Nastassia Johnson, blogger behind Let Me Eat Cake, has picked out several items to try at downtown's Semi Sweet Bakery on a recent afternoon: a croissant flecked with chocolate, an Almond Joy doughnut, and a cookie called "Triple Chip" -- chocolate, butterscotch and potato. She wanted a slice of 7-Up Pound Cake, too, but another customer nabbed the last one. Johnson samples baked sweets all over L.A., and shares discoveries on her blog. (And Instagram, too.) She also posts recipes from her own baking experiments -- buttermilk spiced doughnut-muffins one day; ginger aprium muffins another. Also cheesecake infused with ube (a purple yam used in Filipino cooking) in a nod to her Filipino heritage.
Food truck fans may remember that Johnson teamed with fellow Filipino food blogger Marvin Gapultos to found the Manila Machine. It brought ube cupcakes, lumpia, pan de sal sliders and pork adobo to L.A. streets before closing in 2011. We talked with Johnson about sweets, the food blog scene and Filipino food in L.A. Turn the page.
Squid Ink: Why focus your blog on baked goods and sweets?
Nastassia Johnson: I have a relentless sweet tooth. My first posts were about restaurants and food I like around L.A. I realized my heart really lies with the sweets when I went to Grace [now closed] for dinner just for the doughnuts. I started the blog while I was working at Joan's on Third. It was a creative outlet to talk about my love of sugar.
SI: What did you do at Joan's on Third?
NJ: I managed Joan's on Third for a long time, and I helped them start their social media.
SI: What's your job now?
NJ: I am the manager of Sotto in West L.A.
SI: Had you planned on a food-related career?
NJ: I studied anthropology in college at UCLA. I was in the honors program, wrote a thesis, and planned to go to grad school. When I applied I had second thoughts, because the dropout rate for master's students seemed so high. So I thought I'd take a year or two off to make sure I was doing the right thing. I love food, and I love the restaurant industry, and I haven't gone back.
SI: How did you learn to bake?
NJ: I'm a home cook. I've worked in one kitchen just for fun -- the Market on Holly in Pasadena. Last winter, their pastry chef went out of town for a month, and the owner asked if I wanted to bake for them. It was a wonderful experience -- making croissants from scratch every morning was awesome.
SI: Was it very different from baking at home?
NJ: It's so much more fun because of the space, the equipment and the freedom to do whatever you want. And the ability to do so, because you have table space and everything you need. The only not-fun part was the bruises I would get from rolling out the croissant dough every morning.
SI: It seems like we've experienced a craze for cupcakes lately ... why?
NJ: They're travel-size and cute. It's a small cake, and everyone likes things in smaller versions. Cupcakes will continue to be popular.
SI: What might the next trend be in baked goods?
NJ: It's all about pie right now. Hand pies. A lot of people are selling them, blogging about them. And hand pies are similar to cupcakes -- they're smaller versions of pies. Valerie at the Hollywood Farmers Market makes a really good hand pie with different seasonal flavors -- last one I had was blackberry lemon curd. And Village Bakery has good hand pies.
SI: What have you been baking lately?
NJ: My latest thing is to "muffinize." I try to find ways to make my favorite deserts in muffin form. Sometimes they're failures, sometimes they're successes.
SI: Any recent favorites?
NJ: I just made a plum muffin that I loved. I was skeptical at first; I thought it would be mushy or mealy. I did a cherry muffin too. A couple of months back, I tried a Food and Wine recipe for strawberry almond-meal cake. The ratio of almond to flour was so high that I was curious how it would turn out. The texture was gritty and nutty and mind-blowingly delicious.
SI: Who's the audience for your blog?
NJ: Hopefully it's people who are looking for deserts in L.A., or inspiration to bake at home. I'm not trying to be Momofuku Milk Bar. It's something simple. No one has time. When I bake, I want it to be something delicious but also not take the entire day. Although clean-up always takes the entire day!
SI: What are some of your favorite bakeries in L.A. right now?
SI: Anyone can be a food blogger these days. Does that enrich the food discussion or detract from it? How much expertise or experience does one need to write authoritatively?
NJ: That's kind of tough. It's nice that people will openly share their opinions of food, or find things that you would never otherwise have found. But then, it's like Yelp. I'm coming from the restaurant perspective. Different factors play into the everyday life of a restaurant that people don't always consider. Then they can bash you for simple things after one visit, and not give you a second try, and that can be really disruptive to the reputation of a restaurant. Yelp is an easy tool for people to say mean things. But food blogs generally are not like that, which is good. They just present an opinion of the restaurant. Hopefully it's a valid opinion, and then the next person that tries it feels the same way, and they're not disappointed.
SI: Are you seeing food bloggers becoming more influential in terms of where diners choose to eat?
NJ: It's the same for food blogs, or Twitter, or Instagram. If you see more people going to one place, it makes you want to go there. Or if a group of food bloggers goes to a media dinner and all of them write about that place, and you do a Google search and see 10 rave reviews, that's really influential. You think, "Oh, I have to try the place, these 10 people just wrote about it and loved it."
SI: Any comments on the Manila Machine, the Filipino food truck you ran with fellow blogger Marvin Galuptos from summer 2010 until spring 2011?
NJ: It was a scary risk to leave a great job at Joan's on Third and start it. But I learned a lot and loved sharing Filipino food. I still get requests for ube cupcakes all the time, though I don't want to roll lumpia again for the rest of my life. Hopefully it brought more awareness of Filipino cuisine to people. It's not something that's caught on in the mainstream, even though the Filipino population in L.A. is massive.
SI: Do you think that Filipino food has the potential to go mainstream?
NJ: I feel like its time will come. We hoped to ignite that. The flavors are really approachable. And everybody knows a Filipino, or has tried lumpia before.
SI: Any favorite Filipino restaurants in L.A.?
NJ: I don't love Filipino restaurants; I love Filipino home cooking. A lot of Filipino restaurants in L.A., say along Vermont Boulevard, are "point-point joints." You point at your dish, and they serve it. So it sits there under a heat lamp for a long time, it gets a little gelatinous. It just doesn't do the cuisine justice the way eating at a home would.
My childhood favorite is Bernie's. Same prices since the '80s. It's not necessarily traditionally Filipino, but it's run by Filipinos. They do Filipino barbecue, fried rice and teriyaki sauce. It's really cheap -- a plate of different barbecued meats for $5. It's on Glendale Boulevard past the Echo Park lake across from TiGeorges. That little shack's been there my whole life.
SI: Are there Filipino food trucks now? The Manila Machine was credited as the first in L.A.
NJ: Right after we opened there were a lot, and since we closed there's been new ones.
SI: There's a food truck for everything these days, right? Even baked goods.
NJ: That's always surprising to me, when I see the cupcake trucks. Like, where are they making these cupcakes? How are they storing these cupcakes? How are they selling them? Selling sweets is hard enough for a storefront. Everybody has to eat lunch, but not everyone has to have a cupcake. Except me.
SI: Do you see any dining trends in L.A. now that you specially enjoy?
NJ: I'm interested by restaurants that stick to something traditional or authentic, or regionally specific. Paying true homage to a place or region. Not trying to change it but show it in its true beauty. That's why I love working at Sotto, I love the traditional Southern Italian. I love the Neapolitan pizza I eat practically every night, from the oven built by third-generation oven builders that's 15 thousand tons shipped from Italy. It shows a real love for the craft.
Past "Meet Your Food Blogger" interviews:
Drew Hubbard and Ben Waters of L.A. Foodie (June 19, 2012)
Valentino Herrera of Trippy Food (March 19, 2012)
Valentina Silva of Eastside Food Bites (Feb. 20, 2012)
Amy T. Shuster of Backyard Bite (Jan. 18, 2012)
Adam Roberts of The Amateur Gourmet (Jan. 9, 2012)
Billy Vasquez of The 99 Cent Chef (Dec. 30, 2011)
Javier Cabral of Teenage Glutster (Feb. 1, 2010)
Pat Saperstein of EatingLA (Dec.10, 2009)
Matt Armendariz of Matt Bites (Nov. 16, 2009)
Tony Chen of Sinosoul (Oct. 29, 2009)
Chris Bostick of The Varnish (Oct. 16, 2009)
Rickmond Wong of Rameniac (Oct. 8, 2009)
Jeni Afuso of Oishii Eats (Sep. 29, 2009)
Bill Esparza of Street Gourmet LA (Sep. 16, 2009)
Amanda Simpson of FoodPornDaily (Sep. 10, 2009)
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Cathy Dahn of Gastronomy (Sep. 2, 2009)
Eddie Lin of Deep End Dining (Aug. 18, 2009)
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