Four years ago, our Executive Pastry Chef, Lisa Vega, joined Dandelion. She’s pretty much the best, and here’s what she has to say about the past four years working here. (We love you Lisa! Happy Anniversary, and thanks for all the treats.)
As I celebrate my four year anniversary (with a giant oatmeal cookie next to me) I wanted to share some of my favorite memories, and what I am excited about for the future! It really does seem like yesterday when I walked into the factory here at 740 Valencia and met the whole team, including Todd, Greg, Cam, Caitlin, Norah, Jennifer and of course Meredyth, my first pastry assistant. At that point in my career, after 12 years working in fine dining kitchens I was looking for something different, even if I didn’t know what that might be. Luckily, Dandelion was looking for something different too.
Back then, the factory had just come off a summer of pop-ups; each week, a different chef took over the pastry kitchen. It was exciting and delicious, but hectic. In those days, Dandelion Chocolate was a small, 20-person company (compared to the team of 80+ that we’ve grown into now).The cafe was open five days a week, not seven, and the hours were shorter too. When I got the job, I rolled up my sleeves, and put refrigerators anywhere that had a plug, even a hall closet. I began to learn the challenges and thrills of working with single origin chocolate, having no cocoa powder in my kitchen (which was unlike any other pastry kitchen I’d worked in, ever), and learning the ins and outs of some tech language (for the first few months, I called our company-wide “all hands” meeting a “hands-on” meeting).
These were challenges I had never thought I’d have. I really never imagined four years later I would be a co-author of our book, Making Chocolate (which launches November 14th!), see Dandelion expand to locations in Japan where they make the same original pastries and drinks we worked on very early on, and a kiosk at the Ferry Building. I never thought I’d have traveled to origin in Belize (with a hair dryer and no hiking boots), help organize our annual 12 Nights of Chocolate where we’ve hosted some of the chefs I admire most, (Emily Luchetti, Dominique Crenn, Matt Siciliano and Ramon Perez, just to name a few). And I never imagined I’d have managed the cafe for nine months while still keeping the kitchen running, and last but not least, have a kitchen team of five pastry assistants whom I admire and adore.
Working on a book was fun and challenging, and lasted two whole years! Just when I would start to lose momentum during an eight-hour photo shoot with our photographer Eric, somehow working with him was still, always, more than inspiring. His photos gave new life and energy to our hot chocolates and pastries. I never imagined a pile of marshmallows could look so stunning and mesmerizing! Towards project completion, the pressure intensified. Many tears were shed in the bathroom at Souvla next door and the factory became a dark scary blur when a measurement came back to edit or the wrong photo had been inserted. But come November 14th, I am humbled and excited to share what I love doing most. In the book, you’ll learn how to make all of our favorite pastries and drinks, as well as how to make chocolate from scratch, source beans, and basically get a full look at everything we’ve learned about making chocolate and working with cocoa producers.
I have traveled to Japan to work with their dedicated and awesome kitchen team and have fallen in love with Japanese culture. The work ethic, the food, the hospitality, everything spoke to me. This past May, I was able to bring Meredyth, who manages our kitchen R&D and it was so special to see the s’more and nibby horchata on the menu in the tiny coastal town of Ise. Ise is about an hour train ride from Kyoto and one of the most famous and sacred places in Japan, it is home to the Ise-jingu shrine which, now, is just a few steps away from the most charming hot chocolate stand.
My day always starts checking in with Mary or Roman, who do the weekly 6am bake. I can always tell within seconds how things are flowing. The telltale signs that things are going smoothly or not: If they don’t look up (super focused, good), if Mariah Carey is blasting (then it’s a great morning), if there are no visible coffee cups (everything is good), if they’re talking in accents (always an excellent sign, especially before 8am). Regardless of the early morning vibes, their passion and energy are never wavering. Around 8am, Meredyth comes in to chip away at our long list of R&D ideas, but first usually bakes off biscuits from her stash in the freezer and scopes out the morning bake 2nds that didn’t pass our quality inspection. She researches and tests recipes over and over and then over again until they are perfect, and we as a team, along with Todd, taste her week’s research every Friday. And every Friday Todd admits it’s his favorite meeting of the week. Just last week we tasted eight different varieties of bostock (coming to the cafe soon) with almond or pistachio frangipane with chocolate-soaked brioche, or just chocolate chips baked on top, square sliced and round. Meredyth doesn’t stop testing and tasting until we all decide on the perfect pastry. We have worked side by side for the last four years and her love and dedication to our kitchen has contributed to its success and growth.
On Saturdays and Sundays, Ellie and Zach—who spend the week prepping drinks, doughs, and endless amounts of marshmallows—work in the kitchen in our Valencia Street factory. If you have ever been in the Valencia cafe on the weekend around 1pm when the line is out the door, the marshmallow bowl is never empty, and you can’t walk a tray of cookies through the crowd, these two are in the back hustling a busy service with precision and stamina. I am so fortunate to work with Meredyth, Mary, Ellie, Roman and Zach; they are five very different individuals with different skills, past experiences and palettes who work thoughtfully and with a sense of humor.
Since the day I walked through the door, it has been an adventure and every day gets more exciting. There are new projects, new locations and of course new pastries. I feel like a kid on Christmas Eve waiting for the book to come out (so soon)! We are starting to work on ideas for our upcoming chocolate salon in our upcoming factory on Alabama Street (a pastry dream come true!), an elevated experience from what our current locations offer. And hopefully, fingers crossed, we will be moved into our beautiful brand new kitchen there soon. Working here has pushed my creativity, opened my eyes to different parts of the world and has allowed me to be a part of a team that is dedicated to creating the very best chocolate experience. We brainstorm, we taste a lot of pastries, we eat a lot of Tartine bread and butter, we push each other and we genuinely love our work and I love being a part of this team.
Nibs and hugs,