2016 San Francisco Rising Star Pastry Chef Lisa Vega of Dandelion Chocolate

2016 San Francisco Rising Star Pastry Chef Lisa Vega of Dandelion Chocolate
May 2016

A Los Angeles native who grew up cooking with her grandmothers, Lisa Vega graduated from Loyola Marymount University with a degree in English literature. But Vega was unsure of her next chapter: academia or gastronomy? Having practically grown up in the kitchen, and taken cooking classes during her senior year, she ultimately decided that culinary school and pastry were the right path forward.  

After graduating from the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone in 2004, Vega joined the team at Bouchon Bakery in Yountville. Stacking her résumé and transforming herself into a formidable presence in the pastry kitchen, Vega went on to leave her mark at Craft and Providence in Los Angeles, and at Bourbon Steak and Gary Danko in San Francisco. At Craft, Vega worked with Rising Stars alum Catherine Schimenti, heading up morning production and learning how to execute with fine attention to detail. At Providence, Adrian Vasquez and Michael Cimatusti ingrained in Vega a pride and care for her ingredients, and introduced her to molecular gastronomy. From Lincoln Carson at Bourbon Steak, she took away precision and a flare for flavor combinations.

In 2013, Vega left her post at Gary Danko to become the pastry chef for bean-to-bar pioneer Dandelion Chocolate. A pastry force to be reckoned with on a global scale, Vega oversees all pastry and outlets for Dandelion, including managing a new commissary kitchen, hot chocolate stands, and the company’s recent expansion to Japan. 

Interview with San Francisco Rising Star Lisa Vega of Dandelion Chocolate

Sean Kenniff: How did you get your start? 
Lisa Vega:
My first job was as a bread baker at Bouchon. I applied when they had just opened. I had to get up at 2:30 in the morning. 

SK: Who are your mentors?
Catherine Schimenti, Adrian Vasquez, Michael Cimarusti, and Lincoln Carson. Catherine was the first restaurant chef with whom I worked. From her, I learned the importance of fine dining and how to execute in a way that was fast and detail-oriented. Her desserts were so clean. Adrian and Michael introduced me to the more molecular-science aspects of cooking that I'd never seen before. And I really admired Lincoln's flavor combinations and precision.

SK: How are you involved in the local culinary community?
I've been in San Francisco for five and a half years. It's a very tight community, we all look out for each other. [At Dandelion], we host a charity event for the food bank—we've been doing it for three years now—and we close the cafe for 12 nights. We invite chefs to work with chocolate and create a tasting menu, sweet and savory. Everyone gets so excited! We've had Dominique Crenn, Sean from Quince, Nick from Coi, Thomas McNaughton, Sean from Aster, Bill Corbett, Tracy Des Jardins ... We've raised over 100,000 meals.  

SK: What is the biggest challenge you face? 
We're growing so fast, and keeping focus on production while also looking to the future. I need to remain grounded in making delicious pastries. We have a factory opening down the block and I'll have my own commissary kitchen. I'm out of the kitchen a lot now, but I have a very strong team. Burn out is also a big problem, but having weekends off and doing yoga helps me be a better chef and person. I have to remember why I became a pastry chef in the first place: to provide a great experience to our customers. In the last two weeks I've been in the kitchen working on the canele, the tart, and a new scone—it just felt right being there.  

SK: How is working for Dandelion different from working at a fine dining restaurant?
Employees work here for the long term, but don't work crazy hours. We're encouraged to take lunch and go on vacation. On your first day you're taken to lunch by a manager. It's different from working at a restaurant. For me, it's better. We're closed from Christmas to New Year's and everybody is paid, down to the dishwashers. I've sent a sous chef on a chocolate trip to Beliz, and we're setting up a program for a 30-day exchange for staff. I was able to give my entire staff bonuses after we opened in the Ferry Buildiing. Dandelion is passionate about human capital, and it has changed my life. I've never worked for a company for so long. For mental health it's a great place to work ... the sustainable hours. I have a better appreciation for everything, and I'm generally more happy here. I'd put these same practices into place, if I owned my own place. Fine dining cooks who come on board can't believe the atmospere. We celeberate people's birthdays and once a month we have an all hands meeting of department heads to update our quarterly goals, and all employees are invited. 

SK: In addition to human resources, how does Dandelion function sustainably in terms of food?
 We source our beans from sustainable farms. The paper we use to wrap bars is made from recycled paper. And there's not a lot of waste in the kitchen at all. One of my favorite stories is from when I sent an employee to Beliz who would always leave just a little bit of chocolate in the bowl. Afer returning, you can't find a teaspoon of chocolate left in that bowl. 

We also compost everything and send it to farms in Sonoma or farmers come to pick up the cocao waste. A lot of chefs ask for the cacao husks for vinegars or teas, some use them in mignardise.   

SK: What is your five year plan?
 We're publishing a book with Clarkson Potter in 2017. I still want to be with this company and in the kitchen, but I do think about owning my own patisserie.

I leave for Japan in a couple weeks to do some international pastry trouble shooting. We're selling out [at the new Tokyo store] by like noon or 2pm. And our factory will be opening in 2017, it's enournous, 30,000 square feet. [In addition to the commisary kitchen], we'll have a chocolate saloon, dessert bar, speakeasy component. Also, in the Ferry Building, we have a hot chocolate and pastry stand. I want to get hot chocolate in kegs soon!