By Brandon HernándezMonday morning before the crack of dawn seems an odd time to conduct an interview, but reporters need to be flexible. Especially when interviewing someone with the most stringent of demands on her time, energies and talents as a baker or, in this case, a “dessertier.” Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary might not have a definition for that term, but after meeting with Michele Coulon, the driving force behind La Jolla’s Michele Coulon Dessertier, I feel qualified to craft one:
des-ser-ti-er n 1: a dynamic, creative, industrious individual with a passion for developing recipes for unique and extremely delicious confections 2: one who is passionate about utilizing the freshest, most natural local ingredients in the production of edibles esp. desserts 3: a culinary genius.
Coulon started our early morning session by explaining from where her passion for desserts stems: “We weren’t allowed to have sugar when we were kids unless it was our birthday or Christmas. I remember having dreams as a kid of eating all the desserts I wanted.”
Such a strict dietary rule seems unexpected from a set of parents sharing a pronounced affinity for food and the culinary arts. The son of a professional chef, Coulon’s father earned a stellar reputation for his abilities in the kitchen. And when he moved his family from San Diego to Paris during Coulon’s high school years, his wife enrolled in pastry school. That was the impetus for the lifting of the great Coulon sugar ban, which turned out to be a very significant event in their daughter’s life.
“My mom taught me what she learned,” she recalled, noting that, having been deprived of sweets, “The first time I tasted these desserts, it opened up my eyes to a whole new world.”
There were no processed or pre-packaged foods in the Coulon household and if you wanted something, you made it from scratch. Armed with her mother’s teachings, Coulon volunteered for dessert duty at every opportunity. That responsibility carried over when the family moved back to San Diego three-and-a-half years later and opened their very own eatery – the Belgian Lion Restaurant.
“Nobody in our family had worked in a restaurant before. We were crazy, but we didn’t know we were crazy, so it worked out well. We had no idea what we were doing restaurant-wise, but with the food we did. It just blew people away,” Coulon said.
What started as a $20,000 investment in a little sandwich shop she describes as “a Quonset hut, basically,” evolved into a thriving, beloved San Diego dining spot where Coulon honed her culinary skills. She started as a sous chef while also baking wedding cakes. Her creations were so well received that, eventually, she was able to build a booming wedding cake business on the side. When her parents retired after 25 successful years as restaurateurs, she parlayed her reputation, experience and extensive line of quality desserts into her very own institution.
Enter Michele Coulon Dessertier, a testament to all that is honest, fresh and delicious where the ruling philosophy is “Dessert is not something you eat every day, so make it worth your while!”
One just might be tempted to make daily staples out of such delicacies as Coulon’s Frangipane Tarte or her decadent Torte Lion Belge.
“We use the very best ingredients we can find and nothing is artificial,” Coulon said. “We work with local farmers and get organic lemons and oranges and whatever else is out there ... We have intimate relationships with growers and can even tell them what we want them to grow the following month.”
The quality of the ingredients translates to the finished products, all of which are 100 percent a product of Coulon and her staff. “The labor aspect of the business is really intense, but you can’t compare the flavor of our desserts to anything else,” she said. “Everything is from scratch, and I don’t want to do this unless that’s the way I’m doing it.”
Coulon’s devotion to her craft is every bit as admirable as her delicious cakes, cookies, scones, muffins and assorted goodies. “Pretty much everything was created by me over the past 30 years, so it’s not like I just opened up a book and took a recipe out,” she said.
Her cozy storefront is the sole source for confectionary marvels such as Michele’s Gateau Aileen, hot milk sponge cake filled with buttercream and fresh-from-the farm berries; Lemadamia mini tarte with organic lemon filling, caramelized macadamia nuts, white chocolate and Grand Marnier; or chocolate truffles filled with everything from Italian Amareno cherries to a home-made praline crunch concoction.
The same can be said for the array of special offerings she will have on hand for Valentine’s Day. That sinfully lovely list includes heart-shaped meringues filled with chocolate mousse, cream and fruit; heart-dusted cupcakes and chocolate chip cheesecake enrobed in chocolate. Such treats are sure to melt the heart of your special someone like shards of fine Belgian chocolate in a double boiler.
Michele Coulon Dessertier is located at 7556 Fay Ave., Suite D and is open Monday through Saturday from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. A complete menu is available online at www.dessertier.com.