(This article appeared in the Summer 2022 issue of Pastry Arts Magazine)
By Robert Wemischner
Once a pastry chef at white tablecloth restaurants, the baker-owner of Friends and Family is now committed to offering a menu based on whole grains while engendering a strong sense of community in her eclectic Los Angeles neighborhood, one customer at a time.
Talk to Roxana Jullapat, baker-owner of Friends and Family in Los Angeles, and you will come away refreshed about the prospects of how a small business can become a hub for the community. Located improbably on a stretch of east Hollywood, the nexus of Thai food and the heart of ‘Little Armenia,’ the bakery café represents a place with a fierce commitment to locally grown ingredients. California born but with a strong connection to Costa Rica, the land of her stepmother, Roxana transitioned from being a pastry chef in fine dining restaurants in LA and elsewhere to her role as a baker committed to basing her menu on locally grown whole grains. She says: “Transitioning from fine dining establishments where champagne flutes were in the hands of many of the customers, to a neighborhood bakery has been a huge but extremely satisfying leap. We opened our bakery café to be a place where customers could choose to come every day. The hardest part has been to make the bakery a place that would be super accessible. We wished to be a neighborhood hang serving delicious, well made, and thoughtful food in a space with a ‘come as you are’ vibe. We consciously decided to leave the fussy stuff to other chefs and restaurants.”
Shining a light on how to use whole grains – from barley to sorghum with stops for rye and corn along the way – Jullapat wrote Mother Grains: Recipes for the Grain Revolution (Norton, 2021). Here she deftly sums up her baking philosophy, beginning with expressing respect for the vitality of the ingredients and ending with valuing whimsy and imperfection. That honestly says it for a baker who has helmed the pastry side of the kitchens of Nancy Silverton and Suzanne Goin, both restaurant royalty in LA. She says, “Once I snapped out feeling that baking was going to be a great hobby, I began to take culinary school very seriously and had my eye on working in the field where squeeze bottles, ring molds and tweezers were nowhere to be found in my toolbox. I also realized that to succeed, you must be all in, committed to pursuing baking as a serious path. It’s not just something for the meantime.” Five years later Roxana and her partner Dan Mattern are proving to a local and eclectic community and on the national stage (she was recently nominated for a James Beard Award) that whole grain can be wholesome – and delicious.
Jullapat feels that she has found her lane and intends to stick to it. “We are not a restaurant where desserts sell for 12 dollars a pop.” Instead, at years four and five, like everyone else in the food service business, she has navigated the tricky shoals of the pandemic. “As bakers, we are always needing to be creative. That part has been second nature to me—how we schedule shifts and batches of bread to make sense. It’s a big jigsaw puzzle, not without its challenges, but all of this juggling is part of what we do as bakers. We face challenges when we need to retard a particular dough to delay baking until the ovens are available or adjusting schedules to work within time constraints when we need to get a wholesale order out for an early morning delivery to our customers.” For now, as a business owner, she does not feel that same sense of impending doom of the earlier stages of the pandemic that left many business owners situated on the edge of the precipice, but has had to endure supply line disruptions, wary customers and the same litany of other issues that everyone in business has had to face to a greater or lesser degree.
We wished to be a neighborhood hang serving delicious, well made, and thoughtful food in a space with a ‘come as you are’ vibe. We consciously decided to leave the fussy stuff to other chefs and restaurants.
Like many others in the business, finding good and committed bakers continues to be tough. She reflects: “Remembering my years in culinary school, when I was just starting, we are grateful to get students who have an interest in baking. It is a lifelong commitment but not without that perennial revolving door.” With the upside of gaining satisfaction from introducing bakers to the pleasures of using alternative grains comes the incredibly hard and long training curve. And on our customer-facing side, during the pandemic we left the doors open, selling produce to the community, attempting to keep everyone employed. The bottom line then had to take second place. Our goals of inclusion, diversity and equity took precedence then and continue to do so at the present day.”
Never forgetting her time when she was infatuated with healthy baking, Roxana says that it is all of a piece with her focus on knowing where her ingredients are coming from, who grew them, who milled them. Her suppliers have become friends over the years. “I am big on building connections and remain plugged into the trading practices of our chocolate company. I want to know about the agricultural practices of our ingredients growers and know the farmer on a first name basis.” On a macro scale, she expresses the wish to effect change and influence policy makers. “Running Friends and Family makes me think about small business models and the possibility of cooperatives. In Costa Rica, these business formats are common and the center of business innovation which include coffee growers, cheese makers and fruit growers.” She continues: “I often think about the structure and ambitions of the business and ask is it too big? Do we try to produce too many products?
Transitioning from fine dining establishments where champagne flutes were in the hands of many of the customers, to a neighborhood bakery has been a huge but extremely satisfying leap.
In the everyday operation of the business, she explains: “I am conscious of the need to include the voices of our staff in a dialogue of how things should be done in the business. I realize that you cannot do the job alone. It’s an ongoing collaboration with constant communication between our crews. We are hardwired to pass the baton to the person who ends or starts the day. Baking on a commercial level requires a spirit of cooperation, even though working with groups of people can be complicated with tricky power dynamics.
Plans for the future? “I am working on another book, which is a great excuse to travel and have a life outside of the business with quality personal time, even though our strongest sense of obligation is to the business.” Formed by being part of the school of chefs who work their fingers to the bone, as she describes it, she and Dan alternate days off. Despite working hard and through the night when others are sleeping, Roxana has demonstrated that all-in commitment to the thing she loves to do—bake.
On a larger scale, Roxana sums up her business philosophy in this way: she writes: “By discussing ancient grains, discovering delicious ways to prepare them and mentoring a new school of bakers to appreciate their many virtues, we can promote diversity across the industry. As bakers, anytime we choose to buy flour made from ancient grains, minimally processed by an artisanal miller, we’re make a conscious decision to preserve the seeds of our ancestors for future generations.” Certainly, calling her bakery Friends and Family telegraphs her message to honor those traditions and those people whom she has come to call her friends and extended family, welcoming them into her kitchen through their ingredients every day. One bite and you’re convinced of the essential rightness of this mission.
Headshot by Kristin Tei
All other photos by Beth Coller
About Robert Wemischner
Robert Wemischner is a longtime professional baking instructor at Los Angeles Trade Technical College and the author of four books, including The Dessert Architect.