The Skinny on L.A. Pastry

by Rebecca Cohen
Antoinette Bruno

There’s no wheat in “gluten free,” but there is money. The health-conscious consumer market has grown exponentially over the last decade. A niche morphed into a fad that snowballed into the mainstream. And now, ambitious, on-trend, and up to the most seemingly insurmountable challenges, Pastry Chef Carlos Enriquez of Patina Restaurant Group is creating dessert menus based on the triumvirate of dietary restrictions: no gluten, no added sugar, and vegan. “You always hear the phrase ‘it’s not bad—for vegan,’” says Enriquez. “I want to change that.” By revamping the menus at his 30 West Coast outlets to feature no-sugar-added, gluten free, and vegan pastry items, Enriquez is giving even the most health-obsessed a free pass to have their cake and eat it too—spending money they ordinarily wouldn’t.

Coconut Tapioca, Mango-Pineapple Relish, Passion Fruit Gel, Sesame Brittle, and Carbonated Spicy Mango

Coconut Tapioca, Mango-Pineapple Relish, Passion Fruit Gel, Sesame Brittle, and Carbonated Spicy Mango

Pastry Chef Carlos Enriquez of the Patina Group – Los Angeles, CA

Pastry Chef Carlos Enriquez of the Patina Group – Los Angeles, CA

Enriquez’s customers, from A-list celebrities at the Emmy’s to sustainably minded hipsters at the Coffee & Milk Cafés, have been requesting these kinds of specialized sweets more and more. “L.A. is the capital for gluten-free eating in the United States,” he says (even if Angelinos don’t know what gluten is). “Because of the high number of requests, I started looking into it. How can desserts be transformed into gluten free and vegan items without sacrificing the beauty and the quality of the product?” He also noted waning dessert consumption at many galas and dinners catered by the Patina Group, where bottomless Champagne glasses and five-course meals often end in half-consumed desserts. “We’re trying to make desserts smaller, lighter, seasonal and market-driven … so that people can enjoy six or seven bites without feeling overstuffed or thinking they’ve ruined their diet for the whole week.”

Enriquez relies on seasonal fruits at peak of ripeness to sweeten and brighten desserts, satisfying the palate without the addition of fats or refined sugars. This requires constant vigilance of the product coming in each day, and no leeway for mediocre flavor. “We’re continually changing where we get products … to get fruit at its peak, from wherever it may be.” His coconut tapioca dessert, on the menu at Pinot Café in downtown L.A., illustrates this principle, featuring mango-pineapple relish, papaya, kiwi, rice vinegar, and lime juice and zest. The tapioca is topped with exotic fruit coulis and carbonated spicy mango sorbet, bringing sweetness, acid, and zingy, saturated flavor. The dish is tied together with something called Super Seed Brittle: sesame seeds, chia seeds, flax seeds, and ground dehydrated golden berries.

A strawberry-rhubarb crumble will feature rhubarb poached in strawberry consommé, using the berries’ natural sweetness to balance the stalk’s acidity. A quinoa-oat streusel made with vegan butter attests to Enriquez’s love of alternative grains and seeds (“Why not increase or enhance the flavor by using different grains?”), and lemon verbena sorbet, a rhubarb chip, and tarragon froth tie it all together.

The true challenge in this kind of cooking lays not so much in plated desserts as in baked goods and packaged retail items, such as those Enriquez sells at the Market Cafes and Coffee & Milk. “We’re launching a new breakfast pastry line of five items. Right now I make a bran muffin with a lot of bananas and dates so there’s no oil. The only non-vegan item was eggs, so we brought in an egg replacer.” But these kinds of substitutions aren’t as straightforward as the health zealots may paint them, and require methodical testing to get a product just right. One major hurdle to overcome in gluten-free baking is unappetizing textures. “How can I make it moister without any butter, eggs, or oil?” Enriquez’s solution: a quick soak in a flavorful syrup, such as the honey-lemon-ginger syrup his bran muffins bathe in. But he hopes to eventually solve this problem at the root instead of compensating for it at the end. “I’m still in the beginning stages of what we really want to do,” he says. “There’s so much I want to learn.”

The adjustments aren’t just in the kitchen, but in the budget as well. Enriquez acknowledges that certain items are more expensive, but he’s not resigned to the cost just yet. “Vegan butter is $2.65 more per pound than regular butter. But what is the difference between [vegan butter] and Crisco? Crisco is like a quarter of the cost. We’re going to start a testing phase with that in July.” Luckily he’s saving a boatload on milk, cream and eggs, and many nontraditional seeds and grains are comparable in price to rolled oats or wheat flour. And by only using the fruits that are in season, and therefore cheapest and most plentiful, Enriquez is able to balance out the new expenses that go along with this product development. His early efforts have been well received, with increased sales in both fine dining and casual concepts in response to the new vegan and gluten-free offerings.

And in terms of calories, just what kind of difference is Enriquez making with all this effort? The jury is still out, but a calorimeter is on the horizon, and once he’s got the equipment in place he’ll be able to list nutrient content on all packaged items alongside the ingredients. For now, diners can enjoy the added spring in their step from consuming mindful, sustainable, health-conscious, and satisfying pastries.