Three Pastry Gurus Sweeten the Day
Pastry chef. Bakery. Dessert.
These words are delights for the tongue—airy like a cream puff, silky like mousse, warm and crisp as a good cookie. There’s pleasure in eating these goodies—in moderation—and in learning about the people behind these treats. We talked to a few of Ventura County’s masters at spinning flour, sugar and butter into edible art to find out about their inspirations, favorite local ingredients and being green. Turns out, it’s a sweet life.
DESSERTS TO DIE FOR
Creating a cottage business in retirement is its own kind of hard work, and yet a reliable pension can offer freedom for a next act scripted with passion and creativity. Deb Dawson put in 33 years with the U.S. Postal Service in Reseda; now, with a little flair for the dramatic and a heart for nostalgia, she sells home-baked treats that might just be enticing enough to wake the dead. Or, as Willy Wonka would say, “Strike that. Reverse it.” Dawson’s business, Desserts to Die For, brings crunchy, buttery, chocolatey and fruity comfort and joy to the living, delivered in a 1967 Cadillac hearse.
If you didn’t grow up in the Los Angeles area in the 1960s, and never saw the Helms Bakery Truck, where the back opened up and wooden drawers filled with doughnuts and pastries were pulled out to the wonderment and aromatic delight of neighborhood children and adults, just look at the shine in Dawson’s smile to know what it was like. The Dessert Hearse is a nod to those memories—with maybe a little Addams Family mixed in.
Dawson also draws inspiration from her mother, Daphne, a war bride from England, who always baked like a pro for her family. When Dawson visits England later this year, she’ll get a puff pastry fix with savory sausage rolls and Cornish pasties.
Dawson recently earned a degree in art history, but she never went to culinary school and won’t claim a title she didn’t earn. “I am not a chef. I’m just a baker. I bake what I like to eat. I have a Cottage Food Operation, which means I am allowed to do pre-packaged baked goods out of a vehicle.”
She works at being green and thrives on being local. For her packaging, she chose all-recycled Bottle Boxes. She’s begun incorporating 30% heritage grain flour from Roan Mills in Fillmore in her recipes, in support of the California Grain Campaign. (It encourages farmers’ market vendors to use 20% locally grown wholegrain flour in their products by 2020.)
Dawson has a wide Midtown Ventura network and she makes use of a lot of backyard fruit, including from her Meyer lemon tree, her neighbor’s orange tree and the plum and peach trees of friends of friends. She grows tomatoes and chives, which she uses in her savory pastries.
She has a few gluten-free options, and a vegan Mexican chocolate cookie. She is adding a vegan croissant even though, as she says, “A croissant is all about the butter.” She is thrilled with Miyoko’s brand “butter,” a coconut oil and cashew product.
“I love working with the dough, rolling the dough. Everything’s freehand.” She admits that it is hard work with early risings, but her Postal Service job was too.
Dawson loads up her croissants and pastries the way she enjoys them: with plenty of chocolate, local strawberries, almonds, pistachios, guava or cheese, to name some of her fillings. She fusses over her creations like a mother and sends them well-outfitted to Ventura’s Prospect Coffee Roasters and Ambrosia by Caffrodite. You can also find her Dessert Hearse on Saturdays at the Downtown Ventura Certified Farmers’ Market.
Next for Dawson might be adding a bicycle dimension to her business, pulling a cart and selling around the neighborhood once a week. While she’s starting to work with brioche and other breads, she’ll keep riffing on flaky, crispy, soft and yummy basics: “Fruit and pastry, man … you can’t go wrong.”
“To me, it’s all the little details. I kind of get lost in it and it really becomes my happy place,” says Angelique (Angie) Williams, pastry chef at Café Ficelle in Ventura, which opened its doors in 2017 with a name that refers to the slimmer cousin of the iconic French baguette.
She studied savory cooking at Johnson & Wales University in Providence, Rhode Island, but a small section in baking and pastry made her want to switch paths to the sweet side of things, and so she did.
Williams’ schooling included studying abroad in Florence, Italy, at Apicius International School of Hospitality. Once in the industry, she wanted to learn all she could, and became a lead line cook in the pastry department at the Ojai Valley Inn, handling buffets, banquets, menus and plate designs. Now she has taken a further step into her element.
“Here at Café Ficelle, I’m really fortunate that the owner loves what I bring and gives me creative free range to come up with all of the desserts, all the designs. It’s my art, my food and what I love.”
“When I first told my mom I wanted to be a chef, she came back with a book on macarons, said she loved them and asked if I would make her some. They’re so much fun, very technical.” She says you become hooked on the delightful morsels, a template that can handle many flavors and flavor combinations—“once you work with them and get that perfect result.”
At Café Ficelle there are always vanilla, chocolate and raspberry macarons, plus a few seasonal offerings. Lavender, key lime and lemon poppy seed are some she has shared with patrons.
Food waste at Café Ficelle is very low. “We use the cake scraps to make cake truffles.” They also repurpose bread into croutons. Williams is not in charge of bread, as that is a sphere she has yet to really explore. Breads, some of which incorporate ancient grains, are handled by Executive Baker Jarrett Chambers, who participated in the 22nd annual Fête du Pain (Bread Festival) in France this spring.
Williams is partial to abstract art and Jackson Pollock is a favorite. She’ll splatter icing or luster dust to make some of her designs. Certain styles of architecture also inform her creativity. “I especially love the Spanish feel from Santa Barbara, where it is rustic but beautiful, slightly modernized but still having the old Spanish soul.”
“Let them eat cake” was not lost on Williams, who acknowledges a fondness for the style of Marie Antoinette along with other forms of Old World French elegance. Couture, florals, glitz and glamour all make appearances in the pastry case and on special event cakes. “I used to dance a little bit and classic lines, length and flow are also design influences.”
Click here for Williams’ Strawberry Grand Marnier Crème Brûlée recipe.
JOEL GONZALEZ III
OJAI VALLEY INN
Pastry Chef Joel Gonzalez III is the new kid on the luxuriant green block of the Ojai Valley Inn, but he’s not new to top-tier establishments or being noted for excellence. With curiosity and tenacity, he rises to occasions and opportunities.
On the cusp of adulthood, Gonzalez learned he could tour Le Cordon Bleu from a brochure printed by his father’s business. That tour lured him away from a path toward professional boxing, through savory cooking studies, and into professional baking and dessert making.
His early memories of food include his grandmother making tortillas, flan and rice pudding, dishes he enjoys elaborating on. Another cluster of impressions from his early childhood in Los Angeles near Montebello is how his grandfather knew everyone.
“We would walk around the neighborhood and he was always talking to everyone, and when we’d go to the bakeries, we wouldn’t even go in the front door. We went in the back door.” He recalls being about 5 years old, and astonished to see workers using paintbrushes to frost pastries and cakes in the bakery kitchens.
Now he is the one with the paintbrush, and a DJ Decor Food Turntable, which he can use for things like applying flourishes of chocolate sauce to a dessert plate.
“Growing up, I was always very artistic. I needed an outlet,” he says.
Gonzalez’s first pastry job was at the brand-new JW Marriott Desert Ridge in Phoenix. “The chef there, Don Holtzer, showed me what being a chef was all about. I still thank him for mentoring me. He would compete at a national and international level. When I asked him to teach me, he said he was willing to do so if I started that training after I clocked out from the pastry line for the day.” At first, that meant activities like scaling Holtzer’s ingredients and cleaning copper pots for him. “He would do sugar-pulling demos for the resort’s VIPs and they were very special.”
The advanced and complicated ways of sugar pulling end in fanciful, elegant designs such as candy ribbons, flowers, birds and other figures that may be placed atop cakes or otherwise displayed.
“One day when the chef was sick he trusted me to do it.” Though inwardly nervous, he was outwardly masterful. “After that I did it for two years straight.”
Though he left for a time to work in Las Vegas, Gonzalez returned and became the executive pastry chef at the JW Marriott in Phoenix.
His current learning curve is swift. Gonzalez has updated the Ojai Valley Inn’s desserts, experimenting with flavor combinations for subtle surprises.
“Moving to Ojai, it’s very sustainable here. We use produce local to the area.” In spring, kumquat bushes on the property allowed for kumquat jam and kumquat cake.
“The Inn has a careful waste program. We try to use all parts of the vegetable and the animal. We practice composting, recycling. We also participate in Chefs Against Hunger. We are using less plastic and are opting for bamboo and other biodegradeables.”
He asserts the importance of clean products, non-GMO and uses organic as much as he can. “Gluten-free and vegan are huge here.” The Impossible Cake at Jimmy’s Pub is gluten-free, dairy-free, egg-free and sugar-free.
The most popular dessert at Olivella, Gonzalez marvels, is the Coconut Milk Panna Cotta, a vegan dessert made with spiced pineapple, a vanilla shortbread of almond and coconut flours, black sesame croccante (brittle) and pineapple-basil sorbet. Shaved micro coconuts (coquitos) are the finish, and thus Gonzalez and the Inn merge their strengths in sweet refinement.
Gonzalez’s White Chocolate Panna Cotta, Oxnard Strawberry Jelly, Black Pepper Shortbread recipe will be available soon.