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Hitting the Sweet Spot With LA's Top Pastry Chefs

Where to find 25 of the Southland's best and their delectable desserts
March 28, 2016
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by Lesley Balla

Some say the shorter the skirt, the better the economy. We say, the best economic indicator is how many pastry chefs are whipping up chocolate cremeux and meringue desserts in top restaurants around town. During the worst times, that sweet role is often the first to go, with executive chefs having to do double-duty creating both the savory side of the menu as well as the sweet. Sometimes it works; sometimes it flops like a fallen soufflé.

In LA, we’re happy to report: Pastry chefs are back, in a big, sweet, butterscotch budino way. Thankfully, we've never lost queens of the scene like Nancy Silverton and Sherry Yard — they practically built our kingdom of sugar and bread in LA — but now restaurants big and small have been re-implementing significant pastry programs, with top-notch talent creating the most decadent and delightful confections around. And it’s time we celebrate them. Here are LA's pastry chefs whose work in the sweets department should not be overlooked.

Dahlia Narvaez

Where You’ll Find Her: This native Angeleno (raised in Highland Park) is busy making torta della nonna, butterscotch budino, olive oil cakes and gelatos and every fabulous seasonal dessert at the Mozza compound for Pizzeria Mozza, Osteria Mozza and chi Spacca. She also oversees the pastry programs for the entire Mozza family, including outposts in Newport Beach and Singapore. And you’ll see her at the James Beard Awards in Chicago this May: she’s once again nominated for Outstanding Pastry Chef.

Margarita Manzke

Where You’ll Find Her: Manzke makes her wildly popular breads and desserts at Republique, alongside her husband Walter Manzke. Born and raised in the Philippines, Margarita came to the U.S. to enroll in culinary school, which led her to stints at Spago, Patina (where she met Walter) and Melisse, where she was sous chef. Her expertise in the sweets department won out, as seen by her constant roll-out of craveable breakfast pastries (coffee cakes, bombolini, donuts and tarts), that insane salted caramel chocolate cake and any other desserts seen along the counter at the La Brea restaurant.

Della Gossett

Where You’ll Find Her: Gossett creates beautiful, intricate and delicious contemporary desserts at Spago, things like Frank Gehry-inspired chocolate cake with praline buttercream and vanilla bourbon chocolate sauce. When Sherry Yard decided to leave Wolfgang Puck’s empire after nearly two decades as pastry queen, she handpicked Gossett, a vet of Charlie Trotter’s kitchen and National Pastry Team Championship silver medalist. Gossett has since made the venerable pastry program her own, not only overseeing Spago but also other dessert programs in the restaurant group, and creating delicacies for LA’s biggest and splashiest parties like the Oscars Governor’s Ball.

Chris Ford

Where You’ll Find Him: The 30 Under 30 alum (class of 2014) now oversees the pastry department for the entire Beverly Wilshire Hotel in Beverly Hills, including all the parties, in-room dining and desserts for The Blvd restaurant. His elegant desserts pay homage to classic desserts mostly in flavor, with the end result — items like this spring’s yuzu palmer with yuzu lemon curd, green tea Chantilly, raspberry and white chocolate — looking nothing like the original. His beautiful creations can be seen on his Instagram account.

Elizabeth Belkind

Where You’ll Find Her: Belkind masterfully layers and frosts addictive mini cakes at Cake Monkey Bakery. Like many chefs in LA, she got her start at Campanile, and then went on to open Grace with Neal and Amy-Knoll Fraser (her donut nights were popular there). She and business partner Lisa Olin initially opened a wholesale bakery operation but recently debuted a pretty pink storefront for all things elegant, whimsical and sweet, from Mexican chocolate Oreo-inspired cookies to Pop Tart-like Pop Pies and foil-wrapped chocolate Cakewiches and El Rollos.

Christina Olufson

Where You’ll Find Her: Olufson turns out ultra-seasonal tarts, cakes and decadent desserts at Forage in Silver Lake. The former pastry leader for the Lucques group partnered up with buddy Jason Kim to work sweets magic with the constant flow of farmers market produce coming into the small cafe. The menu changes daily, but look out for things like strawberry and frangiapane galettes to lemon pavlova or the diabolically good chocolate and peanut butter cake.

Zoe Nathan

Where You’ll Find Her: Nathan oversees the sweeter side of the Santa Monica empire she runs with husband Josh Loeb, including Rustic Canyon, Huckleberry, Milo + Olive, Cassia and Esters, and Sweet Rose Creamery. While she collaborates with chefs at each restaurant, it’s Nathan’s direction of making pastries and breads with fresh, seasonal, often organic ingredients, from the flour to the fruits picked up at the farmers markets, that keeps hers one of the most enviable programs in town. One look at the cases at Huckleberry and Milo + Olive alone will bring anyone with a sweet tooth to their knees.

Na Young Ma

Where You’ll Find Her: Ma bakes tarts, cakes and remarkable croissants at the always-busy Proof Bakery in Atwater Village. She caught the bug while working an overnight shift in a New York bakery while in college, and when she made her way back to the West Coast, where she grew up, she realized that seasonal fruit tarts, salted chocolate chip cookies and insane chocolate layer cakes were her calling. The proof, as they say, is in the line snaking out of the small spot any given day.

Valerie Gordon

Where You’ll Find Her: The question is more where won’t you find Gordon. She’s running Valerie, her confectionery and chocolate company from Los Feliz (the chocolates are sold at shops and boutiques all over the country), operating an Echo Park cafe and a Grand Central Market counter, plus making seasonal sweet and savory tarts, petit fours, pies and jams to sell at her Hollywood Farmers Market stand on Sundays. Her focus on classic California cakes, like the Blum’s Coffee Crunch Cake in all its honeycomb-ed glory, is unparalleled.

Karen Hatfield

Where You’ll Find Her: Hatfield creates warm brown butter crostatas, cornmeal ricotta fritters and chocolate rye pie at Odys + Penelope and quinoa bran muffins, salted caramel babka rolls, and tarts, cookies, bars and more at The Sycamore Kitchen. With Karen on the sweet side of things and husband Quinn — the two met while working at the original Spago — overseeing savory at both restaurants, the couple has staked a serious claim on the La Brea design district corridor.

Genevieve Gergis

Where You’ll Find Her: Gergis concocts seasonal dessert specials at Bestia while husband Ori Menashe continues wowing with the charcuterie, pastas, salads and hearty Italian fare at the Arts District restaurant. Having mostly front-of-the-house experience, Gergis only studied pastry seriously right before opening Bestia — Nancy Silverton was instrumental in getting her a short stint at Chez Panisse to pick up some pointers. So that’s who we have to blame for our obsession with Gergis’ creme fraiche panna cotta, chestnut zeppole and salted caramel and chocolate budino tart.

Shannon Swindle

Where You’ll Find Him: The Texas native is usually working magic with seasonal ingredients and natural sweeteners at Craft Los Angeles. It may surprise you that someone with Type 1 diabetes is one of the city’s top pastry chefs, but his natural talent for creating comforting desserts like sourdough donuts with lemon cream, huckleberries and key lime sherbet, strawberry cream tart with matcha meringue, and caramel malva pudding cake with rhubarb and Mexican vanilla ice cream is tough to ignore.

Mariah Swan

Where You’ll Find Her: Swan makes ice cream, donuts and coffee at ICDC, the little shop adjacent to BLD on Beverly Boulevard. For years she created wonderfully unique donut flavors and boozy shakes as well as weekly and monthly specials at BLD, but her confections were worth their own spot. So she and Amy-Knoll Fraser opened this breakout concept for things like Rocky Road, pistachio vanilla, salt-and-pepper and lemon-curd donuts, matching seasonal ice creams and sorbets.

Jacob Fraijo and Christina Hanks

Where You’ll Find Them: The two tag-team the all-day pastries, breads and desserts at the always bustling Rose Cafe-Restaurant in Venice. Walk in to find a pastry case bursting at the seams with incredibly flaky and buttery croissants, fruit tarts, coffee cakes, brioche, donuts and cookies — and that’s just at breakfast. The two met at Bottega Louie, worked at Bouchon Bakery together and did time in the pastry scene up north in San Francisco. You can taste that experience in every sweet bite here.

Nicole Rucker

Where You’ll Find Her: Rucker crafts donuts and award-winning pies with the perfect crust and wonderful seasonal fruit fillings for the Cofax empire, including the Fairfax coffee shop and Bludso’s Bar & Que. That got her the attention of the Shake Shack crew, so she’s now supplying donuts for frozen custard concretes at the new outpost in West Hollywood. When Smorgasburg LA debuts downtown this summer, look for Rucker’s Pies, her new standalone pie business.

Ann Kirk

Where You’ll Find Her: Kirk sweetens up the offerings for the Eat Heavy Restaurant Group, including Little Dom’s in Los Feliz and Hollywood's 101 Coffee Shop. The Seattle native spun through kitchens at Lucques, La Terza and Fraiche before teaming up with chef Brandon Boudet and Warner Ebbink, for those fantastic zeppole, seasonal tarts and perfect panna cotta at Little Dom’s, the sweet and savory focaccia and cookies at Little Dom’s Deli, and sundaes at 101.

John Park

Where You’ll Find Him: Park makes unique ice creams for his two Quenelle shops in Burbank and San Marino and crafts a few dynamite offerings for The Bellwether in Studio City too. Not only does the former Lukshon pastry chef create incredible flavors like pineapple upside-down cake, bacon and chorizo caramel, and blueberry pie, but he also makes fun ice pops and funnel cake ice cream sandwiches.

Jessie Liu

Where You’ll Find Her: Liu incorporates savory elements into traditionally sweet dishes at Providence. Having trained under notable pastry chef David Rodriguez, Liu took over the dessert program at Michael​ Cimarusti’s haute seafood restaurant in 2015. She does deliciously wacky things like put soy sauce in ice cream and black sesame in bonbons, which plays nicely with the subtle Asian influences found throughout the menu.

Roxana Jullapat

Where You’ll Find Her: She was perfecting her croissant making at Proof Bakery while working on her own bakery, which opens in East Hollywood later this year, along with partner and chef Dan Mattern. The two were most recently at Cooks County, and before that gained accolades at Ammo on Highland Avenue — Jullapat for her whole grain breads, excellent pies, savory pastries and soul-warming seasonal desserts. She also organizes the Bakers Will Bake charitable sale every year, which pulls together the crème de la crème of pastry chefs around LA to help raise funds for garden-based education programs in local schools.

Josh Graves

Where You’ll Find Him: Graves masterminds artful treats for Faith & Flower. He went Star Wars crazy with an entire spread of meticulously handcrafted chocolate Death Star bonbons and a bite-size Millennium Falcon when the movie came out in 2015, but he’s still carrying a torch for things like a gorgeous milk chocolate dome filled with praline cremeux and topped with brandied cherries. Graves caught attention for his wonderful desserts at Ray & Stark Bar before heading to the Downtown restaurant.

Paige Russell

Where You’ll Find Her: Russell throws down some interesting twists on classic, sometimes Southern-leaning sweets at Hatchet Hall in Culver City. Most of Russell’s desserts change with the season — you might see buttermilk cake with the last of the winter citrus or goat cheese funnel cake with brandy preserved figs right now — but two signatures since the restaurant’s opening remain her strawberry cream float made with honeycomb ice cream and housemade vanilla cream soda, and a cookie plate with vanilla milk, a sweet slushy granita doused with milk. It was enough to catch our attention for the 30 Under 30 list in 2015.

Christine Moore

Where You’ll Find Her: Moore oversees the Little Flower Candy Co. empire, which includes two Pasadena cafes, Little Flower and Lincoln. You may know her caramels and puffy marshmallows, but head to either of these places for butter croissants, tarts, olive oil cakes, cookies and pies, all made with a seasonal, homespun edge in collaboration with baker Cecilia Leung (pictured left). You’ll probably see her around town signing her most recent cookbook, Little Flower Baking, which just came out this spring.

Ivan Marquez

Where You'll Find Him: Marquez is now creating modern desserts at Broken Spanish, sweets like his version of a vampiro made with white chocolate mousse, carrot anglaise, beet and cara cara orange. We last heard from Marquez at Short Cake, where he was creating incredible eclairs and other pastries after training at Bouchon Bakery and Spago (it also garnered him a 30 Under 30 nod from us). Since the Original Farmers Market bakery closed, we're fortunate he found a new home for his devilishly good desserts Downtown.

Annie Miler

Where You'll Find Her: If you've ever walked into Clementine, either in Century City or Beverly Hills, and been tempted by the gorgeous pies and tarts, muffins, cookies, bars, cupcakes and other tantalizing sweets, you've found Miler. Another Spago/Campanile alum, the chef focuses on desserts and treats that remind you of your grandma (but quite possibly made better by Miler). The original Clementine celebrates its 16th anniversary this year, no easy feat in this fickle, carbophobic town.

Meadow Ramsey

Where You'll Find Her: Thank Ramsey for Sqirl's crazy moist upside-down cake with rhubarb and berries or dense but delicate almond financiers. Working collaboratively with Jessica Koslow on the pastry and dessert side of things at the tiny Silver Lake cafe, the Campanile alum (see a theme here?) has helped usher it in as one of the must-try breakfast and lunch spots in town. We look forward to what the two cook up for Sqirl Away, the expanded restaurant that debuts this summer.

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