Valerie Gordon is passionate. She is one of those people who lives and breathes her work and family and interests and cannot separate them. However, she has woven all of these elements together through a culinary outfit, Valerie Confections. She is her work and her brand: there is no way to separate the two. Her company is a sweets and savory business she runs with her partner, Stan Weightman Jr., and a growing list of employees. Valerie puts her heart and soul into her goods and they have boomed as a result, carried as locally as her South Silver Lake storefront to Dean & Deluca’s across the nation. Her momentum is quickly growing and soon enough, Valerie Gordon will be a household name.
“I was born and raised in San Francisco,” she begins as we sit at a little table in the back office of Valerie Confections. Stan stands in the background briefly holding Lee, their 6 month old daughter. “My family was a little bit untraditional. My mother was Chinese and my father was an older sculptor: they had a rather large age gap. I went to grammar school on Haight Street when it truly was this multi-cultural melting pot. It was a very different city than it is now. It was sort of idyllic, like an urban utopia.”
Valerie hoped to be an actor–but baking revealed itself to be her true love. “I started baking when I was eight years old: I’m completely self-taught. It’s what I did as a hobby as a child. I studied acting in school and moved to Los Angeles in 1998. I worked in restaurants in San Francisco where I was a maître d’ at several restaurants. I moved here and managed Les Deux in Hollywood from 1998 to 2003. This was when it was Les Deux Cafés and Michèle Lamy owned it–before it turned into a nightclub. It was a pretty spectacular institution at the time. Two months after it closed, I started recipe testing for our company.”
Valerie Confections started in 2004 and was always a little pet project of Stan and hers. It was a creative outlet, which she never believed would turn into what it is now. “I was very resistant to start my own company. I knew that if you start your own company, you lose your life and have to be prepared to make that step. When Stan and I started dating, we did a lot of food gifts from home–and we went to an elaborate degree. We did branding, packaging design, and several different products. We called it Tall and Small Productions because he’s a giant and I’m not. We’d make things like toffee and little cakes and tons of different cookies and sauces that we’d package and gift.”
“We realized we had to do our own thing,” she says with a smile. “It got to a point where we thought it was getting a little weird and that we knew it was time to take it to the next level. When Les Deux closed, I spent a month or two trying to figure out my next step. After about ten years in restaurants, we figured we were ready.”
You would assume that Valerie Confections wasn’t anything particularly planned out. They’d just make little treats, sell them to locals, and that would be that. Not at all: Valerie and Stan are very detail oriented and hold their product to an extremely high level. “We wanted to create a company and a brand where we could combine all of our interests,” she said. “Our interest in food, our interest in design, our interest in packaging, entertaining, and this fun lifestyle component: we wanted to create something completely timeless. It seemed to me at the time as I watched different trends happen that luxury chocolates was something really exploding in 2003, 2004. Toffee was something that hadn’t been touched on. It sort of came to me one day, this, ‘Oh my God: it’s toffee! That’s what we start with: that will be the tree trunk that other things will come out of.’”
This initial toffee they made–their Debut Collection–is a collection of six classic flavors: almond, almond fleur de sel, ginger, orange, mint, and classic. Each is handmade and infused with the flavors, finished with a dip in bittersweet chocolate. Valerie still sells the collection to this day, which started in she and Stan’s home eight years ago. Although this was a very tiny item, it was meticulously planned. As the business grew, they moved into a commercial kitchen and eventually into their current facility in 2007. Their products diversified as well, branching into various chocolates from truffles to nougats and baked goods like their Farmers Market line and their Vintage Cake Collection. Their roster is constantly expanding.
Valerie pulls inspiration from everywhere and seeks to make products that are timeless. This is something she and Stan stress in their work. “We went through a painstaking development time and figured out each element that went into the perfect box of chocolate,” she says. “From there it continued to grow and we were very lucky with press from the get go. I positioned our product very strategically, in stores around the country and not just in Los Angeles so that we would have a national awareness for a teeny brand we were running out of our home.”
“That is what set the tone for what we are doing,” Valerie continues. “The philosophy has always stayed the same, where everything we make is by hand. Every piece of chocolate is still hand dipped, every bow is tied by hand, every pie is crimped by hand, we buy all of our fruit from local farmers markets, every batch of jam is a small batch that I stand and stir and can here–then it’s out the door. It’s really about maintaining the integrity of the philosophy of what we do and, if we always keep the philosophy of making something delicious and memorable and beautiful, then we are doing the right thing.”
Memory is deeply embedded into everything she makes, too. Baking is an activity Valerie has practiced her entire life. It has a captivating power that she loves. “I know that from a very young age chocolates and baked goods were something that I came back to, the thing that gave me the most fulfillment and the greatest sense of happiness for myself and other people,” she explains. “When you give someone a box of chocolates, it’s a thrilling moment. It is something someone is going to remember, from the experience of opening the box to biting into that chocolate. That is a really exciting thing to participate in. I knew that this was the start.”
In making her products, Valerie is constantly educating and reeducating herself to learn new tricks and develop new recipes. It’s only right for Valerie Confections when it all comes together for Valerie, herself. “Everything that I do I learn from doing research,” she says. “I do exhaustive cookbook and Internet research if I haven’t made an item before. For example, the perfect chocolate mousse: I’ll look at ten or fifteen recipes and say, ‘Okay: here is the through line in this kind of recipe.’ Then, I’ll take a mean of the recipes and start testing and figure out what I like, tweaking the recipe until I find something that communicates what I feel is important in food and what I think is representative of our brand.”
With so much experience with food and in restaurants, one wonders where inspiration in her cooking comes from. The work of the brand extends from toffees to chocolates to petit fours to cakes to pies to savory dishes: aside from the brand itself, what is the connective tissue? The answer is quite simple: Los Angeles is the what pulls it all together.
“First of all, I have to say that I am in LOVE with Los Angeles,” she begins. “I’ve always been in love with Los Angeles because Los Angeles has this feeling of endless possibility, whether it is an artificial feeling or a real feeling. Whatever it is, it is incredibly evocative and I feel it most when I’m going down Sunset Blvd from the Eastside to the Westside and you go through that wonderful strip up and over Beverly Hills to the Westside. You go over these gorgeous winding roads who tell the story of the city–and it’s infinite. There is this sense of wonder and endless possibility here. It has, obviously, a lot to do with the film community because it is fantastical–it’s not really real but it’s great.”
“I find a lot of inspiration in the classic, Hollywood prototype like the Golden Era. In researching, I look stylistically to films from the 1950s and 1960s because there is something timeless about them. There’s something very simple about that era as well–and there is nothing chicer than simplicity. In the initial research for the company, I watched Mildred Pierce ten times. I watched Sabrina ten times because there is something so innocent and happy about it. That all ties into the Golden Era of Hollywood. That translates to desserts for me.”
A lot of the products she produces are directly about Los Angeles, too. “The Vintage Cake Collection: it’s all about Hollywood,” she says. “I equate those desserts–the Blum’s Coffee Crunch Cake, the Brown Derby Grapefruit Cake, the Chasen’s Banana Shortcake: all these desserts are almost like dessert celebrities to me. They are these famous desserts that people, in their minds and in their histories, see as the celebrities at birthdays and other events. Blum’s Coffee Cake in particular is like that. We get a number of people who call us to say, ‘That is my cake and we had every birthday with that cake’ or ‘I proposed to my wife with that cake’–it’s the same feeling people have with movies. It’s exciting and wonderful. I find Los Angeles to be infinitely inspiring.”
Beyond philosophical and stylistic ties to Los Angeles and Hollywood, what the area gives us in produce is hugely influential in their work too. They use produce that they get from local farmers markets and, in return, have created a line of famers market goods which they sell at the Hollywood and Santa Monica Farmers Markets. “I always say we are spoiled here,” she says with a laugh. “Every week you go to the market and it doesn’t matter what month it is. I always joke that there are strawberries year round in Los Angeles–and there kind of are! Someone is growing them around here at all points of the year, I know it. You don’t have that anywhere else. There can’t be more culinary inspiration because of the climate.”
Valerie sees her company as a hybrid of “California meets historic, European chocolatiers.” They emphasize delicious, memorable food that transcends a momentary taste and dwells in a culinary experience. This is what she has become known for in Los Angeles and around the country. “We have a lot of people who, having been fans of us since our inception, are invested in our company’s success. They’ve watched us grow from a box of toffee to the expanse of what we do. They get really proud of us and, rightfully, feel a part of our success.”
That audience is growing as they grow, too–and Valerie Confections is growing quite a bit. “Well, in my immediate future, I’m finishing up a cookbook right now,” she mentions with a smile. “Artisan is publishing and it will be coming out in 2013. We’re doing photography throughout June and it is a big cookbook: it’s 175 recipes that covers everything that we do. It’s exciting! It’s been an enormous undertaking but I’ve been doing a lot of staying home, taking care of the our new baby and working on the book.”
“We’re just about ready to re-launch our website, which we’ve been working on for over a year. We’ll be debuting a housewares line, too. They’re all things that complement our confections, because the next step for Valerie Confections is about the entertaining aspect of the products we make, from the cakes to the petit fours to the chocolates and on and on. The service and presentation of it all will be able to go into people’s homes.”
Valerie has a plan expanding the physical reach of Valerie Confections, too. “Ultimately, our goal is to have five locations around the country–and we are currently looking to open another store in Los Angeles,” she notes nodding her head. “We also think we’ll be able to do a restaurant in the next five to ten years, too.” We are very certain Los Angeles eagerly awaits Valerie’s take on a dining experience: we can definitely expect it to be classic, magical, and tasty.