an archives of over 12,000 recordings and projects, a testament to over half a century of folklore research at OSU