Valerie Gordon on New Cafes and All Things "Sweet"
Valerie Gordon and her partner Stan Weightman Jr. launched Valerie Confections in 2004 with six flavors of chocolate-dipped toffee. Almost 10 years later, the brand and company have expanded exponentially with cakes, petit fours, jams and preserves, pastries and a catering division, not to mention two new cafes - the Valerie breakfast and lunch counter at Grand Central Market and Valerie Echo Park. Somewhere in there Gordon found time to have two kids and write a cookbook, Sweet, which was just released a couple weeks ago (catch her on the book tour). Phew. You need a lot of sugar to keep up with all of that. Gordon found a few minutes to chat with us about her new cafes, chocolates, her favorite seasonal finds and other sweet somethings.
Zagat: You have so much going on right now. What made you decide to open two new cafes at the same time?
Valerie Gordon: It wasn’t our master plan to open two locations at the same time. We were looking to expand our retail for quite some time, but we were delayed by my getting the book deal, and us having our second child while I was writing the book. Before the end of last year we were approached about these two locations, and both Echo Park and the Grand Central Market were interesting for different reasons, and both fit the direction we wanted to take the company. There was a lot of, ‘Oh my god, are we doing this?’ With Valerie Confections, the mothership, we do online sales, we have wholesale accounts, we do catering, we do the farmers markets. These cafes felt so much more direct in execution.
Zagat: How do the two places differ?
VG: I would say they are different sides of Valerie Confections. Valerie Echo Park is like a culmination of all things Valerie Confections does. It features food we’ve been doing in catering, like the tea sandwiches we’ve done for years, and a lot of breakfast items. From a culinary point of view, I have a passion for tea. Cooking with it, pairing with it, drinking it. And now I can play with that with the Echo Park menu.
Zagat: And the Grand Central Market?
VG: When we walked into the Grand Central Market last fall, we came across our space, this long counter, and it really seemed to tie into our classic cake selection. There was just something so seductive about a 95-year-old market that’s being refurbished. The menu I developed for that location was very specific. I did a lot of research on the lunch counter - what is a lunch counter? What do people eat for lunch? So we started with classics like Cobb salads, chopped salads, sandwiches. The sort of food that pairs well with our cakes. But that’s already evolved, and now it’s an exploration of delicious, market-drive food that you can eat everyday. Nothing overly complicated about it.
Zagat: But the cakes are still there, right? We’re crazy about the Blum’s Crunch Cake.
VG: The crunch cake is there. And a couple things have been born, like this caramel bread pudding. Grand Central Market is the only place we’re serving it. We also have these wonderful sides like pee wee potato salad, this red cabbage coleslaw, a great panzanella. We started using ingredients from some of the market vendors, like Valeria’s Spice Counter. I’m using their mole in a soup and a chili. It’s a fun way of working with the community.
Zagat: That’s something you’ve always done, work closely with vendors from the markets where you have your booths. What are some of your favorite vendors?
VG: Our pee wee potatoes come from Weiser Farm, and we use them in our breakfast bowl at Grand Central Market, and in the salad Nicoise at Echo Park. We get our heirloom tomatoes from Tutti Frutti and use them in the Cobb salad and club sandwich at Grand Central Market. We use dried oranges from Mud Creek Ranch, dip them in chocolate and put them in pretty boxes. And we also use them in croissants at the Echo Park location. And we use roses form Lily’s Farm. We candy hundreds a week for our rose petal petit fours, and use irregular ones in truffles and jams.
Zagat: Do you have a favorite season or ingredient?
VG: I can't wait for the Winter Luxury pumpkins from Windrose Farms. I use them for pumpkin pies. It’s a really rich luscious pumpkin pie. I’ve been doing that for three or four years. I don’t make it until those are available, and we stop when they’re gone. Those will be at Grand Central Market and our farmer's market booths.
Zagat: Somewhere between all of these openings, you wrote a cookbook. Tell us about Sweet.
VG: Sweet is a very personal story of my love of desserts, how I came to love it and how it came to be my career. I want it to be a canon for the home baker and home cook. Over the yeas I’d have customers and friends ask me 'How do I bake this? Am I allowed to change this recipe?' Or they would say 'I’d love to bake a pie but it scares me.' So every step of the way I try to message the reader that baking is really accessible and not scary. I try to explain it in a way that simplifies it. There’s not a huge focus on chemistry or detailed work. For instance, there are two chapters on cakes, but there’s no piping. It’s just simple cake decor. Classic simplicity is elegant. I hope it empowers them and helps the readers find their voice in the kitchen.
Zagat: How did your love affair with sweets begin?
VG: I started baking when I was eight years old. I always felt that bakeries and chocolate shops were the happiest places you could be. I worked in restaurants for a long time; my last position was managing for five years. But from the time I was eight to Valerie Confections, I was an active baker and candy maker. I always gifted cakes, cookies and candies in an elaborate way. When Stan and I got together, we started Tall and Small productions. We just made really fun gifts. And the longer we did that, people said it was a business. I had some pretty serious medical issues for a while, a broken back, reconstructive back surgery and physical therapy for three years, and I considered very thoughtfully what I wanted to do with my life. And I kept coming back to food and sweets in particular.
Zagat: When did you start Valerie Confections?
VG: We started in 2004. The first thing we did was six flavors of toffee. And we started with that because…toffee was something I made in these gift packages. There was a very strong reaction to it. And toffee was sort of the unsung hero of chocolates. At that time, there was a lot of growth in the luxury chocolate industry. It was exploding, and we saw what people were doing with truffles and thought, 'We’re going to do this with toffee.'
Zagat: Did you every think Valerie Confections would become what it is now?
VG: I actually thought we would’ve expanded faster than we did. The direction that we have taken has been surprising. I never thought we’d do a market booth, but that came about due to the recession. Around Christmas 2008, when the economy imploded, we had to position ourselves to make an impact. We had full pages in the Bergdorf Goodman catalog, Dean & DeLuca, Williams Sonoma. But it was a terrifying holiday season. Come January, we realized a lot of our clientele wouldn’t be ordering $80 boxes of chocolates, and we knew we had to switch gears and go local. So we thought let’s go to the markets, let’s establish relationships with farmers. We were able to get a booth. It’s been a great way to reach out to our community. And through these roots we grew our company.
Zagat: Since it’s National Chocolate Day today, do you have a favorite chocolate recipe in the book?
VG: The black pepper truffle is my favorite. The pepper has a really warming quality, not like a chile pepper. It’s a handsome flavor, a very handsome chocolate.
Zagat: What about to eat? Is there something you absolutely can’t walk past when you see it in the kitchen?
VG: Oh, the Durango Cookie. It’s just the variety of texture and the interplay of flavors. The milk chocolate chips, cocoa nibs, roasted almond and smoked salt. I just love how it’s a marriage of sweet and savory. The textures are really satisfying. If a tray of Durangos come out, I have a really hard time resisting.