If you allow your eyes (and Instagram feed) to guide you to your next dessert, you’re bound to be delighted by the vibrantly colorful Filipino-inspired custards of Kristine de la Cruz.
At her popular shop Crème Caramel L.A. in Sherman Oaks, CA, de la Cruz has earned a loyal following — both within and outside of L.A.’s Filipino community — for her custard pies, crème caramels, bread puddings and other treats. The desserts incorporate traditional Filipino ingredients, including the bright purple yam known as ube and green tropical leaves known as pandan to create inventive spins on classic American, European and Filipino desserts.
Just last year, de la Cruz and her partner/boyfriend Sean Gilleland collaborated with Annie Choi of Found Coffee to open FrankieLucy Bakeshop in Silver Lake. There you can find the colorful rainbow of de la Cruz’s desserts, and savory bites like stradas and quiches. You’ll also find an array of exceptional coffee beverages made with locally roasted beans, and the wonderfully-L.A. cultural hybrid of ube horchata, which combines Filipino and Mexican flavors with the optional shot of espresso to make it “dirty”.
“All through my childhood, while other people were playing house, we would play restaurant and bar,” explains de la Cruz of her lifelong interest in food, while drawing a connection to Filipino hospitality. “We would use an ironing board, and inspired by the bar on “The Love Boat”, would come up with drinks for our bar at 7 or 8 years old. I liked the hospitality of it, which I think is something that's in our culture, too. When you go to somebody's house, you expect a full spread. You're not just going to have finger food. If somebody saw that, they'd say, 'Why are we here?”
De la Cruz grew up in the Bay Area, raised by parents who were both from the Philippines, but met in the U.S. “Fremont at the time was about 87 percent white and 7.3 percent Asian American, and of that, about 3 percent was Filipino,” says de la Cruz, displaying an impressive recall for census statistics. “So in the community itself there weren't that many Filipinos growing up as a kid, and even though I was born here first generation, all I knew was Filipino culture up until going to school.”
It was in the school lunchroom where de la Cruz was first made to feel distinctly aware that she — and her food — was somehow different from most of the other students and what they were eating. “I would have baon [packed lunch in Tagalog] of rice and adobo, which to me was so exciting,” she recalls. “I remember I had my little Tupperware of food and everybody else had brown bag lunch, and I felt a little embarrassed because everyone is looking at my food like, 'What's that?' So I was embarrassed and I wouldn't eat my food, and was feeling "other" versus feeling happy and confident in my food at that time.”
De la Cruz recalls another specific moment when she was made to feel "other" while growing up in Fremont. “I remember going to the grocery store as a kid, and crazy dudes driving by in a truck, yelled 'ching chong, ching chong'. And my mom was yelling back, 'We're not Chinese!' And I thought, 'I don't think that's the answer to that.' They didn't say, 'Oh, I'm sorry, that was the wrong racist thing to say to you.’ As a kid that was one of the first feelings in public that we were different.”
On a more positive note, de la Cruz reflects on a moment that may have helped to lay the groundwork for her future career as a food entrepreneur. She recalls her father bringing home blueprints for a project entitled "Lumpia House, USA', in which someone was hoping her father would invest. “I remember thinking, 'Oh cool, it's going to be Filipino food, but like McDonald's and in my head I was thinking, I'll be the cashier and thinking that I would actually be a part of it. Not realizing it wasn't something that was necessarily happening. Back then people wanted to bring something [to the U.S.] that was familiar. As small as the Filipino community was back then, people wanted something of their own where they could go out and eat.”
As the years passed and the number of other Filipino students in de la Cruz’s class grew in middle school, she found herself becoming more confident with her identity as a Filipino American. In high school many of her friends were Filipino, though most didn’t attend her school. “There was a lot of camaraderie because we were the same, we were all first generation Filipino, but it wasn't that we were so much into the culture, it's just that we got each other,” she explains. “We didn't talk about Filipino things; we talked about hip hop, dancing, things that we all liked. So I was more aware of being a Filipino person, but even then I didn't really know about my culture until college. There were things about Filipino history that I learned about then, I mostly just knew about food. It was always the food that carried me throughout my life.”
“Determine my own fate”
For years, de la Cruz worked in marketing and A&R for a music agency with high profile clients. And while the pay was good and afforded her plenty of travel opportunities, following the financial crisis of 2008 and the threat of potential downsizing, she began secretly considering another option. “That became the catalyst for me to see if I could do something on my own and determine my own fate,” she says, returning to her earlier dreams of starting a food business. “I decided to not tell anyone, but I worked on my business plan for a year, an hour a day either on the plan or recipes.”
After exploring numerous product possibilities — including 18-inch gingerbread cookies “for no reason” — de la Cruz says the decision to focus on crème caramel suddenly became clear. While playing with different ideas, de la Cruz experimented with her family's recipe for leche flan, a popular Filipino custard, and noticed a lack of competition in the market. Conveniently, her aunt and uncle operated a side business in San Francisco for years making and selling a variation on leche flan. “She parlayed [the flan] into crème caramel, so that it seemed fancier as the French version, and they just sold vanilla crème caramel and creme brûlée to restaurants for twenty years,” says de la Cruz. “She was a lab tech, and my uncle was a concierge at a hotel, so this was something they did for extra money.”
De la Cruz’s aunt gladly gave her the recipe when she asked, and she and Gilleland ran with the idea. “Because the Philippines is an island nation, fresh milk is not something that you could just pick up at the grocery store, so tinned milk is what you would find — condensed or evaporated. The base recipe is condensed milk, eggs and sugar,” she explains. “We still use condensed milk, but we also use whole milk and cream, which is more typical with crème caramel. So it's creamier than leche flan, but still sweeter than the typical crème caramel.”
The couple first began selling their créme caramel at farmers markets, food festivals and events around Los Angeles in 2010. Initially de la Cruz focused mostly on producing the traditional vanilla flavor of crème caramel, but when they were invited to participate in the annual Festival of Philippine Arts & Culture (FPAC), she decided to experiment with Filipino flavors. “So we did ube, buko [young coconut] pandan, mango, and vanilla, and it went gangbusters,” she says. While working the event, the couple met Johneric Concordia, who would go on to open Filipino-inspired barbecue restaurant Park's Finest the following year. “He asked if he could carry our dessert,” says de la Cruz of the pivotal moment in their business. “He became our first wholesale customer.”
De la Cruz admits that despite expanding into wholesale and maintaining a steady presence at farmers markets, the road to finally opening a brick-and-mortar for Crème Caramel L.A. in 2013 was not without its challenges. “First of all, to have a custard shop in general is just kind of weird because people have opinions about whether or not they like flan,” she says. “And desserts are not exactly the first thing you think of when you go to the farmer's market, people are usually buying fruits and vegetables. But we gave free samples, and thankfully there were enough people that were interested and they kept coming back. We kept growing every year, but didn't actually break even until 2015.”
At the Crème Caramel L.A. shop, de la Cruz and Gilleland were able to expand their offerings of desserts, while offering some savory options as well such as Spanish tortillas and sandwiches, a full coffee program, and other treats from local artisans. They also developed a bit of a cult following for their eye-catching and giggle-inducing unicorn “poop” — house-made meringues dusted with rainbow sugar. The shop also just added colorful frozen custard pops to the menu, which are sure to be popping up on Instagram feeds on hot days this summer.
Bringing Filipino flavors to the mainstream
While de la Cruz continued to focus on many Filipino-inspired flavors, she admits that they didn’t aim to solely focus on catering to the Filipino community. “The Filipino community is definitely part of our customer base, but they're not the overall majority of our base,” she says. “We're really trying to break into the mainstream because part of it is to expose people to Filipino food who don't know it.”
While considering the possibility of a second location of Crème Caramel L.A., de la Cruz and Gilleland were approached by Annie Choi of Found Coffee in Eagle Rock where some of their pastries were sold. One of Choi’s customers owned a building on Sunset Blvd. in Silver Lake, and Choi proposed collaborating to open a shop together there. The custard and coffee collaboration seemed an excellent fit to all involved, and FrankieLucy Bakeshop was born, taking its name from Choi’s dog Frankie and de la Cruz’s pup, Lucy.
Inside the charming shop, full of plenty of natural light, you’ll find a pastry case full of de la Cruz’s sweet and savory options, a full coffee bar, and several seats both inside and out. In the case, you’ll choose from a rotating selection of options, perhaps a vibrant green buko pandan chia seed pudding, a mango créme caramel, or a purple ube upside down pie — custard topped with brûléed graham cracker. You’ll also want to keep an eye out for the Purpli — an ube brownie, dusted with powdered sugar. You can choose from the usual array of coffee beverages, but consider the bourbon vanilla latte and, of course, the vegan ube horchata. “I didn't have horchata until the first time going to The Hat in City of Industry,” de la Cruz says. “And even then it was from the fountain, so it wasn't the real stuff, but it was delicious. While horchata at the very base is just rice milk, some places add dairy. And being in L.A., we have to do something vegan.”
Reflecting on how perceptions of Filipino food in L.A. have changed since Crème Caramel L.A. first launched, de la Cruz notes, “We still get people that have not tried Filipino foods and flavors at all, but we've received enough feedback that people are slowly recognizing them, like 'Oh yeah, I've heard of that.”
She adds that while the bright purple of ube draws a lot of attention, she’s more excited by the fact that people are now more willing to expand their palate. “Ube is getting a lot of shine because it's a very vibrant color, and very Instagrammable,” says de la Cruz. “But one of the things I like even more is that people are gravitating towards trying new and different things. If I'm behind the counter, people try one of everything. We don't want a customer to come in just one time, we want them to come several times, so even if they don't buy anything right now, at least they have those flavors in mind. We're encouraging people to explore a little bit more of the Filipino flavors.”
“Coconut pandan is not something I grew up with, it's from a very specific region of the Philippines where people have it a lot,” says de la Cruz. “It wasn't until college that I had it. Traditionally it's a coconut salad with pandan jelly like a fruit salad. But as a combination of flavors and color, it's great because we have the purple desserts, we thought let's have green, too. Similar to Thai desserts, Filipino desserts tend to be very colorful, too.”
Expanding the Filipino Food Movement
Recently, de la Cruz was invited to participate in the Filipino food night of the L.A. Times’ Food Bowl, which celebrated local Filipino chefs. The event featured young chefs such as Alvin Cailan of Eggslut and Amboy, Chad Valencia of LASA, Charles Olalia of Rice Bar, pastry chef Isa Fabro, and many others, and included tastings, talks, and a screening of a Filipino food documentary. “I'm honored to be lumped in with a group of people who are doing fantastic things to push the Filipino Food Movement forward,” says de la Cruz of the experience. “And I think there are a lot of opportunities for us to grow more. Thankfully people have been coming to try different things because they've heard of us, whether it's through [the other Filipino chefs] or just hearing about Filipino food and looking to see where they can find it. So we're getting that type of recognition.”
De la Cruz says that while the growing mainstream media recognition of Filipino food is exciting and she’s thrilled to see that more people are trying the food, she notes there are still gaps in what is available for people to try. “For example, with Alvin and LASA, they're doing the high-end of it, which is fantastic,” she explains. “But I think there's also opportunities to rework it so that it's still affordable for people to eat on an everyday basis and still produce good food without it being just cheap cuts of meat. While it's nice to go to those places for a fancy dinner, you still want to get that lunch rush, and say, 'Let's get Filipino food for lunch' just as you would say, 'Let's get Thai food or let's get a sandwich.' So there's still that opportunity, and I think until we can break that market, that's where I see a lot of the sustainability happening.”
Filipino flavors in the grocery aisle
Grocery aisles are another place where de la Cruz sees great potential for Filipino foods to be featured more. She points out that while you’ll often find a diverse group of Angelenos shopping at — or at least familiar with — places such as the Japanese grocery store Mitsuwa or Korean stores such a Galleria Market, many are unaware of Filipino grocery stores outside of the Filipino community.
“In this area alone, in about a five-mile radius, there are six major Filipino grocery stores, and many people don't know about them,” she says while sitting inside FrankieLucy, which is about a five minute drive from Historic Filipinotown. “Which just shows how much further we have to go because you can get Filipino ingredients and make it yourself. We still have to cross that barrier, there's still a way to go. But it's not because of the people who are looking for the food, it's because of the people who own the businesses. There's still that old mentality where they're marketing just to Filipino customers versus being all-inclusive and trying to get different communities as part of their customer base.” For those looking to explore those Filipino grocery stores, she recommends Seafood City Supermarket, Island Pacific Market, and the relatively new American Ranch & Seafood Market, which she says is one of the best for fresh ingredients.
De la Cruz suggests that much of that old mentality of Filipino businesses primarily catering to the Filipino community is based on the idea that the community will always be there to help self-sustain stores and restaurants. But that might not always be the case, she explains, “Eventually that will die out because the people that go there are people who are immigrating from the Phillipines or are my parents age. I don't see too many people that are my age or younger going in there and the numbers are dwindling. So they're going to have to start making choices in the next 10-15 years or their businesses will start dying out. Until the Filipino community of my parent's generation, especially food businesses, until they start focusing on being more inclusive of other people, it's going to be hard for them to grow.”
De la Cruz would also like to see more Filipino ingredients and products on the shelves of mainstream supermarkets, including some of her own products. Currently she’s working on plans to make her ube horchata and custard products available as individually packaged items on the shelves, either frozen or fresh.
She also wants to find ways to make her products more available to a wider socio-economic audience, and not just those who have money to spare on higher-end artisanal desserts. “Going forward, I know our price point isn't affordable to a lot of people, but I'd like to make it so that it's affordable to everyone,” she says. “I'd like to make it so that everyone can come in, and make it sustainable so that everyone is still paid a fair living wage, and so that I can continue to do business here in L.A. I like what chef Roy Choi is doing [with LocoL] and understand what he's doing, it's just hard to do for us right now, but it's one of our overall goals.”
The new generation of the Filipino Food Movement
Looking towards the future, de la Cruz is encouraged to see a gradual shift in perceptions within the Filipino community that such a career in the food industry as an entrepreneur is a viable option, a confirmation that she never had when she was younger. “As a Filipino American, you don't grow up wanting to be an entrepreneur, it's not something that your parents encourage, like, 'You should open your own business,' she says. “Instead it's, 'Be an engineer, be a nurse, be a doctor. Do something that means sustainability and comfort into your old age where you can provide for your family.' And as a kid that's all I knew, I didn't know that culinary school was a possibility, I didn't even know there was such a thing. I just thought that I had to go to college.”
She’s also inspired by the next generation of Filipino food entrepreneurs, “What's exciting for me is that there a whole bunch of the millennial generation that are becoming entrepreneurs and at a young age,” she adds. “They're seeing the tech side of it where people are starting apps and companies, and seeing entrepreneurship as a good thing. And while it's still a risky thing, there are more people doing it, so it's more accepted in the Filipino community. There's still push back from the parents, especially parents that are doctors or engineers, that say, 'Why don't you want to do this, this is how I provided for you.' I can see the fear from my parent's generation, 'Why are you jeopardizing your future on a trend that may not last.”
“And that's a little bit why we didn't focus as much on the Filipino community in the very beginning,” de la Cruz explains. “Not because I didn't think we'd be successful with that community, but I felt they have to see the success before they can accept it. It's not meant to be disparaging, it's just the way it is. They want to make sure that someone else co-signs your success before they can support it.”
She also acknowledges that this type of pushback from the older generation is not unique to the Filipino community, “I think like a lot of immigrant communities, they grew up making what they do. But I think in the next ten to fifteen years, it will change dramatically. Those people are getting older, and there will be a lot more people who are encouraging and see success made by our generation and they'll say, 'Okay, if you have the drive and ability, and you work hard, you can do that. I think you'll see a lot more people delving into their own businesses and making choices to be more self-sustaining versus letting someone else determine what their life is going to be like career-wise.”
Taking pride in Filipino food
Thinking back to the embarrassment that she experienced in the school lunchroom as a kid, de la Cruz is hopeful that with the growing popularity and awareness of Filipino food, her nephews won’t have to experience the same sort of shaming. “My nephews are five and two, and one thing that I'm excited about is that there is more Filipino food being recognized in the mainstream community, that they won't feel embarrassed if they bring their baon to grade school or high school because people will understand what it is,” she says. “There's just so much more of a diverse community in Los Angeles now, and San Francisco, too. When we left in '88, it went from 87% percent white and 7 percent Asian to about 56 percent Asian, and of that 56 percent, I think it's about 34 percent Filipino. It changed dramatically.”
“My nephews won't have the same experiences that I had — obviously they'll still have challenges, but normal kid challenges, at least it won't be about food,” she adds. “And I think they'll actually be celebrated because I think kids now try different things and are exposed to more, it's almost a challenge to them. Kids recognize different foods now.They'll be able to feel good about eating their Filipino food choices around kids because the friends may have had it already.”