Alex de Leon first arrived from Tijuana at age 14. A decade later, at the ridiculously young age of 24, he runs the pastry program for a trio of stylish and very successful Eastside spots — L&E Oyster Bar, Bar Covell and the newly opened El Condor. We met in the L&E kitchen on a Thursday — his day off — where de Leon was melting chocolate over a water bath, clad in his blue apron atop the also blue, Dodgers-esque L&E tee sported by the entire staff.
De Leon began working in restaurants at 18, after he finished high school. He landed a job washing dishes at Café Stella in Silver Lake, where his uncle is the pastry chef (and, incidentally, his roommate in Montecito Heights). It wasn’t long before de Leon began moving up: He worked pantry and breakfast, and tried his hand at the grill. One day his uncle taught him how to make the profiteroles baked daily at Stella.
De Leon found that he liked the challenge of the pâte à choux, the delicate nature of the result. “If you don’t work it right, the butter separates or the flour gets all crumbly. You have to practice a lot so you can get the right texture.” He’d always liked working in a kitchen, but in pastry he found his niche.
While most young chefs would be boastful about running three pastry programs at the age of 24 — and rightfully so — De Leon takes barely a teaspoon of credit. He’s shy, humble and self-deprecating about his English, which is much better than he gives himself credit for. He attributes his success to his uncle, whom he unironically calls “kind of my hero,” and the team behind L&E, particularly co-owner Dustin Lancaster and chef Spencer Bezaire, both of whom he met and worked alongside at Stella.
In 2010, Lancaster invited de Leon to come on board as a line cook at Bar Covell; when L&E opened in 2012, de Leon made the move. He began assisting Deborah Gorman, its the original pastry chef, but when she went to New York after a few months to develop a sorbet concept, Lancaster and Bezaire offered her job to de Leon. “They gave me the opportunity to step up and do what I really love.”
His desserts are classic with a twist, each bearing a defined, unique element — a coffee anglaise beneath a soft baked chocolate cake, a delightful tangerine curd that zings up the mixed-berry bread pudding. With El Condor, he’s had the opportunity to play with the sweets he grew up with: Right now there’s a flan with mezcal whipped cream on the menu, and he’s working on an idea for a tres leches parfait.
De Leon attributes his love of food to his mom, who still lives in Mexico, cooking the pozole he misses daily. But the familial inspiration goes both ways. After completing a recent course in pastry, his mother has taken to baking cakes for the special events of family and friends — a detail he shares with pride.
Like so many other people who populate Los Angeles kitchens, de Leon works a minimum of 60 hours a week, and he does so for his family. In addition to this career, he spends every Sunday with yet another uncle, helping him run a janitorial business that cleans, among other things, kitchens. De Leon sends the majority of his income back to Mexico, where it goes toward his brother's and sister’s college educations.
He toys with the idea of returning to school himself; he took one cooking course at L.A. Trade Tech a few years back and still dreams of a culinary degree. The guys at L&E rib him about it, tell him that it would be a waste of money, that he already knows everything a school could teach him. He says he just wants to be sure that he’s doing everything the right way. But as anyone who’s eaten one of his desserts already knows, he is.
Jennifer Cacicio is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles. Read more of her work at www.jennifercacicio.com and follow her on Twitter @jrosecacicio. Want more Squid Ink? Follow us on Twitter or like us on Facebook.