The hand-dipped chocolates, the Champagne truffles, the Blum's cakes, the toffee that started Valerie Confections 11 years ago and the petits fours — for which each of four layers of cake is baked and iced separately before being cut by hand — that you may be buying for Mother's Day are all made by fewer than a dozen people at the company's headquarters on 1st Street in Westlake.
Contrary to what you might think, the kitchen at Valerie HQ, where all the chocolates, confections and pastries for the business are made, does not operate 24 hours a day. All of it, plus the more than a thousand petits fours a day that Gordon and her crew produce during peak holiday season, are constructed beginning at a somewhat sane 7 a.m. Sane for pastry chefs, at least.
Valerie Gordon, who runs Valerie Confections with her partner, Stan Weightman Jr., says that they turn down a lot of special requests. "No lips on a lollipop," she says. Instead of novelty stuff, they'll design chocolates for the Oscars or for Chinese New Year, or make their petits fours a different color — this year's are lavender for Mother's Day — or go back into the pastry kitchens and work on something fun, like the artisan version of Milk Duds they're working on now.
And even though Gordon and Weightman have expanded beyond toffee, cakes and chocolates into full-service restaurants (they have a bakery and counter in the Grand Central Market downtown and a tea house in Echo Park), on holidays, you can tell that the company was built on special occasions. The gifts are the company's foundation, the perfectly wrapped boxes the metaphorical masonry.
Gordon knows that she's creating memories through food. "You remember your birthday cake, your Valentine's Day chocolate. We're participating in other peoples' celebrations."
The 4,000 square feet of Valerie's headquarters are not only an engine taking in 4,000 eggs and 250 pounds of butter a week, 250 pounds of chocolate and 600 flower petals a day, and turning out confections — it's also a kind of memory palace.
The Blum's cake is a collective memory of the cakes made famous by Blum's Bakeries, the last of which closed in the 1970s. So too are the desserts Gordon revived from Chasen's and the Brown Derby. Other confections invoke different memories, either from Gordon's past or from our own, as with those petits fours, which date to 18th century Europe and were once mainstays of hotel banquets. Now Gordon makes 13 kinds of them, including tiny cakes topped with all those flower petals, meticulously candied by hand.
That meticulousness, the kind of orchestrated obsessive-compulsive disorder that's a characteristic of many excellent pastry chefs, also comes out in force during special occasions. There's the mechanical aspect of it, like all that chocolate (Valrhona, Guittard, Noel) going into four separate dipping machines. There's also the things you might not think of, including Gordon's obsession with the weather.
Gordon checks her iPhone weather app as often as a former air traffic controller I once knew. Weather, she explains, affects how people ship things, how much people buy and when, and how the products are preserved in transit. "Seventy degrees is a great temperature for shipping chocolate. Jam is fine, but chocolate, petits fours — buttercream?"
If you've ever tried to frost a birthday cake in a Los Angeles summer, a job not unlike building a sand castle in the surf, you can imagine the worries inherent in running a confection company.
But, of course, that's the reason Valerie Gordon is making the rose petal cake you're giving this year, or the box of pale green matcha petits fours, or the Durango toffee that some of us trade like currency. Because part of the gift you're giving is that someone else is doing the work that you're now thanking your mother for.