I love to get gifts of food, and every now and again someone sends me something. There is the yearly arrival of luscious honeybell oranges from Florida sent by a close friend; around the holidays, a large tin of Middle Eastern pastries arrive from a bakery in Dearborn, Michigan, (a tradition started by my father and continued by my husband), and recently I received a fabulous package of artisan food products from Spain -- including an unusual semi-soft chorizo known as sobrasada Mallorquina from my sister-in-law when she finally exhausted her gift ideas. And just the other day, a box of delectable cookies and one-bite mignardises, arrived safely from Culver City, Calif. Not only was I impressed with the originality and quality of the brown butter, dark chocolate & smoked salt cookies, the delicacy of the lemon pieters, made with a bit of lemon oil and lemon sugar, and the addictive platino -- an elegant version of an Oreo, I wondered how a business that deals with high-cost ingredients and lots of labor, manages to thrive. Especially when much of its business is coast-to-coast.
Many people have fantasies about food and opening food businesses. Some succeed; but most of them fail, with dashed bank accounts and broken dreams as the payoff. But Jamie Cantor, the owner of Platine Cookies, in Culver City, Calif., located east of Santa Monica and south of Beverly Hills, has been in business for more than 10 years and had her largest order -- 3,500 dozen... that's 42,000 cookies to roll out, bake, and package, in a rather small space -- just last month. Whether it's "Android" cookies for Google, "engagement ring" cookies and miniature Ho-Ho's for the local Bloomingdales, or gift boxes for corporate clients, Ms. Cantor has beat the odds in an industry where small entrepreneurs are notorious for abruptly disappearing.
Lucky for her, Jamie Cantor chose to make sweet things, which, despite our national obsession with obesity, are today all the rage. Just think of the cupcake madness around the country, with endless lines for Magnolia Bakery's products, and with Sprinkles, a California-based company, fitting out some of their stores with 24-hour cupcake ATMs for those clamoring for a sugar fix at midnight. Even McDonald's just last week announced that it would be selling baked goods all day long, hoping to snare some "treats" business from the likes of Dunkin' Donuts and Starbucks. New business hopefuls are trying their hands at artisan gelato, which looks like a precarious trendlet to me. And chain restaurants are following the lead of Darden's Seasons 52 with socially-responsible mini-dessert options.
Jamie's dream of opening a cookie store (not unlike that of cookbook author Dorie Greenspan who opens "pop up" cookie stores all over New York), began when her father bought her a copy of Rose Levy Beranbaum's Christmas Cookie Book when she was a young girl. Combine that yearning with the creative precision of her mother who was an architect, and you have the stuff dreams are made of. Jamie enrolled in the CIA in Hyde Park, New York, and received the 1998 Women Chefs & Restaurateurs Scholarship to study in the Napa Valley campus where she earned a degree in Bakery & Pastry Arts. She landed an internship at Thomas Keller's French Laundry, and then, after graduating, worked as Chef de Partie in the pastry department under the tutelage of pastry chef Stephen Durfee and Keller, himself, who she describes as impressive, smart and fastidious. It was there that Jamie honed her perfectionism and her desire to infiltrate a world smitten by cupcakes with her own, more upscale, petit pastry and cookie offerings. More Francois Payard than Sandra Lee, Jamie headed south to Los Angeles, bought some flour, and started a company.
Her first items? Jamie created the platino (a cakey-chocolate cookie sandwich filled with voluptuous white "cream") and the camee -- which is an all-white vanilla version. These continue to be her best sellers among a comprehensive list of brownies, etc. and etc. What I find compelling is that her cookies have a home-made quality about them rather than appear like (well) cookie-cutter products from an industrial manufacturer. And for the last few years she has two dynamite offerings for Passover -- traditional coconut macaroons and the less-traditional chocolate flourless "baby cakes." Others swear by the caramel-topped brownie and the chocolate pots de creme with black lava salt: Return the little cup and you receive 10 cents -- Jamie's nod to ecology. I, for one, am enamored with Jamie's exquisite balance of salt and sugar in her recipes.
Discovered by the Food Network in 2004, Platine has also received raves from Japanese Vogue, People magazine and the Los Angeles Times. While her biggest issue continues to be delivering a hand-made high quality product at a reasonable price, her dream is to turn Platine into a nationwide brand. In the meantime, she just developed a new cookie in honor of her niece "the Cho-la-la" -- a chocolate thumbprint cookie filled with gianduja and sprinkled with Hawaiian pink salt. Next, will be an homage, no doubt, to her son Jackson, who is just one year old. Lucky kid.
And now that Thomas Keller has opened Bouchon Bakery in Beverly Hills, Jamie Cantor has become a friendly competitor to her beloved former boss.
Rozanne Gold is an award-winning chef and author of "Eat Fresh Food: Awesome Recipes for Teen Chefs;" "Healthy 1-2-3," and "Radically Simple."
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