Instagram pop-up bakeries are a surprisingly exciting product of the pandemic. Nowhere are they more thrilling than in Los Angeles.
“I used to say I hate making cakes,” Hannah Ziskin says. Now, slices of her slab cakes sell out in minutes, and people drive across Los Angeles for whole cakes in blood orange and carrot, crowned with minimalist flourishes of buttercream and delicate edible flower petals. She wasn’t supposed to be baking for a living anymore. But, as with so much, the pandemic upended everything.
When Ziskin, a pastry chef with a long resume in San Francisco, moved to Los Angeles in the fall of 2018, she thought she was done with the restaurant industry and its long hours, low pay, and casual harassment. She even learned to code. But when a chef she admired, Melissa Perello, called to talk about a gig at her new Los Angeles restaurant — the Michelin-starred chef’s first in the city — Ziskin decided to take on one last pastry chef job. Several months later, COVID hit, and M.Georgina shut down.
Stuck at home with lots of leftover flour and nothing to do, Ziskin started making sourdough and delivering it all over the city, flying down the eerily empty freeways, for a business she dubbed House of Gluten. She made one cake, just for a friend. And then another, and another. Ziskin grew smitten with making cakes the way she liked them: fluffy, with thin layers and rich seams of frosting, creating contrasts of taste and texture. The requests kept coming, and soon, House of Gluten was a cake business. Ziskin says that after years spent in windowless pastry kitchens, for the first time she feels a connection to the people who eat her food, and their willingness to try whatever she makes has transformed her. “I feel really empowered by being able to say no and do what I feel is right, and having people like it and trust me. That has been more freeing than I ever thought.”
There’s nothing new about people selling food out of their homes, especially in Los Angeles, where many of the city’s most innovative food businesses develop out of backyard restaurants, sidewalk pop-ups, and Instagram or Facebook Marketplace. Now people who once held professional restaurant jobs are using these tools as a means of survival: making rent when unemployment runs out, working from home instead of in kitchen jobs that felt unsafe, or supporting their families.
Over the past year of Instagram posts and curbside pickups, the cottage bakery boom has revealed just how much creativity had been exiled to windowless pastry rooms, hoping you still have room for dessert. Los Angeles is studded with doughnut and ice cream shops, panaderias and bakeries, but pastry chefs trained in classic French technique, who usually make their living in high-end kitchens, rarely have the opportunity to own their own shops, or even have much of a profile at the restaurants they work at. They design the dessert menu, often with a great deal of creative freedom, but the restaurant’s chef has the spotlight — and the final say. There are happy exceptions (Atwater Village’s beloved Proof Bakery, Margarita Manzke’s fame at République), but until the pandemic, no one would have imagined that, say, a dozen new bakeries run by pastry chefs could sprout up in the city, more or less overnight, and all sell out every week. And yet, during COVID, that’s exactly what’s happened.
Bake sales with an activist bent have also become major events. A few weeks ago, at a bake sale hosted by the restaurant Woon Kitchen to support the city’s AAPI community in the face of rising hate crimes, lines wrapped around the block and then around another block. Patrons waited almost two and a half hours for pandan canneles, candied kumquat blondies, and slices of matcha-mascarpone cake. Another recent bake sale for the same cause at Steep LA raised over $8000.
It’s even more surprising this is happening at a moment of crisis in the industry, which typically hits the pastry department harder than others. Pastry chef jobs are the first to be cut during economic downturns. They’re also the back-of-house positions most likely to be held by women, whose work is often devalued by male chefs. Over the past year, as restaurants hired back for takeout and outdoor dining, the pastry chef wasn’t necessarily included. (Some high-end Los Angeles restaurants, while serving takeout as well-executed as anything that might be served their dining room, are offering only minimal, simple desserts like a pots de creme or a warm chocolate chip cookie.)
With their old restaurant jobs gone, and the future of them uncertain, chefs who founded cottage bakeries are rethinking everything. Like Ziskin, Laura Hoang found herself at a crossroads with the restaurant industry right before the pandemic started. After years spent in pastry kitchens, she began cooking from her home in May to raise money for PPE and other supplies her friends needed to protest safely, and later transitioned to baking to support herself. Hoang sees this moment of independence and community-building among pastry chefs as a means of upending their secondhand status in the industry. “A lot of pastries get watered down because it’s finalized by a chef, not a pastry chef,” she says. “There’s this crazy stigma that pastry chefs don’t have knife skills or savory experience, [but] how interesting is it that a savory chef can’t make a cake but a pastry chef can make a steak? Pastry chefs have taken a lot of shit for a long time, and most of them are women. I’ve accepted a $48,000 a year job for 80 hours a week just to be told by a man this wasn’t what he wanted.”
Moving forward, Hoang says that she only wants to cook on her own terms, and to do community work in addition to supporting herself. “Bake sales are protests inherently, they’re punk rock,” she says. “I’ve been punk since middle school. People focus on the cute cakes and cupcakes, but they don’t think about the crazy person behind every single detail.”
The pandemic has also inadvertently pushed pastry cooks, who normally execute the pastry chef’s menu, into more creative roles. Cathy Asapahu is a pastry cook at Providence, one of the city’s most renowned fine dining restaurants, and had planned to spend 2020 in France studying pastry. Instead, when Providence closed down except for holidays, she returned to the restaurant founded by her parents, Ayara Thai. To help Ayara — which her family has poured their lives into — survive, Asapahu used the high-end pastry techniques she learned in fine dining to create desserts that will appeal to both new customers and longtime regulars of a mom-and-pop, whether that’s pandan Twinkies or a tart with coconut milk-based pastry cream or a box of Valentine’s chocolates with fillings like Thai tea and makrut lime. While she mourns that lost possibility of studying abroad and worries for the restaurant community here, she says, “I found a way back into my parents’ restaurant, and it’s given me a better sense of myself and what I’m capable of doing.”
The shattering of the traditional pastry chef role has created surprising new connections, too. During normal times, most chefs and cooks rarely connect with people outside of the kitchens they work in; this is true even of chefs at the head of restaurants, who often meet each other for the first time at food festivals. But because they are posting so much of their own work on Instagram, all of these bakers have come to know and admire each other. Asapahu told me I had to speak to Hoang; Hoang praised Ziskin’s cakes; Ziskin praised the work of former Sqirl pastry chef Sasha Piligian, who, coincidentally, was her Glendale neighbor and had recently come by to borrow a blowtorch.
Even newcomers to the Los Angeles pastry scene have been folded into this network. This fall, Jacob Fraijo and Christina Hanks moved back to Los Angeles after years in San Francisco, including two years with Dominique Crenn’s group, where they were slated to open her new bakery, Boutique Crenn. When the pandemic hit, they were laid off, and decided to move back to their shared hometown. Just before Thanksgiving, they launched Pavé Bakery, which featured Fraijo’s breads and Hanks’s pastries, both heavily influenced by French techniques and California tastes. Their apple kouign amann and sesame country bread caught the eyes of pastry chefs they’d never met before, and they started trading Instagram messages and baked goods. “This whole thing is mind-blowing, and it’s also hilarious,” Fraijo says. “I don’t think any of us who are doing this thought that this is the way we would start our businesses or meet other professionals.”
But working at the absolute capacity of their home kitchens, for a year straight, means burnout is very real. Multiple chefs I spoke to said their houses were full of pastry boxes and their fridges full of butter and freezers full of ice cream; they cooled cakes in stages on tiny counters and used stimulus money to buy equipment; their plants are long dead and their kitchens reek of fryer oil; their phone won’t stop binging, and when their oven died, they switched to steamed and boiled desserts. For all of them, home is no longer merely home: It’s the world’s worst commercial kitchen, with a bedroom attached. They welcome press, but they hope their landlord doesn’t see the photos.
Burnout has been especially challenging for chefs who were in the pop-up game before the pandemic even started. Karla Subero Pittol founded Chainsaw with a business partner in 2019; they hosted dinners in her garage, where Subero Pittol was a warm and charismatic presence, doling out hugs. In March 2020, they were looking for restaurant space. Since then, the partnership has ended, and Subero Pittol reimagined Chainsaw as a pastry project, lowering down icebox cakes, pies, and ice cream in a whimsical reed basket from the second floor of her house. She makes a tight menu because it’s all her home can accommodate, and she longs to be back in a commercial space. “I need to move this operation out of this house, but right now my stress is just making enough money to make ends meet,” she says. “It’s taking away from the bigger picture and the time I need to grow and scale business. The pressure is really daunting and puts a black cloud over my head every single day.” Subero Pittol has seen no drop-off in her business since restaurants began reopening in Los Angeles, making the difficulty in securing capital to pause production and find a space even more frustrating. “The silver lining is we are busy, and it’s incredible people are still supporting me, but I would love to be able to support them more by being able to produce enough to meet the demand.”
As the vaccine rollout begins to allow the restaurant industry in Los Angeles to open back up again, many of these chefs are thinking about the next phase of their business. “I wonder if anyone else expressed this concern that pandemic businesses are just that and folks will forget us when they can go to, like, Bestia again,” Ziskin says. But even with those worries, she’s determined to open a restaurant with her partner, who runs a successful pizza pop-up, where her cakes will be as much a draw as the savory side of the menu, and where she will have the ability to provide security in terms of wages and health care to her employees that she was not always able to find during her time working up the ranks. “Literally everyone we talk to, they say, don’t open a restaurant, but we’re still going to try. This has reinvigorated my relationship with cooking.”
Most of the chefs behind cottage bakeries don’t see returning to restaurants. They envision running their own bakeries out of commercial kitchens, storefronts selling viennoiserie and bread, a teaching space that also sells pickles, or, if it were possible, hosting customers in their homes like the system recently legalized in Riverside County. All they need is support from the city, and money. One of the few silver linings of this brutal pandemic in Los Angeles is the launch of a new baking revolution. Now, we’ll see if we can keep it.