We recently visited Julia Baker at her headquarters in the Scottsdale Airpark. The "no talking" kitchen was in full swing preparing holiday confections for corporate customers and Julia Baker's Chocolate Boutique at The Montelucia. Julia graciuosly gave us a tour, and of coarse a tasting of her signature chocolate including her new line of chocolate bars. Sweet Talk indeed!
What influences lead to a career in confections?
My Mom was a great cook. We had a large garden, and her cooking always included fresh foods. She had a subscription to Bon Appetit and would choose recipes to cook from the magazine.
My goal, starting in high school was to achieve financial independence and support myself. I excelled in math, but didn't want to teach, an advisor guided me to the field of actuarial science. I did my undergraduate work at NC State and graduate work at UNC, Chapel Hill. By the time I was twenty-two, I was living the dream working as a statistician in Chicago. For the next eight years I traveled the world and had a large corporate expense account.
follow the jump for Julia's transition from corporate actuarial to confection queen, externships in French restaurants, and Paris to Phoenix, plus tips for storing chocolate confections
I dined at some of the world's best restaurants. Charlie Trotter's in Chicago and Wolfgang Puck's Spago in LA were memorable. I wanted to learn to cook like these chefs so I could eat like this on my own.
I was living in London working for a company that was bought out. I had money to live on, no ties to a permanent home, and made the decision to attend Le Cordon Bleu in Paris.
Did you speak French before you went to Paris?
No, not before I was there. I had classmates who helped me with the language in the beginning; in the professional program the classes are all in French. Living in Paris and attending classes taught in French, I picked up the language out of necessity.
Did you extern at a restaurant in France?
I graduated 1st in my class and went to Lasserre Restaurant for my externship under Chef Jean-Louis Nomicus. I started in the amuse bouche station, and worked my way through all the stations: fish, beef, sauces, and pastry. I loved pastry, especially chocolate making. I also worked at Le Grand Vefour, a historic restaurant with Chef Guy Martin at the helm.
What was the next gig?
Phoenix! I followed a man here (laughter). I didn't pursue a restaurant position. Frustrated making other people's recipes, I wanted to create my own flavors, better, more mature flavors in dessert. It took a year to develop my first signature recipes, chocolate cake, chocolates and caramel. I got a catering license, met a few local chefs (Beau Macmillan and Chuck Wiley), and through word of mouth and my own marketing began to get orders for some VIP events doing chocolate work and confections.
Was it a natural progression to your own line of specialty chocolates?
In February of 2007 I was in a body cast for three months. I had a lot of time to think, and decided to take a leap, take the risk for a signature line. I designed the packaging, and began to deliver my chocolates to banks and businesses. Eventually, I found an investor and opened my business.
What makes your chocolates and confections stand out?
I follow my taste buds where they lead me. I love the combination of caramel and chocolate, and gooey chocolate bars.
I like textures, creamy, crunchy and chewy. I don't use many fruit flavors.
I want to balance flavors and have beauty in my work.
My wedding cakes are massive. They are show- pieces rather than kitchen cakes.
Do you have your personal food preferences?
Healthy, fresh and local when possible. I taste chocolate and sugar all day long, so I try and stay away from carbs. I eat as much protein as possible, fresh vegetables and fruits. To keep it fresh, I shop every other day, cook at night, and eat lunch and dinner at home.
What's for dinner at your house?
Whole fish and fresh veggies sautéed in olive oil and butter. Seafood-love mussels, clams and crabs. Also, home made pasta, duck or butternut squash ravioli.
Where do hang out when you aren't working?
You'll see me at Whole Foods and the health club. I work out (bike, swim, or run) every morning before work. My ideal vacation would be at Canyon Ranch hiking. In June, July and August, I'm attending trade shows, and try and work in the fun when I travel.
Tips for aspiring pastry chefs and chocolatiers?
Have a thick skin and persevere. Know going in that 12-14 hour days are the norm in professional kitchens. Your body is going to hurt no matter your age! Be willing to put in your time, pay your dues. Show your boss you are willing to do what it takes to produce quality work. Don't be afraid to be strong and take a leadership role. The profession is too glamorized right now, be realistic going in.
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What's the best way to store chocolates?
In Arizona you have to refrigerate chocolates in the summer. For cold storing, use a corrugated box and wrap the box in plastic wrap to seal. The box absorbs the "sweat". Long term, use the same method and freeze the chocolate. To bring to serving temperature, take from freezer and let it sit in refrigerator one day. From the refrigerator let it sit four to five hours on a counter at room temperature. Unwrap, the box and plastic wrapping should hold (absorb) the condensation away from the chocolate.
Tomorrow's recipe in Sweet Talk from Julia Baker for "drinking chocolate"