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Filipinos have that proverbial sweet tooth, no doubt about that. We consume a lot of dessert, from our traditional rice cakes like suman, bibingka or puto bumbong to the more modern fare like macarons, cupcakes and crepes, diabetes be damned.
A few Filipino entrepreneurs here in the US have realized this fact and have embarked on business ventures that cater to this sweet dream.
Shirley Santos-Yanga, a pastry chef born and raised in Manila, operates her own baking company out of her home in New York.
“I was inspired by my late grandmother, Mary Santos who used to own Azotea Diner, a Spanish restaurant in Quezon City. On weekends, I would help in the kitchen, experiment on recipes or watch the chefs execute the dishes,” Shirley shares.
While growing up in Manila, she was exposed to the food industry at an early age and she was also fond of watching cooking shows (Cooking with the Dazas, Wok with Yan—to name a few) and reading cookbooks.
“I would linger over dessert sections, with their photographs of layered and decorated goodies. I’d stare at each fluffy monument, imagining the taste. Then my eyes would wander to the text. Soon I was making those desserts myself,” she recalls.
It was a dear family friend, the late Mama Aurely “Els” Yap who Shirley considers as her mentor and her biggest inspiration to join the world of baking.
Candy Tamano Iannelli, on the other hand, is one of two women behind the recently-opened cupcake shop in the Upper East Side called Purple Elephant. Like Shirley, Candy’s very first inspiration was her aunt, her mom’s younger sister, Zawiya Espino and describes her as “a great cook and baker and always made great meals during family parties.”
Growing up in Manila, she was also inspired by culinary icons such as the Dazas and Sylvia Reynoso Gala. She fondly remembers taking classes with Ms. Reynoso Gala at her home in Pasig back in the early 80’s.
Candy’s turning point was an article she read in the New York Times about a decade ago, about the lucrative wedding cake industry in NY.
“Because I had always aspired to do something creative I felt I had a chance to break into the industry if I had the proper training and experience,” Candy says.
This dream had to take a backseat though as she initially pursued a different career path.
Candy had a day job as a pharmaceutical sales executive but at the back of her mind, she still harbored the hope of one day fulfilling her dream of creating special occasion cakes and making delicious pastries for a living. This was the reason why she enrolled at the prestigious French Culinary Institute in New York, where she met her soon-to-be business partner, pastry chef Jin Hee Sonu.
The dream that was put on hold was destined to become a reality when in 2009, due to the effect of the recession on the pharmaceutical industry, Candy was part of a company-wide downsizing and found herself unemployed two weeks after giving birth to her twin boys, Brooklyn and Michael.
Despite her extensive 10-year experience in the field, Candy had a hard time looking for a job. After months of actively applying for countless positions in pharmaceutical sales, the reality of a floundering industry saturated with thousands of unemployed, recently laid off applicants in one of the worst job markets in decades was a bitter pill to swallow.
Call it blessing in disguise, Candy’s joblessness made her realize that she had something quite solid as a fallback.
“Early this year, Candy and her culinary school classmate Jin decided it was time to take that proverbial leap of faith to set up their venture by joining forces.”
It all started with a text message from Jin, “let’s have lunch on Monday if you’re available”. To which Candy swiftly answered with, “So are you finally ready to partner with me so we can open up our own pastry shop?”
And the rest is as they say, history. The wheels were set in motion for great things to come for this dynamic duo. After a brainstorming session at a nondescript diner/coffee shop east of Penn Station, Purple Elephant Cake Inc. was born.
“I’m focusing on putting up a custom cake business here in New York. I believe that there is a larger market here and I have a niche for my products. I want to go global than local to broaden my culinary/pastry experience. By spending time in NY, I actually developed my skill sets in creating custom cakes, which I really did not do a lot in Manila,” Shirley says, explaining her future moves.
As a businesswoman, Shirley used to operate her own coffee shop in Quezon City called Pastry Passion, which she opened at the age of 21. When she left for the US, she left the business to her parents.
“My parents encouraged me to become an entrepreneur and supported me financially and emotionally. At age 21, very inexperienced and naïve, I was given the opportunity to open my won business. This was my brainchild and my biggest accomplishment,” she says.
Eleven years later, Shirley, now New York-based, has worked and studied with notable pastry chefs (Chef Richard Leach of Park Avenue Desserts, Chef Nick Malgieri, Cheryl Kleinman—to name a few).
“Working with these chefs helped me to improve my pastry techniques and broaden my culinary skills, which can be applied to my business in Manila,” she adds.
It’s not all glamor and fun though, and both ladies agree that being in this kind of field requires a lot of hard work and perseverance.
“You should have the passion, perseverance, dedication and love for the craft. I remember working 12 hour days, 60 hours a week in NY, as well as waking up at 4am to prepare myself to go to work and the job just took a heavy toll on me. I got burned out and stressed at some point, but I feel so blessed that I wake up to a job that I still love,” Shirley says.
“There were a lot of long nights and 14 to 16-hour days. In short, many a sleepless nights,” Candy says in agreement.
As Anthony Bourdain puts it in his new book Medium Raw, ”If you’re planning on spending big bucks to go to culinary school at your age, you’d better be doing it for love—a love, by the way, that will be, almost without a doubt, unreciprocated.”
As Filipino-Americans in this field, these ladies try to incorporate their history and culture to their products.
“I love to infuse Filipino ingredients and flavors (calamansi, ube, cassava) to my pastries and create desserts that are uniquely Filipino. If given a chance, I’d also want to create a wedding cake, inspired by our barong tagalog, or capiz shells,” says Shirley.
“Right now our cake shop only offers American cakes and cupcakes although our inspiration is truly French pastry. But eventually we plan to expand our menu to include both Filipino-inspired cakes as well as Korean inspired cakes and pastries,” adds Candy.
(NYNJ Dec 17-23, 2010 LifeEASTyle