In a move that could remake San Francisco's notion of pan dulce ― Mexican sweet rolls ― pastry chef Luis Villavelazquez is working with Mission panaderia La Victoria to modernize the baking program at the 60-year-old bakery and cafe.
Last week, Villavelazquez began doing production for Les Elements in La Victoria's commissary kitchen. This week he starts working with the La Victoria staff to improve their pan dulce techniques and introduce new, higher-quality ingredients, all, he says, without straying too far from panaderia tradition. Villavelazquez tells SFoodie he'll start shadowing the bakers' shift ― 2 a.m.-2 p.m. ― to work with 30-year La Victoria vets Raul Vasquez and Lorenzo Castro on teaching new techniques, though Villavelazquez himself plans to make fillings and more intricate items.
"The hardest part will be to show them I have the same amount of skills that they do, and at the same time I have to trust them, and they have to trust me," says Villavelazquez, who recalls going to La Victoria as a kid, nibbling on cookies and conchas.
Villavelazquez was an intern at Elizabeth Falkner's Citizen Cake, eventually working his way up to pastry sous chef. He made the leap to Orson, before taking over the pastry program at Absinthe and its sister, Arlequin Cafe. Last fall, he struck out on his own with Les Elements Patisserie, which sets up a stall at the Thursday and Saturday Ferry Plaza farmers' markets. He's also been signing up wholesale clients, including Tcho, where he's begun making pastries for its Beta Store on the Embarcadero.
On Monday, Villavelazquez plans to begin offering his first pastry in the La Victoria case, a prickly pear- and chocolate-filled profiterole. He'll introduce new items every few days or so; La Victoria's pan dulce line should start to change in about a month. Some things, like conchas, will get subtle tweaks ― vanilla-sugar topping, say. Or they'll shift to more upscale ingredients, Tcho chocolate rather than Ghirardelli, for instance.
Other items, says La Victoria's Jaime Maldonado, will see more dramatic changes. Croissants will morph from the Mexican cuerno feite, to the flakier French style ― some filled with dulce de leche ― and there'll be more tropical fruit fillings, too. "French technique, Latin technique ― it's going to be a melding of flavors and styles, a new way of looking at things," Maldonado says. Plans also call for rethinking the pastry cases, which double as La Victoria's window displays.
Modernization has long been a goal for Maldonado, who took over the business from his dad in 1992. Last year he said this to SFoodie's Jonathan Kauffman: "My next step is to bring in a pastry chef, someone with some notoriety who says, 'I see what this guy is doing, I like what he's doing.' I want to create a new product environment that doesn't alienate the Latin pastries but adds European twists to create nuevo Latino pastries."
Looks like Maldonado found what he's looking for. The question now is, will the neighborhood accept the change, including paying a bit more for pan dulce?
Maldonado's planning to hold the line on prices for most things, which currently range from $.99-$2.50 per piece. "The thing is to do it so we get younger people in the neighborhood more excited without making our regulars mad."