L.A.'s sweet kitchens embrace seasonal, local produce in fruit-centric dessert menus.
In a city such as Los Angeles, home to long-established ethnic populations from Asia, south of the border, the Middle East and many of the far flung points in between, one might expect to see that multicultural personality reflected on desserts menus. But in an admittedly unscientific sampling of Los Angeles pastry chefs under 30 who helm the sweet kitchens of trendy restaurants all over town, this is simply not the case. Instead, fresh produce trumps ethnic pantries in every one. In a place where, since the 80’s, farmers’ markets have offered up a dazzling variety of seasonal produce all year round, pastry chefs here are doubly blessed. Arguably, with the ready availability of sparklingly fresh, truly local produce, the job of the pastry chef is simple. Connect to reliable growers, buy great fruit and manipulate it as little as possible in crumbles, panna cottas, ice creams, sorbets, tarts and all manner of fruit-centric desserts, and you can’t lose.
Surveying the trendsetters, a few common threads stand out, and LA native Sarah Asch, The Tasting Kitchen’s pastry chef, sums up the inspiration for many desserts around town neatly. “We are spoiled not only by our good weather here in Southern California, but also by the access we have to the best local produce. There is nothing better than cooking with local product at the peak of its season, so I try to take advantage.” One of her favorite fruits is rhubarb, and she uses it freely on the dessert list during the season when field-grown fruit is available (the more commonly available hothouse variety doesn’t seem to find favor among this new crop of pastry chefs). One of her creations centers panna cotta in a bowl and surrounds it with poached and roasted rhubarb. Here’s a seasonal dessert with an essential difference. Asch makes it transcendent by topping its main element with a pleasantly granular hit of icy ginger granite. When asked how she would characterize her desserts in one word, she says, “Thoughtful,” and here, where cold meets frozen meets creamy, the sweet tooth is amply rewarded. Other characteristic examples of her sweet prowess include a Chocolate Walnut Semifreddo with black walnut meringue and red wine agrodolce, and Steamed Gingerbread Pudding with maple caramel, persimmon mash, and ginger cream.
Based on a reputation for having a diet-conscious dining public, one would think that dessert at Los Angeles’ hot spots would steer clear of the richer, creamier fat-laden sweets at the end of a meal. “This is simply not true,” says CIA-grad Brittainy Turnquist, another Angeleno, who plies the sweet trade at Farmshop in the tony Brentwood section of the city. She goes on,” The rich and gooey butterscotch pudding is by far the most popular dessert on the menu. And a bit surprisingly, chocolate in anything outsells a fruit-based dessert any day of the week.” If the pudding weren’t rich enough, she gilds the lily by topping it with browned butter solids and ginger and doesn’t skimp on the butter by accompanying the pudding with a pecan shortbread. So much for ascetic dining but the juxtaposition of creamy and crunchy is nowhere better seen than in this signature dessert. Little knowing twists on old favorites populate the dessert menu here in items such as a Raspberry Meringue with whipped crème fraiche and a drizzle of tart hibiscus coulis, Strawberries and Sabayon (the fruit from a vaunted local berry grower), accompanied by pistachio cookies & a cacao nib sabayon sauce and calorie-be-damned Chocolate Espresso Tart with praline cream and hazelnut salted toffee.
Deprivation desserts aren’t the ticket at comfy mid-city Cooks County either. Here pastry chef Roxana Jullapat of Thai and Costa Rican origins symbolizes the multiethnic mashup that is LA. But on her menu, there’s nary a trace of ethnic influence unless you consider coconut an exotic foodstuff, which she finds that the dessert buying public accepts. Instead, she says, “I am committed to the use of farmers’ markets fruits in season. But with my central American upbringing, I am used to eating all kinds of tropical fruits all the time but they don’t generally find their way into my dessert repertoire.” Beyond coconut, she makes an exception for the luscious mangoes that are grown at the edge of the California desert whose season is short and whose supply is limited. “But when I can get them, I buy up as many of them as possible and use them in different ways on the menu, from brunch pastries such as muffins or in jams to dinner desserts like shortcakes, ice creams and sorbets.”
With an Armenian background, Hourie Sahakian, Short Cake’s pastry chef and baker, comments about the current crop of pastry chefs in this way. “I think the younger generation of chefs are open to bending and breaking the rules. They’re more apt to try new techniques and unexpected flavor combinations without fear or apology.” Characterizing Short Cake’s line of products as “rustic Americana with a twist,” she elaborates, “The city’s many cultures inspire me to broaden my palate, which ultimately leads to influences on the desserts and baked goods I create.” A protégé of pastry chefs Nancy Silverton and the late Amy Pressman, Sahakian ranges widely over the terrain of upscale coffee shop sweets (and savories) in the Original Farmers’ Market, an iconic LA location predating the farmers’ markets that dot the palm-fringed landscape, offering scones, pies, tarts, cakes and breakfast pastries and that signature babka that might give Gotham’s bakeries a run for their money.
Coming from the kitchen of a larger corporately-owned restaurant such as Craft, pastry chef Holden Burkons has had to pare down and simplify without sacrificing the “wow factor” at Muddy Leek, a small indie neighborhood restaurant adding to the burgeoning food scene of Culver City. “Growing up in LA influenced at a young age by the clean, fresh, simple foods of the neighborhood sushi bars and now living close to nature in Topanga Canyon, it’s hard not to be inspired. I grow a lot of pastry-specific plants in my garden including lemon verbena, lavender and rose geranium which drive some of the seasonal flavors of my desserts. Foraging for wild fennel and wild blackberries along with my chef, Whitney Flood allows my guests to have a meal that’s as close to the dirt as possible.” He makes an exception, however, to his otherwise seasonal fruit-driven bent in a rich pavé of chocolate semifreddo.
Describing his desserts as “rustic, seasonal and southern,” he frequently offers a simple, easy to love warm fruit cobbler topped with a melting cloud of soft whipped cream. He elaborates further: “I think it is easy to make a dish sweet, but I think it is hard to make a more well-balanced dish, something that’s also got some brightness and lots of flavor.” Turning to well sourced fruits accomplishes all of that and more. In a restaurant where each two top orders a dessert to share and tables of four ordering at least two for the table, Burkons is showing how to work magic in a small space creating desserts that are understandable and that people want to eat, without any arm twisting involved. A feat in LA by any measure, indeed.
Robert Wemischner is the author of four books including his latest, The Dessert Architect. He has taught for 22 years in the baking and pastry program at Los Angeles Trade-Technical College and is currently working on his fifth book.