Food & Wine Best New Chefs 2021: Thessa Diadem
They say that you eat with your eyes first, and it's impossible to not have yours widen with hunger when they spot slices of chef Thessa Diadem's velvety ube pie. It's one of the newest additions to the pastry case at All Day Baby in Los Angeles, and it is a showstopper. The thick ube custard, a shade of purple so saturated and vivid that Prince would be jealous, sturdily sits up in an impossibly flaky crust. Each piece is topped with a cascade of chamomile-spiked whipped cream puffs that gather like clouds before a rainstorm.
Yes, the ube pie is a nod to Diadem's Filipina heritage (she immigrated to the United States at the age of 13), but it also represents her broader approach in the kitchen: using the most global flavors that she can source locally. She finds her inspiration in the many international grocery stores—Mexican, Thai, Korean, Indian, Japanese, and more—that populate the two-mile radius around All Day Baby, where Diadem heads up the pastry program, turning out carrot cakes layered with pineapple jam, cinnamon rolls crowned with swoops of labneh frosting, fluffy conchas, and biscuits so tender they make even the most stubborn Southerners concede that great biscuits can actually be found in California.
If Diadem is not in the kitchen, she's likely at one of the many markets she frequents. "I love going to international grocery stores and just finding things that I've never worked with to play around with," she says. While walking around Mercado Benito Juarez in L.A.'s Koreatown, she found herself enraptured with the scent of a pile of avocado leaves. "They smell and taste like anise; it is amazing," she says. Diadem bought as many as she could, transforming the leaves into a galette for an intricate, multipart plated dessert with a sorrel granita and espuma made from a Georgian pear soda. She regularly purchases 10-pound batches of halva, which become chewy cookies studded with chocolate and walnuts. She is currently figuring out what to do with her stash of "super-fragrant" eucalyptus and fermented black nuts from the Indonesian market.
Diadem never planned on being a chef. "I never cooked in the Philippines—in fact, I wasn't allowed to touch anything hot," she says with a laugh, noting that the only successful thing her mom could cook was banana bread (a version of which Diadem keeps on the menu at All Day Baby). As a teen, Diadem started to find solace in the kitchen ("I moved at a weird time in my life," she says), but when high school graduation rolled around, she had no ideas about her future except that maybe one day she'd fly planes. After being urged by father to try culinary school, she packed her bags and moved to New York City to study the pastry arts at what is now ICE, the Institute of Culinary Education.
"At first I was just doing this because I wanted my dad off my back, but on my first day in class, I just realized this is where I was supposed to be," Diadem recalls. But she found living on a cook's salary in New York impossible, and moved back to Los Angeles to work at a well-paying hotel operation. That led to a stint at the now-shuttered Mezze, where she met All Day Baby chef and co-owner, Jonathan Whitener, and a job as the pastry chef for the acclaimed Los Angeles restaurateurs Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo.
For Diadem, who until recently had no plans to speak of, having a career suddenly take off was a blessing and a curse. At the age of 28, she felt burned out. "I thought that I'd lost myself," says Diadem. She booked a flight to Italy and spent the next six months gathering herself, all the while receiving a stream of messages from Whitener asking her to come back and sign on as the chef at his new concepts, All Day Baby and Here's Looking at You. She eventually agreed, but only after her Italian visa ran out—which gave her one week to create the opening dessert menu for Here's Looking at You. Diadem, who talks openly about her struggles with anxiety, admits that it was nervewracking but also exhilarating: this was the first time she had full control over the menu in her career and could chase the flavor profiles and textures she was most curious about.
Though Here's Looking at You fell victim to the pandemic, All Day Baby remains a high-volume operation that spits out orders at an incredible speed. Her team is responsible for over 1,000 biscuits a week in addition to several other pastries, but Diadem is a calm and gentle presence—shaped by years of observing how she didn't want to be in a kitchen—and remains optimistic about the future of the restaurant industry, as long as it is rooted in self-care. "In my day, you worked for free or off the clock because you placed so much importance in the job you wanted to keep," she says. The lack of boundaries took an eventual toll on her mental and physical health, she says. "It's exploitation disguising itself as passion."
Diadem eventually learned how to say "no" more often, teaching herself to meditate, and even going vegan at one point when her health felt extremely out of balance. She is hopeful that more people won't have to learn the same lessons the hard way: "I think it's really critical for restaurants and employers to honor the value of their employees, and show them that their time is appreciated."
Sweet Potato Sticky Buns with Toasted Marshmallow
Photos by Aubrie Pick