A Pastry Chef’s Path from New York to LA
Pastry & Baking Arts alum Colleen Riley serves two pieces of advice to ICE students.
Colleen Riley (Pastry, ’02) brings new meaning to the word nomadic. The ICE alum has moved across the country four times: first from San Francisco to New York City, from there to Los Angeles and once again to the Big Apple, only to move back to La La Land a few years ago. Embarking on a career in the pastry arts gave her that freedom, as wherever there are people who love to eat chocolate and sweets, there’s an opportunity to feed them. Today, she is chef de cuisine at Valerie Confections in the Silver Lake neighborhood of Los Angeles.
What led you to a career in pastry?
People in the food world normally reminisce about cooking with their moms, but my mom is not a cook. Everything we ate came out of a box or a can, and when I moved out on my own, I thought, I want to cook with fresh food. I started cooking and doing dinner parties for my friends. When I graduated from the University of Iowa and moved to San Francisco with a degree in film production, I did a little bit of work in media, but I lost interest in it. I moved to New York where I was doing a closed captioning job and searching the internet, saw you could do a work-study program at ICE (at the time). I thought, I’m young and energetic — I can do this. So I did the work-study program for a year before starting the pastry program.
Entering the Pastry Arts program, what was your ultimate goal?
Eventually I wanted to own my own business. It’s weird how things change over the years. At the time, I was interested in doing vegan baking. Having come from San Francisco, I had gotten really into it. I lost interest in it, though. (I would’ve been on the cusp of a money-making industry.) Instead, I got a lot more into chocolate, which became more of my focus.
How did you land at Jacques Torres Chocolate?
In late 2000, my roommate opened up a restaurant in the bottom of the Clock Tower building in DUMBO. It was a pretty desolate place still, and Jacques had opened the chocolate factory right around the same time. He became an occasional customer of hers and when I told her I was starting at ICE, she said, “He comes around all the time and I should introduce you guys.” I met him and his partner and got the offer to start around Easter of 2001. I packaged products, helped customers and eventually got to be in the kitchen.
How did your program at ICE prepare you for that job?
My experience was limited at the chocolate factory. We weren’t creating a ton of pastries; we were mostly making chocolate, which was great. But at school, I was being exposed to all sorts of other pastries I’d never made or seen, so my interest in pastry grew. When it came time for my externship, I thought, I could stay at Jacques, but I decided I would rather go and do something in pastry.
Where did you do your externship?
Eric Lind, the chef at Bayard’s, was a friend of Jacques. I interviewed with him and he hired me to do my externship there. I wound up working in the restaurant for a year. Then, they opened Financier Patisserie on Stone Street, right across from Hanover Square, and I started working there a few months after 9/11.
Around that time, the family that owned Bayard’s, the Poulakakoses, owned Harry’s on Hanover Square and opened Ulysses and Adrienne's Pizzabar, and they were all closely spaced. That stretch in the Wall Street area went from nothing to having all these things, so we were pretty busy because there wasn’t much else down there, especially for pastries and coffee in the morning. We were also still connected to the restaurant and did a lot of pastries for Bayard’s and the India House, a private club. Then we opened a Battery Park City location, where I worked. I was with them for about three years total.
What brought you to LA the first time?
I wanted a change of pace. My best friend was living here and I was visiting. While I was here, I sent a few resumes around to see what would happen. The last day I was visiting, I got a call from Valerie Confections for an interview. I went over, met with them and they offered me the position.
What took you back to NYC?
It was time to do something else. The first year back, I had an offer fall through and the job climate was challenging, but I eventually landed somewhere. I went to work with Jacques for a hot minute, then worked at Artisanal, then Bar Artisanal, and I ended up working at Four & Twenty Blackbirds, the pie shop in Brooklyn. I started on New Year’s Eve in 2010 and I did all of the breakfast pastries and savory hand pies.
Now you’re back in LA at Valerie Confections. What is the specialty and what is your role as chef de cuisine?
The focus at Valerie has primarily been chocolates (toffee, truffles, bars), petit fours, pastries and jams. At our cafes we do a full service breakfast and lunch and we do some catering, but the company started with toffee and has always been primarily a dessert destination.
My day to day includes a large range of responsibilities. I manage the production and staff at our "HQ" where we produce all of the chocolates, petit fours and pastries for all locations, online sales, wholesale, and corporate orders. I also oversee the kitchen at our Echo Park location, which can include working line cook shifts. I do a large amount of production work, recipe development, schedule all of the production, hire and train employees, do the ordering, determine what product the locations need and when it arrives — all of the day in-day out management stuff.
What do you love about having a career in pastry?
I love making things with my hands. It's always gratifying to make something beautiful and delicious for someone that makes them happy. Problem solving: I'm a huge fan of logic puzzles, crosswords, trivia games, etc. I love solving the day-to-day problems that come up and finding a way to make things work. I love the process of recipe development. It's really cool to see something through from an idea all the way to large-scale production. Also, teaching what I've learned to other people. I don't believe in the yelling-and-throwing-things school of training. Everyone learns differently and it's often challenging to figure out the best way to get your point across to someone. That's helped me grow personally in my dealings with people. It's fun when the "light bulb" goes off for someone who has been struggling with a new project and I can see their knowledge grow.
What do you think of LA's food scene?
One of the things l like about LA is the diversity. There’s so much good food that’s not expensive that you can enjoy in LA. It’s been fun to see the food scene grow since the first time I lived here. It’s heading in an interesting direction now with so many people from New York finally embracing Los Angeles. People want to come here to travel and experience the city. For so long it wasn’t considered that interesting of a place, it was kind of weird and strange given the diverse culture. There’s still a lot of room to grow as LA is constantly evolving into a real city where neighborhoods are becoming real neighborhoods. The city is becoming closer with public transportation and it’s interesting to see what’s going to happen. There are so many opportunities.
What role can ICE play in the food community in Los Angeles?
There’s a big hole to fill in Los Angeles as far as education for new people entering the industry. Most of the culinary schools here have closed down, but I think that’s because, unfortunately, a lot have gone the way of: you pay the money and they give you the degree. There’s not a level of education where you’re being tested or shown some level of knowledge. I feel like that needs to happen here. I thought my experience at ICE was fairly thorough and I’d like to see that return to the education for people to receive on this side of the country. Students should leave with knowledge and preparedness for the industry.
How can ICE help make an effective change?
It would be nice to have a learning opportunity for people who want to do this for their lives — to go to school, get their diploma and have a focus. There’s an opportunity to have that here — what ICE does in New York — to have outreach and career development and to foster a better community of people.
What’s your advice to current pastry students?
My number-one piece of advice to all students in culinary school: listen. My biggest problem is that there’s a lack of [employees] being open to hearing what people say, especially when it is critical, as that’s when you learn the most. It’s not that people are telling you something critical to be mean, we’re telling you so you can grow.
Second, have a goal. Really think about it, plan your career, take it seriously. There's a lot of jumping around — while you might be exposed to a lot, you’re not absorbing all of the information. It’s beneficial to stay one place for a year. I didn’t want to be a restaurant pastry chef, but I worked for a year to see if I liked it. Commit yourself to something for a year, it’s not going to kill you — you’ll learn something and you’ll grow from it.
Explore a career in pastry arts at ICE's Los Angeles campus.