You might think pear-spiced bread pudding with white chocolate with a graham cracker salted caramel crust and pop trio Wilson Phillips have nothing in common. However, you're wrong, as the former is just one of many desserts made by Carnie Wilson, the singer/baker who is currently the dessert chef at Vitello's Restaurant in Studio City.
The 46-year-old Wilson — who, oh yeah, just happens to be the daughter of Beach Boys singer-bassist-producer–musical genius Brian Wilson — has been making desserts such as raspberry almond cheesecake, peanut butter pies and peach apricot streusel bars for about a year, but her love of baking began a decade ago after she traded booze and drugs for spatulas and mixing bowls. During those 10 years, Wilson also worked on creating a brand called Love Bites by Carnie, currently found exclusively at Vitello's.
Wilson cooks “six days a week” for her family but her experience doesn't end there, as she has also appeared on Food Network's Chopped three times (winning once) and Rachael vs. Guy: Celebrity Cook-Off and co-authored a cookbook in 2005 called To Serve With Love.
SQUID INK: So you're the executive pasty chef at Vitello's…
CARNIE WILSON: I'm having Brad (Roen, Vitello's vice president/general manager) change that title because I don't make pastries — I make desserts. If you think a pastry is a dessert, then that's fine. But I'm not a pastry chef. We have to change that.
How did you get this job?
I have been making specific desserts for more than 10 years. Cheesecakes and bread puddings and a lot of others. We change it up during the week. I walked into a store called SweetHarts, owned by Matt Epstein and Melissa Joan Hart, in the Valley back in 2006. I said to them, “I really want to make some desserts for your place,” and they were, like, “Who are you and why are you saying that?” Actually, I said, “Your desserts look like shit.” I thought I looked like a jerk by saying that, but I had a good feeling about it. They said, “Why don't you make something?” I went home and made a cheesecake and they called me later that day. They sold SweetHarts and Matt Epstein, who owns Vitello's Express next door, said, “Hey, I really miss your desserts. What are you doing with them?” I said, “I'm going on The Talk tomorrow to make some holiday pumpkin bread pudding.” He said, “Vitello's is revamped but our desserts are suffering. Would you considering coming in and revamping the dessert menu?” I said, “Are you kidding? I'd love to.”
Where does your love for baking come from?
My love for cooking came about 20 years ago. I started making dinners — I really wasn't making desserts. When I got clean and sober 10 years ago is when I started obsessively baking. I replaced drinking and getting stoned with baking, and it's been great. It's therapeutic for me. It's a challenge. My whole theory behind Love Bites is I have cheesecakes that are tiny and small. All sizes, all portions. At the restaurant, it's different. My whole theory's been “You don't have to have a whole piece.” You can have a bite or two, so I've made these portions tiny so you don't have to deprive yourself and you can enjoy it.
I have about 1,000 cookbooks. I collect them. They line a whole wall of my home. I love them. I think they're beautiful. I like to compare recipes. I read them like they were novels. It calms me down and makes me happy and inspires me. There's a real necessity for baking for me. If I don't bake, something's missing.
From a financial perspective, do you need to be doing this? I ask because it sounds as if baking is really a labor of love.
Financially, no. I mean, my kids go to private school, so you could say that. I'm not rolling in the dough here. I never saved my money. I'm paying bills like everybody else. Do I need it? Yeah. I do need to do it. It's more of a mental necessity.
This is the beginning of something very huge. I've been launching my own baked goods. It's been a really slow start for the last 10 years. Right now, we're exclusive with Vitello's. We're called Love Bites by Carnie. It's been this wonderful process of testing these recipes and making them really, really great. I have probably 35 varieties of bread pudding and another 30 varieties of cheesecake. I try to do seasonal things, so right now I'm focusing on pumpkin and pear and apples. I'll do an eggnog pound cake trifle and a berry trifle in the summer. Earlier today, I made an apricot crumbled bar, kind of like a shortbread cookie. We serve it with ice cream. We crumbled it and they sprinkled it on gelato and people just went nuts. Last week, I made a pear-spiced bread pudding with white chocolate with a graham cracker salted caramel crust and it was fucking ridiculous. I've waited a long time to do this, so it's not an impulsive thing. It's a very calculated business I'm launching.
You have two daughters, so they must love having a mom as a professional baker.
Yeah, they do, but they get very small portions. Like, very small.
Are you a better baker or singer?
I think I'm a better baker.
Why do you say that?
I can't be objective about my voice. It's OK. It has some nice tones, but I'm so insecure about my singing voice. I can't go there. I don't even think I've recorded the record I really want to record, especially as a solo artist, yet. I love being in a group to sing harmony because I live for harmony. There's so much joy that comes from singing with Wendy and Chynna after all these years. It's like a hip — it's a part of my body. Singing is such a joy. I sing when I bake and with my children. They're wonderful singers already — it's actually flipping me out. So we bake and we sing and it's all wrapped into one. A friend asked, “Would you rather bake or sing?” I said, “That's like someone stabbing me in the eyeball with a fork. That's a horrible question.” Can I be honest? It would be baking. I would cry my eyeballs out every time I baked, but…
Do you say that because it's easier to be objective with your food than your voice? With food, you can taste something and know if it's good or if it sucks.
Right. What's funny is I think some people think their food is good and I don't know…
You mentioned your daughters are good singers. Is that something passed down naturally or is it a learned talent?
I think it's passed down. With Lola, from the time she was not even 3, and I'm not kidding you, she was singing harmony. She could watch a commercial and pick up a harmony. Now Luci is 5; she can play anything by ear. Her ear is so sharp and so good. We played music while I was pregnant — a lot of Frank Sinatra. When the kids were born, we would sing to them every single day at bath time and I would teach them how to sing harmony. Now they know, so if I say, “Lola, sing a high harmony to this,” she will do it. Luci, now, is right behind her and can too. We sing and dance every single day and I record on my iPhone. I have her singing harmony and it's the cutest thing ever. You could die.
Is baking or cooking similar? Have your daughters shown interest?
My grandmother was a great cook. I remember rolling matzo balls with her. It's a big part of my family. I used to hold basil and garlic up to Lola's little nose and say look, “This is garlic. This is basil.” They adore it. I cook six days a week for my family. My daughters cook every day, too. You should see the way they chop and slice. It's beautiful. Amazing. They're into it.
Vitello's has an upstairs lounge. Has there been talk of you participating in that?
Yeah. We've talked about it. But they have so many really great jazz and blues players, and I'm not sure if that's the right venue for us. I'll stick my head in in the evenings and bring out the desserts to people. Angela, one of the piano players there, was going to play a Carole King song, so I said, “I want to sing harmonies with you,” so I stuck my head in there.