Lisa peers over the counter at the rows of freshly baked croissants and scones at Paper or Plastik Café in Los Angeles. “I just love their pastries here,” she murmurs. We meet early for coffee on a Saturday morning after she’s just finished a six-day workweek. Currently a pastry cook at the immensely popular Huckleberry Café in Santa Monica, Calif., Lisa creates delectable treats starting at 4:00 a.m. several days each week.
“I turn into a house jellyfish on my days off and find it hard to be productive,” she says. “It took my body a while to acclimate and I stopped tinkering for a while on new recipes. I realized I need to work out for my job, making my back and legs stronger so I can do a full shift at work and still be able to work on recipes at home.”
I first met Lisa in journalism school more than a decade ago. Lisa studied journalism and international relations at USC to become a foreign correspondent, but after speaking with journalists in that field, she realized she may not be up for a life of freelancing. She rethought her path and considered going into the Foreign Service. After graduating college, Lisa moved to Spain to work at a bilingual school through a Spanish government program. “I’d go to school, teach the kids, and come home and fall onto my bed. But I really enjoyed it.”
She then moved to China, where she worked at a bilingual radio station and continued to meet people working in the Foreign Service. In China, she witnessed a vast disparity of income levels firsthand. She began to understand that to escape poverty, a consistent factor in every culture is access to good public education.
“Both of my parents didn’t have access to good public education and to this day, it’s an ache in their hearts,” she says. “It’s always been ingrained in me how important it is to achieve a high level of education.”
She returned to the United States and joined AmeriCorps, serving one year at the Attendance Improvement Program of the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), which Lisa notes has a high dropout rate. Her goal was to reinforce to students the positive values of attending school. She worked with kindergartners and ninth graders, a key age in determining graduation likelihood. Her challenge was to seek out ways to reward good attendance. But without a big budget, Lisa found herself cooking and baking frequently to fundraise. She heard a radio story one day about the resurgence of homemade jams and butters. Her days living abroad made her consider creating a vegan version of a Nutella-esque hazelnut butter. She played with a recipe until she got it right and started selling it to raise money for her program. The community and her colleagues at LAUSD were supportive from the start – this was the perfect way to combine her passions for food and education. She called the product Hazel Dream.
Using a portion of her proceeds, she gave mini-grants to counselors in the dropout prevention program. A counselor in the kindergarten level, for example, bought a bike and raffled it off to students who met their attendance goals. Hazel Dream helped supplement the budget for several successful program trials.
“I’m very inspired by those who have a passion to give back to the world and I hope to be able to give back like that in some way,” Lisa says. “I think about how hard it was for my parents and relatives after the Korean War and how lucky I am to have such comfort and luxury.”
Toward the end of last year, she decided to put Hazel Dream on pause while she managed local bakery Crème Caramel LA. She realized that in the food industry, she loves working with a team.
‘When you’re an entrepreneur, you have to be okay with some loneliness. Some people handle that just fine. But I’m a constant extrovert. Whether we’re making biscuits or scones or cakes, if I have someone in the kitchen with me, we’re working together to get everything out in time. I love that team spirit.’
Hazel Dream created a path for social enterprise to support public education. While that is still a goal, Lisa is currently focused on being a pastry cook and eventually becoming a culinary educator. She’ll explore how Hazel Dream or other artisan culinary items can help her future goals.
When not baking, you can find Lisa dining at homey restaurants around LA. “I’ve learned that I am not a fine dining cook or eater,” she says. “What I mean by that is I respond to food from my gut. In terms of flavors and exciting dishes, these have always been – with some exception – delivered to me in hole-in-the-wall family restaurants. As much as I appreciate the zeal of a fine dining restaurant, my heart has never sung. But it has sung and danced to the most amazing bowl of handmade noodles.” Her favorite spot at the moment is Little Tokyo’s Marugame Monzo, which makes fresh handmade noodles every day.
‘As much as I appreciate the zeal of a fine dining restaurant, my heart has never sung. But it has sung and danced to the most amazing bowl of handmade noodles.’
I ask Lisa who else in the culinary world inspires her these days. “Husk Chef Sean Brock is really awesome. His process with heirloom foods and how it’s had an impact on flavor and nutrition – it’s really fascinating to read about. He works closely with farmers and seedbanks on things we don’t grow anymore. That could be so revolutionary for our country and how our citizens eat. I’m really excited about what he’s doing.”
Lisa ends our chat with a surprise influence. “I also get inspired by – I hope this doesn’t sound silly – but I really love Stephen Colbert. Whenever he’s in interviews as himself, and not his character version of himself, I feel a joy for life come across. A commitment to his community and also the ability to be joyful and loving despite a lot of trying circumstances. A good thing that’s been instilled in me is about service, and learning that giving service doesn’t diminish you in any way. It makes you into the person you want to be.”