Chef Chat

Chef Chat, Part 1: Candace Nelson of Sprinkles Cupcakes

Candace Nelson, creator of boutique cupcake emporium Sprinkles, has gone from financier to cupcake-craze initiator to Food Network judge. With Sprinkles locations all over the world, including our own little Highland Village outpost, we tracked down the in-demand young industrialist and got the back-story.

Eating Our Words: Let's begin today by having you tell us the story of how Sprinkles came to be.

Candace Nelson: I did not start out in the food world. I started out, after graduating college, going into the financial world with an investment bank working with high tech companies and taking them public. I was living in San Francisco during the time during the dot-com days, and I went on to work for an internet company. Then the dot com bust happened, and everybody in that world was basically out of a job, so I consider that my sort of early mid-life crisis, where I had to kind of look around at all the opportunities that had dried up and I asked myself what is it really that I love to do and that I'd like to devote my life to. And the answer was pretty clear: I loved to bake.

I grew up baking. I was passionate about it. I was in San Francisco, which is an excellent food city, very inspiring, and so I decided to test my interest in baking to see if this was just a hobby or something I could conceivably do on a daily basis, and I went to pastry school in San Francisco. What I found what was that I absolutely loved it. I loved working with my hands -- it is just such tactile work, and such delicious work -- and after pastry school, I started making desserts and developed a dessert catering company out of my little kitchen.

I made everything at the time. I was making these fabulous special-occasion three-tiered cakes with all this fondant work, and what I realized was that I loved the artfulness of the special-occasion cakes and the quality of the ingredients that went into them. I really wanted to make something that people could potentially eat every day, but that was still artful, and so I sort of went about to reinvent the cupcake, because at the time cupcakes were still very much just "kiddie" food.

They were supermarket fare made with shortening in the frosting and covered with waxy, garishly colored sprinkles, and I thought, "What if we elevated the cupcake to the level of a special-occasion cake?" Let's make them with the best ingredients in all variety of flavors, and make them sophisticated and elegant-looking, as well.

EOW: How did you then put that idea into practice?

CN: We started with developing 20 different cupcake flavors, and my husband was a tireless taster, and we sat around the dining room table blind tasting all these different recipe varieties. That work was very fun! I moved down to LA ,where the economy was still pretty vibrant, and I started working out of my kitchen doing cupcakes.

Word spread, and all of sudden Tyra Banks's producer was calling me: "I need a hundred cupcakes for Tyra's birthday next week!" And this is still out of my little kitchen! At this point, we realized we really had something, and my husband decided he wanted to join me as a business partner. This gave us the confidence to say, "I think there is a need in the market for a cupcake shop." We decided we were going to do one thing and do one thing well.

We found a cozy little space in Beverly Hills and opened a cupcake emporium, a place where the cupcakes took center stage. It was a nostalgic place, but also somewhere where the cupcakes were brought up to date in a modern and sophisticated way. I developed a place where I myself would like to go. The first day, we sold out within the first few hours, and from that point on, we've just been running and barely catching our breath.

Check Back tomorrow when Nelson discusses food fads, as well as the strangest thing she has ever been forced to eat on Cupcake Wars.

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