The Rise of the Pastry Chef as L.A. Discovers Its Sweet Tooth

Ong with the EP & J, an elevated (and sweet) take on the classic peanut butter and jelly flavor combination
Ong with the EP & J, an elevated (and sweet) take on the classic peanut butter and jelly flavor combination
Jesse Hsu

It's time to give pastry chefs and programs the props they deserve. Though they're traditionally shunted off to the side of the kitchen, both literally and metaphorically, it seems that the fooderati in L.A. is finally figuring out what pastry chefs have known all along: The sweet side is where it's at.

As with so many other culinary trends right now (#humblebrag), L.A. is leading the charge toward strengthening pastry programs by giving these chefs more autonomy and creative freedom. The result? L.A. dessert menus are getting stronger, and more chefs are being encouraged to pursue pastry arts. 

Perhaps the most obvious sign that the pastry landscape in L.A. is changing — and changing definitively for the better — came earlier this year, when Dahlia Narvaez was awarded the 2016 James Beard Award for Outstanding Pastry Chef. The award for Narvaez, executive pastry chef for Mozza since 2006,  was more than just a personal victory: It represented a win for all of L.A.'s pastry chefs as we move toward more interesting sweets.

To celebrate this trend and get some insight on what might still be to come, we chatted with some of the best pastry chefs in the city about what they think of the pastry scene in L.A. 

EP & J, an elevated (and sweet) take on the classic peanut butter and jelly flavor combination
EP & J, an elevated (and sweet) take on the classic peanut butter and jelly flavor combination
Jesse Hsu

Zen Jay Ong, E.P. & L.P. 
Leading the pastry program at Southeast Asian hot spot E.P. & L.P., Australian Zen Jay Ong has a history of grabbing headlines and racking up some awards of his own. When working in Sydney prior to joining Louis Tikaram at his West Hollywood concept, Ong was a lauded rising star and undeniably destined for greatness. Since coming to L.A., Ong has led E.P. & L.P. in its quest for dessert dominance — and been wildly successful at it. He spoke about the uniqueness of L.A.'s culinary scene, and the space it has created for pastry chefs:

“In the year the restaurant has been open and I have been living here, we’ve seen a lot of great chefs and restaurants open up and move here, from all over the U.S. and internationally, so I think it is important, motivating and encouraging to be working in a city people want to open up new and exciting restaurants. [L.A. is] a culturally diverse city with a huge range of cuisines and ingredients, and everyone has their take on desserts or sweets they ate growing up, which is exciting to discover as we eat around the city.”

Isa Fabro with her IsamadasEXPAND
Isa Fabro with her Isamadas
Camellia Tse

Isa Fabro, Unit 120
Though Isa Fabro may be a bona fide L.A. restaurant vet, having worked the line at Patina Group restaurants and Water Grill, her decision to become a pastry chef was based more on a gut feeling than on experience. But her leap of faith — taken almost six years ago — has paid off, leading her to pastry positions at Hatfield's, Orsa & Winston and, now, the Unit 120 culinary incubator. She's helped shape the evolution of the L.A. pastry scene, but it hasn't been easy:

“The past 10 years in Los Angeles haven’t been kind to pastry chefs. Often the first thing to go to save money has been the pastry department; many restaurants buy ready-made ice creams or frozen cakes. Because of this, mentorship of pastry has also suffered, and unless you are lucky to find a home at a restaurant with a dedicated pastry department, your pastry experience may be relegated to scooping store-bought ice cream and thawing cakes to plate. So if you do find a real pastry chef here in L.A., they have committed to weathering the storm. Dahlia Narvaez is a great example of this. She was able to find a home with Mozza where her talents and vision could be realized, and her recent James Beard Award is a testament to all pastry chefs in Los Angeles who have struggled and keep fighting the good fight.”

Peaches & cream dessert at BestiaEXPAND
Peaches & cream dessert at Bestia
Sierra Prescott

Genevieve Gergis, Bestia
It's no surprise that Southern California native Genevieve Gergis puts a bit of L.A. in each and every one of her pastries served at Bestia, the restaurant she co-owns and runs with her husband, Ori Menashe. The dessert menu changes daily, reflecting Gergis' emphasis on crafting dishes that use the freshest, most of-the-moment ingredients. She spoke about her unique perspective and how it fits into L.A.:

"I would rather say it's an exciting time rather than an important time [to be a pastry chef in L.A.]. When I was younger, pastries at restaurants were about over-the-top presentation and not so much flavor or quality of ingredients. With the level of savory in L.A. having risen so much in the last several years, it has been an almost natural step forward for pastry to have risen as well. My pastries always stay true to what I love and not what's popular in the culinary world. All of my desserts come from some kind of part of my past, whether it's something I ate, something I smelled somewhere or even something visual. Even though in some of my desserts it's hard to tell because it becomes further removed as I layer things in, nostalgia plays a huge role."

Mignardises at Faith & FlowerEXPAND
Mignardises at Faith & Flower
Faith & Flower

Josh Graves, Faith & Flower
Josh Graves is in charge of bread and pastry at DTLA's ultra-popular Faith & Flower. He previously worked with Ray's and Stark Bar and Coffee + Milk, and attended culinary school in Pasadena:

"L.A. is finally being recognized as a great food city, and it is important to set the standard high and keep creating new things. L.A. has so many different neighborhoods, which in turn gives us great diversity. I'm able to separate my menu from others by using different techniques and ingredients that wouldn't normally be used in the pastry kitchen, such as strawberry chicharrones."

Vanilla panna cotta at RépubliqueEXPAND
Vanilla panna cotta at République
Teddy Nguyen

Margarita Manzke, République
One half of the husband-and-wife team behind the restaurant located in the building that formerly housed the original La Brea Bakery and Campanile, Margarita Manzke is creating her own piece of history at République. Since opening the restaurant in 2013, she has earned a reputation as one of the best pastry chefs in the city, both filling and exceeding the large shoes that preceded her:

"I think it's an important time just to be a chef of any kind in L.A. We have so many resources here — some of the best produce around, an incredible diversity of cuisines, a young population obsessed with all kinds of food. The possibilities are limitless, and a big driver of the development we've seen here over the last decade. All of that has been very well-documented. But there is much more to come ... and I think we'll see a lot of great things coming out of the L.A. pastry world, which hasn't really had a standard-bearer in this town since Nancy Silverton and Sherry Yard became widely known in the ’90s. A lot of restaurants and bakeries are opening every week here, and in that sense, it helps a lot to have a local chef like Dahlia bring home a James Beard, as it only serves to attract more pastry talent to L.A."

Pavlova dessert at The Cannibal LAEXPAND
Pavlova dessert at The Cannibal LA
Stan Lee

Kelli Nehls, the Cannibal L.A.
The Cannibal L.A. may be best known for its namesake meats, but the West Coast output of the popular New York butcher and beer shop is quickly gaining attention for its pastry program, thanks to chef Kelli Nehls. The 26-year-old takes a cue from the creative culture of L.A. for her inventive pastries:

"Pastry in Los Angeles has been becoming increasingly more notable the last few years with the explosion of social media and the access to what people are able to lay their eyes on. That’s definitely one of the main reasons that now is certainly a great time to be not only a pastry chef but any sort of industry creative in L.A. Plus, L.A. has always been a destination of creativity and exploration. That's why I, as well as so many others, are here to begin with. I do think that Dahlia Narvaez’s win, along with all of the other L.A. victories at the awards this year, made people do a double take at the food scene in L.A. We are here and it's only getting better. It's certainly time to pay attention to food here."

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