Filipino desserts maintained their character in the hybrid age because of imaginative pastry chefs like Barbara Batiste, age 48. The beneficiary of three generations of accumulated wisdom, Barbara carries on the pastry tradition of Cruz women. She keeps Filipino ingredients and techniques the soul and center of B Sweet Dessert Bar in West Los Angeles.
“I’m so excited about this movement that’s exposing the Filipino heritage in food. I’m glad to be a part of it,” says Barbara. “It’s finally happening and it’s savory and sweet.”
From Homemaker to Dessert Maker
Barbara was born in Manila and immigrated to the U.S. at age 1. She was the only child of Angel and Fely Cabanez. Fely, her sister, Elvie Cruz, and their mother, Macaria Cruz, taught little Barbara to cook.
A graphic designer by training, Barbara was 19 when she married Gregory Batiste in 1987. She became a full-time mom with the birth of son, Ryan. Somewhere between diapers and preschool she found kitchen time to bake loaves of chocolate chip banana bread as gifts for real estate development clients of her husband. She eventually ventured into the job world first as an executive pastry chef at the Loews Santa Monica Beach and later, head pastry chef for LA Art Gallery.
Afterhours demand for banana bread and bread pudding turned her kitchen into a catering business. Family friend Kurt Steinitz saw greater potential than a cottage industry. Soon after he became her business partner, the search began for a restaurant space. Gregory found the perfect location through the real estate grapevine.
Then Came B Sweet
Opened in 2014, the B Sweet Dessert Bar takes up 950 square feet at 2005 Sawtelle Boulevard and is the flagship of an operation with 12 employees, a Culver City kitchen of 3,000 square feet, and two USPS mail vans reincarnated as food trucks named Lil Angel and Lil Devil.
Barbara recalls, “I was fine with catering and trucks, but my business partner (Kurt) convinced me to open a brick and mortar store. We wanted a place that would be homey and comfortable though we found out we couldn’t install tables and chairs in the center area.”
The restaurant has counters with ample stools along the window and a patio with tables out front. “Now the setup accommodates the unanticipated lines down the street,” she says pointing at the open space between the entrance and the kitchen.
B Sweet is a tremendous success. The dessert bar alone serves between 800 and 900 bread puddings weekly. “And that’s not including our other desserts, cakes, pies and cookies,” Barbara points out.
Blending Past, Blending Present
The purity of General Tso’s chicken and Maki sushi is a tribute to the rigid determination of the silk robe and kimono neighbors of the Philippines to isolate themselves from foreign influence. Through the same centuries, the Philippines was a port for Malay seafarers, a colony of Spain, a conquest of Japan and a protectorate of the United States. A culture that was built on assimilating other traditions was destined to produce recipes that are everything but standardized.
It is Barbara’s birthright to add her flare to the icy, fruity dessert halo-halo without compromising its Filipino pedigree. She explains, “Halo-halo is different wherever you go in the Philippines. Some Filipinos ask me to put corn in it, but Mom was raised in Manila where corn isn’t added. She told me never to skimp on her ingredients. The more condensed milk, butter and cream, the better. That’s how I cook.
“I always incorporate Filipino flavors,” she says. “My New York cheesecake has ube (purple yam). When I incorporated ube into bread pudding, sales blew up. Customers love buko pandan (young coconut) in crème brûlée. I also like using langka (jack fruit).”
Barbara even makes canine guests happy with Pup Cakes composed of carrots and honey and ice cubes in the water dish. Dogs are fun, but her main clients will always belong to the Hominid family.
“I would like to branch out into lunch and dinner, but I’m too busy,” Barbara regrets. She prefers the dessert menu “because dinner attracts ‘hangry’ people. Dessert is an option people choose for pleasure.”
Dinner restaurants sprinkle salt to make their guests salivate for beverages with high profit margins. Sugar, on the contrary, isn’t gold dust to stimulate thirst. It has a hyperactive reaction followed by intense sleepiness that leads to an early exit. At a dessert shop, every sugary drink has to stand on its own and be worth the discomfort to come. Drinks at B Sweet are worth the cash and sugar crash. The mere sight of an Ube Root Beer Float peels dollars from the wallet.
The business has diversified with nitro coffee and tea on tap. Kurt has the foamy drinks brewed and canned in Westlake Village for local Erewhon, Bristol Farms and Gelson markets. Kegs go to Whole Foods stores. And at B Sweet, Cold Nitro Macha Green Tea is a favorite on the specials board.
All the Mouths that’s Fit to Fete
Satisfying a high volume of eaters comes natural to Barbara. “To be successful in this business you have to have an affinity for people and making them happy.”
She adds, “We get the nicest, sweetest customers.” Barbara estimates about 80 percent of her Sunday customers are Filipino.
Her work is attuned to her upbringing in a Filipino household in North Hollywood. “My mother’s house is the house my cousins came to. She made an abundance of desserts. It’s very hard for me to cook for a small group since my mom cooked large amounts. I’m all about sharing food. It brings me joy to watch people eat my food.”
A good restaurant review is usually confined to the menu and sometimes the atmosphere. A critic’s praise can breed arrogance that assesses a hidden cost for savory barbecue. Arrogance can pervade without impunity when the personalities of chefs are seldom rated. Kindness is the observable ingredient that customers have a right to expect from a restaurant. B Sweet’s desserts would definitely delight in a blindfold test. The sight and sound of hospitality make the bread pudding taste unbelievably better.
Sawtelle Boulevard was missing a dessert shop that served more than shave ice. B Sweet helped make dining choices in the historic Japanese neighborhood complete. B Sweet also has an event room upstairs available for special occasions. Food adventurers can meet Barbara in person at Los Angeles Food and Wine Festival, August 25th to 28th in Santa Monica and Downtown Los Angeles. She’ll be glad to sort visitors between the Fudgiest and Sluttiest Brownie camps.
Anthony Maddela writes in Los Angeles. He’s part of a team of dedicated workers based at the Imperial Courts public housing development in Watts.
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