If you have ever waited in line for bomboloni at the Ferry Building on a Saturday morning or recall the huge pecan butter and whisky scones that Absinthe used to sling back in the day, you've already been acquainted with the work of Luis Villavelazquez. He's not a household name, but over the last 11 years, the pastry chef has grown to become one of San Francisco's most versatile and creative dessert ghostwriters.
Now, after 18 years in the restaurant business, Villavelazquez is finally ready to step out of the shadows: He's opening his own shop in the Tenderloin, with plans for a dessert tasting menu and pop-ups. Called Les Éléments, the new space will also be home to experiments from his long-running pastry consulting business and wholesale operation.
He's currently producing work for his private clients, but once he gets final approval from the health department, the public can come in for pastries, à la carte service and dessert tastings on evenings from Thursday through Saturday.
That three-course dessert tasting menu ($32), a unique offering in a city where savory tasting menus dominate, will be the star of the show. It will highlight Villavelazquez's dessert philosophy: studying old techniques and recipes and transforming them into modern creations.
"I've always thought of my skill set as cultural anthropology," said Villavelazquez.
Take, for instance, his tres leches cake. In the U.S., bakeries tend to use cow's milk. Instead, Villavelazquez has opted for goat's milk, the traditional ingredient used in Mexico. He came up with the idea to infuse a sweet tea flavor into the milk with the use of chamomile and honey, and layers the cake with small cubes of roasted peaches to balance its gentle and sweet flavors with the earthy funk of the goat's milk.
Other tasting menu items include a bread pudding, where bread is replaced with bomboloni and cake. He tops off the creation with a brown butter sauce and a generous shaving of black truffle. Another dessert was inspired by the melon puddings and cakes Villavelazquez sampled in Tokyo on a trip a few years ago. At Les Elements, that has turned into a parfait with layers of melon cake, melon mousse, fresh melon and shards of candy he calls "melon glass."
The dessert spot has an extensive a la carte menu as well, with items like a vegan chocolate chip cookie made with Valrhona chocolate, a cheesecake made with candy cap mushrooms, which impart a maple flavor, and meringue tarts featuring lemon and blackberry. Some of the tasting menu desserts will also be served up as larger versions that feed up to four people.
Opening Les Elements is a big move for Villavelazquez, an industry veteran who's worked as a pastry chef for nearly two decades. Until now, though, he's largely worked for others in the industry. He's had past pastry chef stints at Elizabeth Falkner's acclaimed establishments Citizen Cake and Orson, and he's revamped dessert menus at Japanese restaurant Ozumo and now-shuttered French gem La Folie, among others. Since 2010, he's taught at the City of College of San Francisco's Culinary Arts and Hospitality Studies Department, where he graduated from in 2004. His students, in turn, have gone on to work at top S.F. restaurants like Mister Jiu's, Spruce and Tartine Manufactory.
Much of that experience will be on display at Les Éléments, sometimes in the form of desserts like the Midnight Chocolate, a devil's food cake creation with whipped chocolate ganache that was inspired by his time at Orson. And at other times by the mentoring he continues to provide.
"He's very meticulous and innovative," said Sarah Watson, a pastry chef who recently moved from rural Washington to assist Villavelazquez, who she's known for seven years, as a cook. "I almost feel like I'm going to school all over again."
Aside from the three days a week that Les Éléments will be open to the public, Villavelazquez plans to host pop-up collaborations with both local and international chefs and plans to have regular industry meet-ups of local pastry chefs to build a community.
Even though his space is new, Villavelazquez is already thinking about expansion plans. He's eyeing other small spaces in the immediate area; eventually, he wants to have multiple spaces that connect to each other philosophically and offer "a related experience where you can just do one, two and three," he explained. One such additional space, for example, could focus on coffee.
"I want to poke at my counterparts, my savory friends who have always doubted that pastry chefs can have a profitable operation," he said.
Opening soon. Les Éléments, 442 Hyde Street, (415) 741-8666, leselementssf.com
Tamara Palmer is a freelance writer, professional DJ and publisher of California Eating, a website and occasional print zine. Email: [email protected]
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