If Suzanne Kissinger hadn’t been tasked with baking pies for her family’s annual Thanksgiving feast, she might never have become a pastry chef. It was Suzanne’s grandmother—“my Nana, we called her”—who had always been the baker in the family. And quite a baker she was, according to Suzanne.
“She baked for any occasion, especially Thanksgiving—pies, candy, 10 different types of old-fashioned candy, cake, anything you can think of for dessert, we’d have from her,” Suzanne said.
As her grandmother got to be well into her 90s, Suzanne realized that all of that baking talent was not always going to be with the family. So, 10 years ago at Thanksgiving time, Suzanne asked her grandmother for her recipes and for a baking lesson. To better preserve the experience, Suzanne decided to videotape the baking sessions with her grandmother.
“I showed up with a friend of mine, and we literally had our hands in the dough, chopping up butter and there was something about it. I thought ‘This is so rad, this is so cool. I’m loving it. What else can we make?’”
After taping her grandmother’s baking instructions, Suzanne decided to write up a cookbook of her grandmother’s recipes to give to the family. When her grandmother died two years later in September—two months before Thanksgiving—Suzanne’s mother tasked her with what had been her grandmother’s baking duties for the upcoming holidays.
“My mom was like, ‘You have her stuff. We’re expecting pies for Thanksgiving.’”
This despite the fact that, at the time, Suzanne had not eaten sugar in 20 years and was also eating a gluten-free diet. With her grandmother’s shoes to fill, Suzanne felt the need to do some practice runs and started experimenting, trying out a variety of pies weeks in advance. Worried that she would not be able to also handle the workload of baking for a large family gathering, she decided to make her pie filling beforehand and bring it home in jars so that she could enlist her nieces and nephews to help her make pies for a crowd of relatives.
“I brought fillings and crust and had everyone assemble their own pies. The creativity that came out of that experience and the whole experience of standing around the table and doing that was so incredible,” she said.
At that table, the things Suzanne’s Nana told her about baking came back to her. “It should feel like silk,” she heard her grandmother saying to her when she touched the dough.
Wanting to continue to share that kind of experience and ramp up her skills, Suzanne decided she could “get over the sugar thing,” in order to enjoy the process of having the creative part of her brain turned back on. So she enrolled in the 9-month baking and patisserie program at the California Culinary Academy.
At the time, Suzanne had been working in sales and marketing for a real estate company. Also a licensed realtor, she now works in both fields. “The relationships with baking and sales are very much bringing two things together,” she says. “I like that marriage. I like seeing two things come together and creating good and deliciousness.”
After graduating from her pastry program in 2011, Suzanne worked for a number of restaurants in San Francisco including a Spanish restaurant where she made use of her grandmother’s recipes, Mission Beach Café, and The Plant Café Organic, where she continues to run the pastry program.
Already familiar with running a small business from her real estate experience, Suzanne decided to start her own dessert catering business, Sweet Treats to Eat. She caters mostly private events and parties, including large dinner parties. She makes everything from ice cream to sauces, shortbreads, pot de crèmes to cupcakes and pie fillings. And most of her desserts come with a special twist…booze.
Adding booze to desserts smooths out and enhances the flavors she’s already working with, Suzanne says. After using it in various desserts, “everything started going toward having booze in it,” she said. Bourbon is Suzanne’s quaff of choice for her baked goods.
Also active in the Forage SF community, Suzanne was part of the movement to get the Cottage Food Act passed so that people could make food at home to sell at places like the underground markets. She now benefits from that effort and has her own home license.
The ability to create and be creative on daily basis are what Suzanne enjoys most about being able to bake for a living. Before those baking lessons with her grandmother, she’d lost touch with the creative part of herself. Now she has a hard time shutting off all the ideas for different flavor combinations. And now that she’s found that part of herself again, she has no intention of letting it go.
“It’s a piece of my brain that’s a cog that won’t stop. It won’t turn off,” she said. “I’m not going to let it.”
What drew you to food?
I’m super picky, I wouldn’t eat anything processed growing up and was heavily influenced by family. At six years old, I wouldn’t eat anything processed. I had an awareness at a young age from other people as a result of having something fresh. My mom never went a day without having a big salad on the table—whatever we did, we had salad. My awareness for what I was consciously eating started very young and kept going. In college, I went to health food stores. I never had a dislike for sweets, but sugar was bad, sweets were forbidden.
It’s the creation process that was more exciting for me. Making something that I got to be touching and juggling these things in your head with the recipes, knowing how to offset things and have a balancing act to come up with this product. That part of it was what really excited me to pursue going to school for it. Through the process of going to school and learning why things balance each other out and knowing the science behind it, I wanted that part of it and started exercising the creative side of it, to play with and create love.
Why boozy treats?
The booze stuff came about from noticing as I was making things—I kept thinking how do I marry these flavors together? The smokiness of bourbon lends itself a lot with chocolate. It made it right. The flavor profile smoothed out and tasted right. I use Bulleit Rye. I thought it was fun, and I thought ‘What else can I do with this? Most fruits go with wine—I could do a reduction first and put it into jams, compotes, pie fillings.’ I started noticing a common theme. I was doing a graduation for a 16-year old and they told me ‘Remember they’re 16 so no boozy stuff.’ I didn’t make it a focus, but in hindsight, I started focusing on it and thinking about it and putting booze in everything. There’s bourbon or wine in everything I create. Especially with butter and chocolate, there’s something about how it smooths everything out.
Where does your food inspiration come from?
For food, I don’t know, the beauty of it. It’s like that high you get from running, that runner’s high when you’re going and your heart opens up and you get that high. I get that everyday when I’m baking now. That’s my inspiration—to get that high.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve gotten along the way in building your business? What advice would you have for others?
Don’t have fear about it. Suzanne at The Plant, who I work for now, she said the exact words that other people have tried to say. She articulated it so profoundly. Ultimately, it’s the idea of let go and of not making it perfect and no fear of it not being perfect because it may not be. If you’re [not afraid], then you’re able to create, if you’re worried all the time, you won’t be able to create.
Same thing on everything—on the business side and especially when creating things. You can’t have fear about it, you just gotta do it.
Where I’m at right now, the biggest challenge is how do I let the world know that I want to give the something that’s a little bit of love? Probably a more simple way to say that is, how do I advertise?
What’s the best thing about what you’re doing for a living?
The best thing is that it gives me the opportunity to do what I love. I love marrying things together and seeing people happy—the opportunity to exercise my creative side.
What’s your favorite item on your menu?
I would have to say my shortbread.
What other local food artisans do you admire and why?
I admire anybody who’s willing to take a risk to put their talent in front of the public for scrutiny, and I admire people who are doing something they love and don’t care what people think. I admire that. There is a vulnerability there to bring your passion to the public.
I especially love Iso [Rabin] and his ability to see the small and the big picture and do something about it.
William Werner, Craftsman and Wolves. He started out doing all his favorite things to make and stepped out and went into the artisan world. He had a pop-up kitchen in Dogpatch—Tell Tale Preserves—he walked away from a chef job to do what he wanted to do and then he got a brick and mortar where he’s teaching others to do what he loves to do. I admire that he’s teaching others the craft.
I would have everything—almost like Noah’s Ark. I would have everything, where you would have a little bit of everything and all my friends would have to be there. I don’t know where it would be. We’d have to travel. Go from one place to another and hop on a plane and go to another. It would be like Santa Claus over the span of a year.
Favorite Bay Area food/resto/chef?
Michael Mina for chef. He has amazing food he’s created. And I also admire his style, allowing other chefs to learn and create from his style. He has mini hims all over the city. For brunch my favorite is Epic. For lunch, it would be Sauce and dinner probably Millennium.
Photos courtesy of Suzanne Kissinger, Sweet Treats to Eat