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But even in the heyday of fine dining, before the recession, Los Angeles' dessert scene was different from other cities'. Maybe because fine dining itself has always been different here, less entrenched, with never more than a handful of truly world-class restaurants. Maybe it was the huge influence of farmers markets, with stunning fruit available year-round.
"In California, you're on a first-name basis with fruit," Yard says. "You take a beautiful Blenheim, you don't want to mess with it. If you have the most beautiful strawberry, cherry, whatever — why do you want to fuck with it?"
While it may be true that Alice Waters taught America about the importance of farmers markets, in Los Angeles it was not Waters — or even Yard — who taught us about markets as much as it was Nancy Silverton.
"At Campanile," Miler says, "the farmers market was part of the training."
Silverton's ethos, of rustic desserts made with perfect technique and utterly fresh ingredients, spread out from her original La Brea Avenue bakery and pastry kitchen to pretty much every part of town. You can find her influence at Clementine, Cooks County and Cake Monkey — she trained Miler, Jullapat and Belkind.
The pastry chefs who trained in her kitchen also include Dahlia Narvaez, currently Mozza's pastry chef; Sumi Chang of Europane Bakery; Little Flower Candy Company's Christine Moore; Karen Yoo of McCall's Meat & Fish, which recently expanded to include a bakery; and Danielle Keene, Top Chef: Just Desserts vet and owner of Pasadena's Bittersweet Treats.
These days you can find Silverton in the kitchens of Mozza, the Hollywood pizza, pasta and salumi empire she started with Mario Batali and Joe Bastianich in 2006. (Silverton left Campanile in 2004 after her divorce from chef Mark Peel, with whom she opened the restaurant in 1989. It closed last year.)
"What's interesting," Silverton says, "is that I could go back to the desserts I did at Campanile and not feel that they were dated — and sometimes I'm very tempted to. What I liked was very clear, and I really embraced it."
Silverton credits much of her ethos to perseverance ("You know when something's not finished, and that doesn't mean it needs seven elements"). She also points out that Los Angeles is much more of a laid-back city than, say, New York, which has a competitive edge that we don't have: "In New York, it's more a combination of the high-end and the rustic. Here it's pretty much rustic. Rustic to retro."
Even before the economic crisis, the rise of gastropubs and the era of pie, comfort food was an important aspect of the Los Angeles dessert scene. Maybe because we have a kind of passive-aggressive approach to formality, or a more invested belief in democratization than other towns (you, too, can come here with nothing and reinvent yourself!), we've always loved unpretentious desserts. Even Sherry Yard's most famous dessert at Spago was not one of her elaborate confections but her Kaiserschmarrn, a homey, Austrian baked pancake smothered in strawberries.
L.A.'s love of things your mom could make can be problematic for the pastry profession. After all, if your mom could make it, then maybe you don't need a professional pastry chef to do it for you.
"There's been a period in the last few years when chefs have been trying to figure out how to get rid of their pastry chefs," Jordan Kahn says.
One of the town's best pastry chefs, and one of the few who still does elaborate plated desserts, Kahn is both Red Medicine's pastry chef and its executive chef. He is also one of the handful of noted pastry chefs who did not train at either Spago or Campanile, cooking at the French Laundry, Per Se and Alinea before coming to L.A. to work in Michael Mina's pastry kitchen at XIV.
The pastry chef "is a position that doesn't make the restaurant a lot of money," Kahn explains, noting that it's the only course the diner eats when he's no longer hungry. "Any kitchen can buy an ice cream machine, make a crumble, put a schmear on the plate and call it a modern dessert. You don't need a pastry chef anymore."
If many restaurants are jettisoning their pastry chefs to cut costs, many others are opening without hiring one at all. Some chefs enjoy doing pastry themselves, notable among them Josef Centeno of Bäco Mercat and Bar Amá; and David LeFevre, of Manhattan Beach Post and the recently opened Fishing With Dynamite. Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo have never had a pastry chef at either Animal or Son of a Gun; Ludo Lefebvre does his own desserts at Trois Mec, the restaurant he recently opened with Shook and Dotolo.