It's 80 degrees outside and there is no breeze and a couple sit in a snug booth at Karen Krasne's Extraordinary Desserts on Fifth Avenue and with neither comment nor expression methodically eat several slices of cake, a piece of banana tart, and two different kinds of cookie. Both man and woman are thin, tan, in their 50s. His gray beard is trimmed neat, he wears Bally loafers, a Cartier tank watch. Her thick blond hair is cut blunt, a black Bottega purse sits at her side, she wears a Cartier tank watch.
2929 Fifth Avenue, Bankers Hill
They look European, and because tourists to this part of the world don't tend to spend hot, clear afternoons tucking into plate after plate of rich sweets, it would appear the couple's visit to Extraordinary Desserts was other than casual. Karen Krasne seems to think so too. From a corner in her sleek, earthtone store where she stands unpacking merchandise — imported jams, Japanese teas — she glances at the couple. Unpacks, glances. There's a good chance they are food critics or food writers from somewhere. Over the summer, in the U.S. and abroad, a half-dozen articles and cover stories-in fashion and women's magazines praised Krasne's cakes.
Eight years ago, a single article by a U-T food writer turned Extraordinary Desserts, literally, into an overnight success. Journalists and their power make Krasne edgy. The man blots a blob of whipped cream from his mustache. Krasne glances at him, smiles. She rubs a thin, pale wrist across her sweaty forehead and gives a tremulous little sigh.
Although her loveliness is very ladylike, she’s usually not a sigher. Krasne is small, with delicate features. Her longish brown hair is wavy, her eyes are green. Look closer and you see that her compact body is athletic. Spend a few minutes with her and you forget she is petite. Krasne, like her world-famous cakes, is a combination of iron will and lush enthusiasm.
That afternoon, Krasne was just back from Bali and on her way to Paris. Her cakes in their spotless refrigerated cases sit at midpoint in that trajectory between tropical and European. They are dense, complex compositions in the formidable Austro-French tradition. Krasne soaks their layers in espresso or moistens them with kirsch or Courvoisier or Grand Marnier. She layers them with buttercream and whipped cream and caramel. She envelops them in dark chocolate ganache and whipped cream and shaved chocolate. She dusts them with cocoa, she edges them with crushed hazelnuts and crushed chocolate almond pralines. On top, however, they wear tropical orchids, lilies, fruit, berries, gilt ribbons, and flecks of edible gold in arrangements of saucy, almost Carmen Miranda-esque effusion.
Culinary-wise, Krasne’s cakes aren’t frivolous. They evoke the spectacular, famous cakes of the early 19th Century, an era when desserts were matters of national pride. In particular, political tensions between Paris and Vienna spurred great chefs in those cities into the baked goods equivalent of an arms race. Princes and diplomats used desserts as weapons of intimidation. Nowadays it’s impossible to imagine Madeleine Albright, say, humbling belligerent Serbs with an amazing fat-free cheesecake whipped up in the White House’s calorie-conscious kitchen. Contemporary desserts aren’t assertive.
To understand the mechanics of this historical difference, go to Extraordinary Desserts and have a piece of Krasne’s Fraisier Triple-Berry Torte: kirsch-moistened sponge cake, raspberry buttercream, raspberries, strawberries, boysenberries, and whipped cream. It’s less sweet than you might expect, and the strength of its flavors will surprise you. Krasne’s old-fashioned use of cream and butter is why her cakes taste so intensely of their fine ingredients — the fresh berries, the French liqueurs, the Tahitian vanilla, the Valhrona chocolate. While fats add nothing to the taste of food, butter and cream masterfully chauffeur aromatic molecules from the mouth to the olfactory receptors at the back of the nose. This is why fat-free foods rely on sugar or salt to make up for their lack of flavor. Fat-free equals tasteless. Krasne’s Fraisier Triple-Berry Torte radiates an aura of fresh-berry molecules. At first bite the tongue perceives the slippery-cool whipped cream, the juicy sponge cake, and then pure raspberry and boysenberry essence blossom in nose and mouth.
Krasne understands how and why food tastes good. In the well-heeled Del Cerro household she grew up in, her mother never allowed the children to eat snacks or drink beverages made outside the home.
“My mother also,” Krasne says, “was a fanatic about making sure that the food and the table looked good. It was all part of, I guess, a Jewish consciousness about what it means to eat well. There were certain things you simply didn’t eat at all. And the things we did eat had to be of the finest quality and deserved to be prepared with care. Even when I was a rebellious teenager, throwing keg parties for 250 people, what my mother taught us stuck with me. I may have been a hell-raiser, but at my parties I was always running around, making sure the food looked right, making sure the sandwiches were made with good bread, good mustard and mayonnaise. And the strange thing is that people remember it. At my ten-year Patrick Henry High School reunion, people came up to me and said, ‘My God, Karen, I remember your parties. You were only 17, but the food was so fantastic!’ ”
What’s even stranger is that this former hell-raising Jewish girl from Del Cerro is in many ways more interesting than the beautiful cakes she bakes. Krasne ran off to Honolulu when she was 17 and was graduated from the University of Hawaii with a degree in nutritional science.
“The first minute I stepped off the plane, I loved Hawaii. I loved it because of the way it smelled. That was it, right off the plane, and, wow, that warm air and the smell of flowers.
“Everything is more intense there — tropical smells, bright colors. I fell in love with it, and I thought I would never leave. Then I got a job at this upscale cafe in Honolulu. There I was working on a degree in nutritional science, and the cafe’s owner was this woman in her 30s, and she was having a damn good time making great-looking pastries and piles of money. She’s wearing Versace and traveling the world, and I’m worrying about my dissertation on food and cancer. I’m thinking, ‘Something’s very wrong here.’
“I got down to business. I called Tony Allegra, the food editor at the San Diego Union-Tribune, and I asked her what the best pastry schools were in Europe. Then I sat down and made out this yearlong educational itinerary that would turn me into a first-class pastry chef. I don’t know how I ever got the idea that this was something I could do or that my parents would go along with it. They didn’t. They just looked at my itinerary and how much it would cost and they laughed. It was only $10,000, but they wouldn’t go for it. They said they’d match whatever money I’d put up. I worked my ass off, got my degree, and in 1984 I left for Europe with only $3000 in my pocket.
“You have to imagine me, how exotic I was in Paris. I was this Jewish girl from Hawaii, of all places, from the other side of the planet, standing there in the gray Paris winter in yellow plastic boots. Yellow plastic boots! What was I thinking? I thought they looked pretty cool in Hawaii, but in France I might as well have been from Mars. What did I know? I grew up in San Diego. I’d never experienced a European winter before.
“And this is an important point — France brought me to maturity. I arrived as a girl. The French taught me how to be a mature woman. It was like a Henry James novel, and it had to do with a lot more than just getting rid of my yellow plastic boots.
“While I was on a train from the south of France to Paris, I met a young man. He was from a very old, very politically important Parisian family. He was an intellectual, he was a French intellectual, and although we had little in common, we became best friends. It was a completely platonic relationship. He was fascinated by me — remember how exotic I seemed to the French. And when I told him I’d come to France to study French cuisine, the art of making pastry, he invited me to come and live with his family.
“Can you imagine? I’ve come from Honolulu, and there I am walking into this huge, beautiful apartment on the Rue de Rivoli across from the Louvre in one of the oldest and most prestigious quarters in Paris. The apartment was filled with antiques. There were real Cezannes and Picassos hanging on the walls. I had my own room and a maid who drew my bath. The family acted as if my being there were the most normal thing in the world. They thought it was wonderful that I’d come all that way to study French food.
“My friend had his own life, with his philosophy books, his own interests. We remained close, but I really gravitated to his grandmother, who lived there in the apartment with his family. She was in her 80s, and she was the one who really educated me about French culture, about couture, about the difference between wearing Chanel or clothes from another designer. She taught me everything; we’d spend hours and hours just talking.
“Of course, the family enjoyed my studies too. I’d come home from le Cordon Bleu with two dozen fresh brioches I’d just made, with boxes of warm fresh croissants. They loved it. For an entire year I completely immersed myself in patisserie. I studied at le Cordon Bleu, at Ecole LeNotre. I did a real apprenticeship at a French bakery. I had to get up at 4:00 every morning and spend hours and hours making thousands of croissants. To this day I cannot stand them. I don’t want to make one. I don’t want to see one. I don’t even sell croissants in my store. Enough was enough. Still, it was a valuable experience. It gave me a feeling that I’d really paid my dues. The rest of my education hadn’t been so difficult.
“I know the French kitchen has a reputation for being a pretty competitive, macho place, but I never had any problems. I think I had several things going in my favor. First of all, I wasn’t French. I was a foreigner. And I was very foreign — a Jewish female from Hawaii. Secondly, I spoke fluent French. I’d had years of French in university. I had a Mexican nanny all my life, and I grew up speaking fluent Spanish. French wasn’t difficult for me. Thirdly, I was humble. The French are terrified of being demeaned, of being made to do something they might consider beneath them. I didn’t care. I was ready to work. I wanted to learn. I’d do anything — does that pan need to be washed? Give it to me, I’ll wash it! Do those apples need to be peeled? I’ll do it! I worked hard and they appreciated it.
“Of all the skills I learned, I think the most valuable was learning to cook with my nose. There are no timers in the French kitchen. You know which stage something is at, its degree of doneness, by smell, which is more sensitive and accurate than any thermometer or timer. If I’m making a tart shell, for example, and it’s baking, I can tell when it’s done by the smell. I don’t even really have to keep track of it consciously. I can be absorbed in doing something else, and when I catch a certain whiff, I know that it’s ready to come out of the oven. That knowledge is an automatic part of me. The French taught me to integrate the process and experience of cooking into who I am as a person.
“So I left France with a great many practical skills. I knew I could bake anything, but I lacked the self-confidence that comes from work experience. When I came back to San Diego my mother told me that she’d been to a resort hotel in Cancun that served great food but had really mundane desserts. She told them that she had a French-educated pastry chef for a daughter. They said, ‘Tell her to call us!’ I did. Before I knew it, I was on a plane to Cancun, and I was a pastry chef on my own in a huge hotel kitchen. That’s how I learned the professional tricks, the economy of a kitchen, of being aware at all times precisely what you have in stock and what you need to order. You have to balance all those details in your mind, all the small things, like, ‘How many eggs do we have?’ It doesn’t sound important, but if you’re a professional pastry chef and you’re late, and you’ve got to make a cake in a hurry, what are you going to do if you suddenly find out you have no eggs? What do you do? Go out and rent a chicken? I don’t think so.
“That’s what Cancun taught me. I saved all the money I made and left again for Europe, took more classes, studied everything I could in Austria, Hungary, and Italy. This went on for a couple of years, back and forth from Europe to America. Finally in 1988 I was back in San Diego. I had a boyfriend. I wasn’t even sure I wanted to stay here. All I knew was that I wanted to open an incredible dessert shop. My boyfriend and I decided, almost spontaneously, that we’d try to make it here. I looked at a lot of buildings, a lot of spaces, but when I walked into what’s now my store on Fifth Avenue, I knew it felt right. At the time it was a hair salon done in pink. My friends asked me, ‘Karen, how can you feel right about a pink hair salon?’ I didn’t know. It just felt right.
“So we borrowed $20,000 from my parents, and we opened the store in February or March of 1988. We worked ’round the clock at the store. I was baking by myself, had no staff. My boyfriend was taking care of the money end of things. Some nights we were too tired to go home, and we slept on the prep tables in the kitchen.
“Then everything changed. On Friday, April 1, Leslie James’s review of Extraordinary Desserts appeared on page one of the Union-Tribune’s Lifestyle section. I didn’t even read it. I had no idea it was coming out. I had no idea it had been published. On Saturday morning, real early, I stagger into the store, literally with one shoe on and one shoe off. I come in through the back, and I hear the phone ringing and ringing. I see this huge line of people standing outside, waiting to come in. There were 30 frantic messages on my machine, people begging for my cakes. And there I was, hopping around the kitchen with one shoe on, all those people waiting outside, and I’m hysterical, and I’m thinking, ‘My God, what’s happened?’ We opened shop and we sold out of everything in the first 15 minutes. We had nothing left. I got on the phone and called my mom and told her to grab the maid and my grandmother and get down to the store to help me. It was unbelievable.”
Among other comments in James’s 700-word review, she wrote, “The tortes, tarts, cakes, and cookies in her tiny but stylish shop are, quite simply, the best in town.... Trained in Paris at Cordon Bleu and L’Ecole LeNotre, the 28-year-old Krasne has imagination, elegance, and finesse that nobody else can touch.”
Krasne no longer sleeps on the kitchen prep tables. She makes $3000 wedding cakes for wealthy Tijuanenses. She covers birthday cakes with 24-carat gold leaf for 65-year-old La Jollans. She’s bought a home in Mission Hills. A staff of six help her in the kitchen. Sixteen clerks trade shifts at the front counter. Krasne’s redecorated the shop’s interior “so that it feels like a woman in an open garden at twilight.”
When she’s not in Paris learning new skills, like making multicolored ribbons from spun sugar, or when she’s not hiking through Southeast Asia to find new doodads to sell in her shop, Krasne tries to spend ten hours a day at Extraordinary Desserts.
“The shop,” she says, “is like my baby. Every minute I’m not there, I worry that something might go wrong. But that’s what I’m like. That’s what it takes to run a business. In the food industry world, I’m something of a miracle. It’s incredibly rare in America to run a successful shop that sells only desserts. Most other places have to rely on the lunchtime trade—soup and sandwiches. I can make it because I make sure that my standards are maintained. I may get only five or six hours of sleep at night, but I keep my customers happy.
“I wish only that I were a little less busy. My big treat to myself is to sleep in until 9:00 on Sunday mornings. My schedule’s going to get even tighter. My new boyfriend has just moved from Irvine to Switzerland — ours is going to be a truly long-distance relationship. The amazing thing is that we first met when we were five years old in kindergarten at Hardy Elementary. We sort of had a crush on each other back then. We grew up. He got married. After he got divorced, he called me out of the blue. He said, ‘Hey, Karen, let’s get together sometime.’ We did.
“I won’t say that I’ve never been in love before, but this time it’s really different. Being in love with him has opened me up. It’s made me more creative. It’s given me more energy. It’s that I’m in love, and I’m so happy that I want to share this happiness with everyone else, and one way I can express that is through my food. I understand now, for the first time, how my talent truly brings joy and pleasure to other people. It’s almost a spiritual thing. Before, I never thought very deeply about my clients as people. My boyfriend has taught me that. Being in love with him has changed me.”