Pastry Chef Spotlight: Elena Basegio
In an urban sea of artisanal hipster fare, San Francisco’s Fillmore Bakeshop is a throwback, a mom and pop shop full of classic European desserts. Owned and operated by father-daughter duo Doug and Elena Basegio, it may be tempting to assume that Fillmore Bakeshop is a sweet haven of sugar and spice.
But then you meet Elena - red lipped with a booming laugh, she has a head so wild with curls that strangers stop and ask to touch the glossy coils. A study of contrasts, she is a Swiss-trained pastry chef once described by a customer as being “filled with the fire of a jilted Southern debutante”. She’s one of my oldest friends, and I couldn’t have said it better myself. Inspired by Auntie Mame, all things colorful, and The Great British Baking Show, Elena and I sat down over cocktails to discuss her journey as a pastry chef, grappling with sexism in the industry, and why cake pops are so deserving of her wrath.
Settled into our corner table, we started at the beginning. “Famous,” she said of her early childhood dreams. “I wanted to be known, which I guess is a few steps down from famous.” Childhood dreams aside, Elena does not leave the house ill-prepared for discovery; her numerous appearances on Street Style prove it. For an interview spiked with cocktails, she’s wearing a kelly green sundress and her signature curls are wrapped in a rainbow-hued turban that our waiter immediately admires. “Thanks! I look like a piña colada!” Elena always knows how to accept a compliment.
The backdrop of Elena’s quest for fame was her family’s business and local treasure, The Woodside Bakery. However, Elena is quick to dash any Wonka-like illusions of what it was like growing up in the business. “It wasn’t nearly as fun as you’d imagine. It was cool to tell my friends that we owned a bakery, but other than that, my parents worked constantly. I don’t want to say that the bakery came first, but it was the fifth member of our family.”
Having borne witness to the sacrifice made by her parents, I assumed that Elena’s decision to pursue a career in baking was a poignant and convincing moment.
I should have known better. For all of Elena’s jilted debutante fire, she can be a very pragmatic person. “I was spending eight hours a day twisting pretzels,” Elena recalled. It was a time of transition in her life - she was living in Switzerland, where she is a citizen through her mom and had just left the early stages of a career in graphic design. To earn money, she took a job in a grocery chain’s bread factory. “That’s when I started to think that I could be a baker - mainly because I look really good in black and white pants.” A beat passed. “And I really enjoyed it.”
With a little encouragement, Elena explained. “I love the creative outlet, that I learn something new every day. I love how much happiness it brings to people on mundane Monday mornings, or on bad days when someone needs a treat.”
There is another perk, too: getting to work with her dad. Not every parent-child professional relationship is successful, but after six years in business together, Elena and Doug seem to have masterfully waded those waters.
“I love working with my dad. I would say that working with him has been the best outcome of the bakery. I could have never done it without him, and I would never want to.”
Even though both were trained in the dogma of Swiss pastry, Elena is not limited to Princess Cakes and strudel. While the Basegios vehemently shun a lemming-like embrace of food fads, they have on occasion, dipped their toes in the water. Cronuts and cupcakes have each had their moment in the sun at the bakeshop, but there is one fad that simply would not be tolerated.
“Cake pops,” she said with a snarl and a raised eyebrow. “Those are disgusting, and should have died before ever starting. You’re mashing cake crumbs with frosting, and covering them in coating chocolate. It’s not even real chocolate.” There’s a brief moment, and I think her rant is over. But this is someone for whom ambivalence is the kiss of death, so her assault continues. “And then you turn them into little figurines? That’s disgusting and you should feel ashamed of yourself.”
There is one trend she would welcome taking hold, though - her Unicorn Cakes. The epitome of Instagrammable food, the Unicorn Cake is the pastry embodiment of Elena. Inside, the cake is an execution of textbook perfection - light and airy sponge cakes sandwiched around a healthy layer of housemade mousse. The flavor combinations are dealer’s choice if the cake isn’t a special order, but my personal favorite is her chocolate cake and salted caramel mousse.
The outside of the Unicorn Cake is as if Coco Chanel and Willy Wonka had a love child - wild and frenetic but with structure and intention. “The finishing touch is the edible glitter. It gets everywhere. It’s like baking in a Gentlemen’s Club.”
A second round of cocktails arrive and it seems like a good moment to transition from Gentleman’s Clubs to my next question - what has been most surprising about owning a small business? Without a moment of hesitation, I got my answer: “Sexism, hands down.”
It’s hard to imagine anyone patronizing or underestimating Elena. Afterall, if I were to ever need to have someone shanked or verbally assaulted, she’s the first person I would call. But Elena has example after example: vendors who dismiss her decisions by calling her “a nice girl”, customers who won’t take “no” for an answer, but will from Doug. The rare occasion that she is without lipstick is met with concerns for her wellness, but if Doug hasn’t shaved and “starts to look a bit homeless” (as only a daughter would put it), nary a judgment is uttered. “I’m like, come on, this isn’t Mad Men. It’s 2016, get your head out of your ass.” There is no doubt in my mind that she has actually uttered those words to a customer.
Sexism wasn't the answer that I hadn’t expected, but in many ways, it set up the final question perfectly. Knowing what she knows now about opening and running a bakery - the hours, the exhaustion, the sexism - would she do it all over again?
A moment of silence hung in the air as Elena took a pensive sip. “I would say yes,” she said slowly. “Given what it’s done for my relationship with my dad, what I have learned about life and people. Are there days I want to burn it all down? Absolutely. But would I do it all over again? Yeah, sure.”
Elena's End of Summer Fruit Cobbler
She is the artist and mastermind behind the Unicorn Cake, but this no-fuss, biscuit-topped fruit cobbler is Elena's favorite go-to dessert.
Ingredients for the fruit filling:
2 lbs. peaches cut into chunks
1 lbs. mixed berries (Elena uses raspberries, blackberries and blueberries)
4 Tbs. cornstarch
1/2 cup brown sugar
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1 Tbs. lemon juice
Ingredients for the biscuit topping:
2 cups All purpose flour
6 Tablespoons sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
6 Tablespoons of unsalted butter, cold
1 1/4 cups buttermlik, cold
Toss all of the fruit filling ingredients together and dump into a 9x12” casserole dish
To make the biscuit topping:
Sift together the flour, 4 Tablespoons of sugar, salt, baking soda and baking powder.
Cut (or pulse in the food processor) the butter into the flour until it's crumbly.
Stir in 1 cup of the buttermilk until just combined
Drop dough evenly on top of fruit mixture and brush with 1/4 of buttermilk. Sprinkle with the remaining 2 Tablespoons of granulated sugar.
Bake for 30-40 minutes at 400℉ on the middle rack of the oven.