Margarita Manzke grew up in Manila and first stepped behind a stove at age 7. Despite an early baking experiment that earned jeers from her brothers, she persisted and attended the revered Culinary Institute of America. Manzke met husband Walter while they were both working for Patina in L.A. The couple opened three restaurants at L’Auberge Carmel before they moved back to L.A. and worked at Church & State. They now run République and Petty Cash Taqueria in Mid-City and Sari Sari Store in DTLA’s Grand Central Market. The couple also teamed with Margarita’s sister Ana on the growing Wildflour Café + Bakery chain in Manila. Manzke recently become a finalist for the 2019 James Beard Awards, with a chance to be named the most “Outstanding Baker” in the U.S. She also wrote the “Baking at République” cookbook with Betty Hallock. I recently met Manzke at République to glean more insights into her approach.
Joshua Lurie: You started cooking at age seven. What was the very first dessert you ever made, and how did that turn out?
Margarita Manzke: I remember making muffins for my brothers and I didn’t have any recipe to follow. I just put stuff together in a bowl and baked it. I remember my brothers making fun of it, because the muffins were just like rubber. They were bouncing it off the walls.
JL: You have a lot of different concepts at this point between Manila and L.A. What are the elements of a République dessert or République pastry, and how would that compare to what you’re doing in other locations?
MM: What all of them share in common, it doesn’t have too many components and it’s more focused on one thing. Let’s say it’s mangoes. I don’t do too much to cover the mango up. Instead, I pretty much do simple garnishes here or there. The mango really shines, or is the star of the dessert. For me, less is more. I love the classics, so I think one thing in common, it comes from an inspiration in the classics. Then I just put a little spin on it, or my little touch on it.
JL: Tell the story about your most recent dessert or pastry you created. What was your inspiration or approach?
MM: We just made one here [at République]. I put it on the menu a few days ago. Like I said, referring to the classics, I made strawberry tiramisu. I put it in a small glass, put strawberries so you can see it around the glass, vanilla cream, and strawberry sorbet. I flushed the top with more cream, and instead of cocoa powder, I used dehydrated strawberries that were powdered, and put that all over the top. It’s like a tiramisu, but a strawberry version. It’s a classic tiramisu, but with a twist.
JL: What was your reaction to being named a James Beard Awards finalist? What would the award mean to you?
MM: It’s a really great honor to be recognized. I always feel like there are so many other people more deserving than me for this, but I’m honored and glad. I always think République should be recognized, that the whole restaurant is recognized, and not just me, because we’re all doing a great job and that deserves recognition.
JL: What were the biggest challenges in creating the cookbook?
MM: Time. Actually, it was a really fun process. I was hesitant to say yes in the beginning because I was worried that I wouldn’t have time. I just didn’t know where I could fit making a cookbook in my world right now because I have two kids. That alone really limits my time at work. I also have this and Sari Sari, so I was super hesitant in the beginning. Then I said yes because when else are you ever going to make a cookbook? It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity. Doing it with Betty [Hallock] was a real joy. It gave me pleasure making it instead of stress. It was easy. We met every week, sat down, and talked for an hour-and-a-half, two hours, about a couple of recipes a week. Talking about the recipes, talking about how it came about, talking about how this was made, brought back a lot of memories. “Oh, yeah, that’s how it happened.” It made it a really pleasant experience. Time was definitely a big challenge, and typing down all of the recipes was also a challenge, but I had help with it.
JL: How would you describe the collaborative process with Walter? Why do the two of you work so well together?
MM: He’s on one end and I’m on the other end. We kind of meet in the middle and come up with something that’s a little bit of his and a little bit of mine. We challenge each other. He challenges me a lot. Sometimes when I’m happy with one thing, he kind of says, “Why can’t you do it this way?” At first I’m always hesitant and mad at him. “What do you mean? This is good. It’s perfect.” But then it turns out he’s right. Doing it this way is better. It’s really his way of looking at things and my way. Different perspectives. We compromise. The best of his ideas and the best of my ideas come together.
JL: What’s an example of a recent dish that you collaborated on?
MM: We have a dessert on the menu. Strawberries and rhubarb are in season, so we made a strawberry and rhubarb en croûte. It’s in the book, but it’s peaches. That was him giving me an idea and me executing it. Then he still has criticisms about it, but it works.
JL: And you’re happy with the results?
MM: Most of the time.