A baker’s homecoming: Hermosa Pie & Cake Company
The very large man who owns the very small bakery urged me to smell the pot of gently stewing cherries that were cooking into pie filling, to taste the thick, naturally sweet liquid around them. Then he launched into something that was part tirade, part philosophical lecture.
“A colleague of mine named Rick Stein has a TV show and spent time going around the Mediterranean finding fresh things and cooking them on the spot, and when I was working with him he used to say, ‘Let food be itself’,” he said. “I apply that philosophy to baking – ask what can I do to these cherries, these pears, these pieces of peaches to let them explore their own personality? You might try them raw and think, ‘This couldn’t be better.’ But with a little heat, a little flour, butter, and nurturing, they become something else while still remaining cherries, pears, and peaches. I haven’t loaded them up with sugar, covered them with allspice and nutmeg and cinnamon and concealed what is there. I might take Bartlett pears and add a little saffron, a little vanilla because the saffron gives it earthiness, the vanilla a little bit of sensuousness that the pear lacks.”
Welcome to a conversation with David Wallace, owner of the recently opened Hermosa Pie & Cake Company. Wallace is passionate and articulate about food, and has a fascinating personal story of rising to the heights of his profession, crashing, and reinventing himself as a baker in a tiny shop on Hermosa Avenue.
“I went to Mira Costa, hated it, and took the test to graduate two years early – I should have been class of ’83, but graduated in ’81,” Wallace said. “I went up to Mendocino County and started picking grapes; my dad was a wine salesman, and I started working for Baccala Vineyards in Ukiah. I worked for a couple different vineyards and then went to the University of Fresno to get my master’s degree in oenology. I went back to Mendocino and hooked up with some friends who had a little money, and we started a winery called Parson’s Creek. I also worked at Jeppsen Vineyards as their brandy distiller – I was one of the only guys making Cognac-style brandy here in California. I did that for a few years and than came back down here and got into Bristol Farms with Irv Gronsky and Mike Burbank, the original owners. When we sold to another company [in 2004], I moved to Europe.”
“I took my California wine knowledge and customer service knowledge to England, where there was none of that, and benefited from my American chutzpah to get involved with wine. I was working with hotels and restaurateurs and became a wine negociant (buying from small growers and bottling under my own label). I was buying from the top wine houses and shipping to England and I bought a little restaurant in Belgium, and I was thinking, I’m good at this wine and food thing, what’s the next step? Then in 2008 the economy went terrible – my friends who were driving top end BMWs were in soup lines within moments. I sold my restaurant and came home with a little bit of cash and my favorite knickknacks that I bought in Europe, and nothing else.”
Wallace moved back home with his parents and spent about six months trying to decide what to do with the skills he had gained in both California and Europe. After considering several possible careers, he decided that he knew what Europe had and we didn’t.
“I looked around the South Bay and found myself saying, there are no local bakeries here,” he said. “Everywhere you go in Europe, there’s a bakery on every corner – every morning there’s fresh bread, every night fresh pastries. Here there are places called Mrs. Cupcakes and cakey cakes and little cakes or whatever, but those aren’t bakeries – nobody is making bread, pies with filling that didn’t come out of a can, no homemade chocolate, no pastry. So I said, I’m gonna show people what real food is, cause none of this stuff is real food.”
He found a space in Hermosa that had been a Mexican restaurant long ago but was being used as a warehouse and went to work, doing the carpentry himself because he couldn’t afford to pay anybody else. The interior of the building wasn’t in bad shape, but that could not be said of the empty lot that was part of the property.
“When I got this open space, it was three feet high with trash, weeds, dog poop, and heroin needles – it was just dreadful,” Wallace said. “I decided that to offset my carbon footprint I’d plant trees and flowers. It took a while to figure out what would thrive, but there are pluots, Babcock peaches, Santa Rosa plums, Bartlett pears, and a strain of apples that can take the heat here, and I’m growing two types of mint, lilac, other plants that attract the birds. I was having a problem with aphids on my roses a few weeks ago, and since I won’t use pesticides I didn’t know what to do. I tried soaps and vinegar, but none of it worked, then three days ago I had about 150 of the most beautiful wrens and warblers show up. They swooped out of nowhere like a rainbow of bird colors, chirped like crazy, ate every bug, and flew off. I was thinking, ‘Thank God I don’t use pesticides, because it would have poisoned those birds when they ate the bugs.’ It’s an extension of Rick Stein’s mantra – put the tree in the ground, don’t manipulate it or spray it, just water and nurture it and see what it does. The beauty is already there, all we can do is nurture it.”
That tiny garden has a path going through it, and Wallace encourages his customers to stroll through with their pastry and coffee.
“I can’t have chairs because the city says I don’t have enough parking,” he said. “If I put in a rack for fifteen bicycles that may offset it, but the fees are so astronomical that I can’t explore that further now. I want people to walk through here, slow down, and relax, and if their phone rings ignore it. Someday we should have a digital detox day – a day when everybody shuts down their phone and computer and hang out with each other and remember how relaxed people used to be before cellphones. I have one, and I use it, but I try to keep it from running my life.”
As we talk about the bakery, Wallace is checking his oven, the consistency of fruit cooking on the stove, and the pace at which a tray of bread is rising, all while keeping an eye on the front counter so he can help anybody who comes in. When asked about how his tiny place compares with the bakeries that are in many supermarkets, he pointed at his constant monitoring as an example of the different skills of small and large operations.
“Supermarket bakeries are real bakeries, but they’re also assembly lines,” Wallace said. “Everything is in a measured amount and a prepackaged form. If you take a Duncan Hines box and add an egg and a half cup of water, you are baking something, but you’re not a baker. The guys at supermarkets start with a premade mix and follow the instructions – they don’t make adjustments for the humidity, for the local conditions, because most of them don’t know how. I’m watching everything. Their finished product looks good but has no flavor, and people who don’t have the experience of real pastries, real bread don’t know better. They make a dozen kinds, all of them dull. I only bake bread on weekends, and only two types each time – this week I’m making focaccia and sourdough baguettes.”
As I talk with Wallace, I get a sense of someone with a natural tendency to build, innovate, and expand – just after bemoaning how busy he is fulfilling his current orders, he announced “I want to make ice cream too – I won’t be doing that immediately, but I make really good molasses cookies, and they make killer ice cream sandwiches. I’m gonna do plum puddings for Christmas, the kind you pour brandy over and light on fire, and I bought an old WW2 army jeep – I’m going to paint it up really cute, put a rack in the back and use it for pie deliveries. That’s the long term, the big picture. I couldn’t open with that kind of ambition because by the time everything was done here, all my permits, I was busted and had to open. The response has been incredible – it seems like every day someone comes in and says, “I saw the sign go up months ago and have been watching for the door to be open every time I drive by.”
So as his business grows, will he start eyeing bigger places, perhaps in a more affordable location outside the South Bay? David insists that Hermosa Avenue is home for the foreseeable future.
“I don’t have enough room to expand, and I don’t want to. Even if this business takes off, I’m staying right here. I want to be in this community, where if a mom wants to come down with her kids and get a piece of pie before they come to the beach, this will be the place where they come. This place is just right – I can do puff pastries, breads, and pies, and I can fill my case. It will always have something different than whatever was in there yesterday, and it will always be wholesome. When the case is empty, I’m done and I can clean up and go home.”
Hermosa Pie & Cake Company, 133 Hermosa Ave., Hermosa Beach, (310) 374-2323.