L.A. native Danielle Keene attended Los Angeles Culinary Institute in Encino and worked at The Little Door, Blair’s and BLT Steak before racking up accolades at Wilshire Restaurant for introducing concepts like “Ice Cream Shoppe Night.” She left to start Bittersweet Treats, an online bakery that specializes in “a modern take on old-fashioned favorites.” Last year, Keene was a finalist on Top Chef Just Desserts, and earlier this year, L.A. Creamery hired her to consult on their ice cream concept. We recently met at Cafecito Organico on Heliotrope, where Keene better explained her background and approach.
What are some desserts or pastries that you remember really loving as a kid?
My mom always cooked and baked. A lot of times, she made a lot of oatmeal cookies. I don’t even think you can find them now – but the whole walnuts – she’d have a little hammer and be cracking them. So a lot of that stuff. She always made a lot of cookies, she made apple crisps, we always had ice cream and floats. It’s funny, a lot of people are always like, ooh, pie. My mom never made pie. It was always cookies and that kind of stuff, but she always baked, so did both my grandmas.
You grew up in Los Angeles?
Yeah, I was born in Culver City and grew up in Sherman Oaks. And then I grew up in Valencia. I can’t ever say Valencia without rolling my eyes. That’s where I went to high school and my parents still live there. It’s very suburban.
You didn’t enjoy it?
As soon as I graduated high school, I was like, good bye! Because I knew I couldn’t work there. There are no restaurants, but BJ’s and TGI Friday’s.
What’s the first pastry that you ever made, and how do you remember it turning out?
I baked a lot, but the one that sticks out in my head, because I took a picture of it, I had kid’s cookbooks, so I made this bread that was in the shape of a turtle. I remember that because it was a picture that I took. I made a lot of cookies and did a lot of muffins and quick breads. My grandma baked that a lot. She would always give us some and then give us little recipe cards. Probably fourth or fifth grade, I’d come home. I’d walk home from school and both my parents worked, so I’d just start baking. It was fun to just experiment.
What was your first pastry related job, and how did it come about?
Professionally? Always in high school, I always had food service jobs. My first job was In-N-Out and I worked at Baskin-Robbins. I always wanted to work at the mall, work at Wet Seal or something. I worked at like this little Italian deli, so all through high school, I always had food service jobs. Then I went to culinary school.
Where’d you go to culinary school?
It’s not there anymore. It’s the Los Angeles Culinary Institute. Matt Molina, from Mozza – because I used to work with him at Campanile – he’d gone to that school. I was like, “Oh good, so it is legit.” Because everybody went to the Pasadena one, but at the time, when I went, they didn’t have just a baking and pastry course, so I went to that one.
Where was it?
It was in Encino, on Ventura.
What continues to inspire you about pastry?
When I was a kid, I thought, what do I want to do for the rest of my life, that I won’t get bored, that when I’m 85 years old, I’ll still want to do? I always thought, baking. It’ll be fun. Of course there are times when you’re like, “Ah!” But it really is like always evolving and changing, and there’s always more to learn, especially a lot of decorating things or cake things. I don’t know if I can do that, and then I do it. “Oh cool. I didn’t know that I could do that.” Even things, oh my god, this is my favorite whatever, it’s such a great recipe, but then, I try to tweak it a little bit, and you make it even better. It is really cool. Of course there are always staples, where, “Oh, this is so great.” Or it’s a classic, but you can constantly keep evolving and trying different things. You go out and you think, “Oh, I never would have thought of that combination.” It’s really cool that you can keep progressing and learning, and it kind of goes both ways. Then you get to make stuff for people, and they get excited and that just keeps pushing you to do more stuff.
People must request things that you would have never thought to try before too.
Yeah, yeah. It’s like, oh, that’s a challenge, or there are definitely things that I can’t stand, but maybe I can make a version of it that I won’t hate. So that’s always kind of fun to have a challenge like that.
What’s an example of a technique that was especially challenging to learn?
Probably over the course of me doing Bittersweet, I’ve had to hone in on these things, as a business, that I do, and things that I have to say I don’t do. Because sometimes I feel like, there are definitely companies that make just cake pops, or whatever. Sometimes I’m like, “Do I make too much stuff?” I like to make different stuff and to offer a bunch of stuff, but there has to be that element of, “You know what, I’m not good at that, that’s not one of my strengths.” Some people want me to do vegan. I guess I could, but it wouldn’t be as good as somebody who specializes in that.
Do you tell people that?
Yeah. I think it’s just honest. Because what if I did every single solitary thing you can think of. That would be kind of silly. You wouldn’t go to a vegan bakery and make me the fattiest, greasiest donut ever. Then there are definitely things with cake decorating and stuff, I’m a buttercream person, I don’t really work with fondant. But then certain kind of decorating elements, just cut outs and gum paste and painting and stuff like that, I’m like, those are challenging things I can do that I can add to a cake without covering it in fondant. I like things that look nice but ultimately are half a step above, taste better, because to me, fondant, it looks okay, but when you eat it, it’s just gross. I have to have that balance. What are my strengths? The other things, other people do really well, and I’ll just kind of leave that to them.
What did you learn from your appearance on Top Chef Just Desserts, and what has it allowed you to do career wise that might not have been possible otherwise?
Kind of in the same realm of what I was just saying, to be on the show, I realized there are a lot of things that I don’t do, or products I don’t work with. Sometimes we’d have this half-an-hour discussion of we need this in the pantry, or we need that. I’m like, I’ve never even heard of that, like glazes and stuff. So at first, I was like, there are still definitely things I can learn and that’s what’s exciting and interesting, but at the same time, there are just so many different styles of pastry, it’s okay that I’m simple and there are these different elements of pastry and different styles, and stuff like that, and it’s cool and interesting, and I want to learn more, but still, it’s okay, I can stick to who I am. Not, “Oh, they’re doing molecular gastronomy, so I should do that too.” It’s cool to learn about, but that’s why pastry is so interesting. There are simple, simple things and there are crazy, crazy things. It’s okay to do what you’re doing and not have to – so that was kind of an interesting thing.
Definitely, you work in restaurants, then you’re like, I’m going to start my own thing. You’re just like, “Woo hoo.” Obviously it’s not that easy. I was really hoping it would be a bigger platform to help me to do what I want to do, because it’s not easy, raising capital and all of that stuff. I was hoping that would take me to the next level and be able to open a place, and stuff like that. It’s definitely helped getting a business partner and all that kind of stuff. I started out by myself and there’s only so much you can do by yourself. It’s kind of cool. All of a sudden, people out of state are ordering things, and you’re like, “Oh,” so of course there’s that level how that would help.
How did the L.A. Creamery opportunity come about?
Well you know Brad Metzger?
I’ve know him for a long time. They had a pastry chef, then she left, so I was like, well, I still have my own business, but I can help consult. Once you come up with the flavors and stuff like that, it’s really more of a consulting thing than me needing to be there full-time. I’m still only there once a week and go in and do new flavors, or anything now with fruit. We normally do seasonal flavors. It’s been fun. Ice cream’s always been my favorite thing, but also being able to help them and to be able to not stop what I’m doing because, as much as I like ice cream, there are definitely so many other things I like to do.
What’s the criteria for a Bittersweet Treats dessert?