A Taste of Time
by Alison Clare Steingold
One chef's line of exquisite edibles brings a little decadence back to L.A. life.
Some people have the uncanny ability to hit that California sweet spot. Call Valerie Gordon one of them. When she tempered her first batch of handdipped chocolate toffee in 2004, “artisanal” wasn’t yet a household phrase, Foodzie.com didn’t exist, and operations for Valerie Confections hinged on phone-order and fax. Even so, the luxury lagniappes quietly became an indulgence of choice at the right dinner parties and wedding celebrations across the Golden State. In the seven years since that debut, the business has expanded in a gourmet swirl of high-design truffles and elegant compotes, tea scones and petits fours. There have been a few surprises along the way, too. In 2009, for a “dream weddings” story for Los Angeles Times Magazine, food editor Lora Zarubin included Gordon’s rendition of a Blum’s Coffee Crunch Cake bestrewn with flavored honeycomb. “I grew up with this cake in San Francisco, and I couldn’t find it,” explains the South Carthay resident, who launched her company with partner Stan Weightman Jr. “Blum’s and Fantasia Bakery were these fantastical dessert houses—my Disneyland.” (The pastry shops serving the now-vanished treat had closed in the 1970s or been sold.) Ever the researcher, Gordon pored over the menu collection in Central Library’s Rare Book Room downtown. She tested versions of the coffee cake. She wanted to discover the taste of nostalgia. Immediately after the Times story ran, Gordon received a clamor of 150 calls and orders for this edible memoir of lost San Francisco. A logical next step? The Classic Cakes line—think Chasen’s, Brown Derby, Bullock’s Wilshire Tea Room—“to preserve,” she says, “quality items of our golden era that are iconic and timeless.” While Gordon puts finishing touches on Scandia’s legendary apple cake for a fall release, she’s also cultivating Valerie at the Market, another unexpected sensation that launched at the Hollywood and Santa Monica Farmers’ Markets in 2010—an unlikely time to expand amid a soured economy. From a Silverlake boutique and kitchen not much larger than her signature ribbon-tied boxes, Gordon and crew work in choreographed production, generally devoting cool mornings to chocolate-making and afternoons to continuous prep and fillings and doughs (plus white-glove tea catering and select wholesale accounts). They source thrice weekly and bake six days a week to accommodate the lengthy menu emailed on Thursdays. On weekends, Weightman and staff attend to a charming market pavilion constantly restocked with all manner of pies, galettes, savory hand tarts, larder preserves, cookies and Viennoiserie in illustration of famed aesthete Baron de Rede’s protocol that a tray never goes empty. “We’d always planned to integrate baked goods,” she explains, “but we literally sell hundreds of pastries each time.” Part of the excitement she attributes to a shift in the perception of fine dining: “Restaurants are all using market stuff. No one wants to eat Smuckers anymore.” (And who would want to with 40 grown-up alternatives like White Fig-Pear-Vanilla Bean or Finger Lime?) Much of Gordon’s talent lies in her ability to stay on-point, so outside collaborations have allowed her freedom “to work with aesthetics that don’t specifically fit our banner.” Take Halloween, 2007, when she teamed up with N.Y.-based trailblazer Douglas Little (then of D.L.&Co.) for the Mori Ex Cacao—“death by chocolate”— line of miniature skulls in exotic scorched caramel and chili, $40 apiece, set in gorgeous black-satin-lined boxes. (As Little unveils a new eponymous brand later this year, keep an eye out for more cacao curiosities.) There was also her holiday, 2010 collaboration with Roman Alonso of Commune Design: a limited run of 72% bittersweet squares in a Byzantine pattern with a coordinating cardboard box. The autumn, 2011 encore promises a Super-Choco-Food bar stuffed with enticing ingredients, “slightly renegade packaging” and a multi-media component. She’ll continue on with the new American Tea Room in Beverly Hills, where gold tins filled with blends matching her signature flavors rest on wellmerchandized shelves. And if expecting her second child weren’t enough, she’s adopted a peach tree from Masumoto Family Farm alongside former W editorturned- canning expert Kevin West. And then, the side projects: writing her definitive dessert recipe and entertaining tome for Artisan Books; readying a hard goods line of desserts stands and tea/ coffee service, and stretching her creative muscle with more bespoke catering. While curating this broad collection, she never forgets her California muse: “We’re a company you might have seen 40 years ago, and hopefully you’ll see 40 years from now. I’ve tried to stay away from things completely of the moment and be stylistically true to the golden era, to Hollywood—a place I’ve always looked to for classic, simple, beautiful design.” valerieconfections.com.