April’s Featured Kitchen Chick: Serena Lissy, Chocolatier Extraordinaire
I met Serena Lissy a couple of years ago after moving from Cambridge, MA to Austin, TX. She owned a townhouse in the same development as my husband and me. From the moment you meet Serena, you know that she is whip smart, kind, and an adventurer. Plus, if you’re on her good side you’ll get to taste some of her amazing chocolate creations too! My husband and I worked hard to get on her good side. 🙂
Serena Lissy is the owner and founder of SerenaLissy.com, a gourmet chocolate shop and food blog. She also specializes is beautiful food photography. Seriously. It’s some of the best we’ve seen. Her website also offers a free ebook called “Boozy Desserts for Two” available for download…*hold on…downloading now*
In addition to creating some of the best chocolates in Austin, Serena also has an incredible story of her own. From devising a plan to quit her job and go to cooking school, interning with America’s Test Kitchen (whoa.), to being featured in the Grand Taste Chef Showcase at the Austin Food & Wine Festival, she has not shied away from calculated risk and adventure.
Serena’s full interview is below…
Tell us about Serena Lissy. How did you get to where you are today?
I am a commercial food photographer, recipe developer and a classically trained French pastry chef that loves creating culinary masterpieces. I spent the first part of my professional career as a financial executive working with some of most successful travel and leisure firms in the industry. My interest in photography and food grew into a driving passion as I traveled the world sampling the culture and cuisine of each new region. Over time, I decided to leave corporate america and pursue my burning passion in the kitchen.
What inspired you to start SerenaLissy.com?
Once I decided to leave corporate america “Serena Lissy” really was an evolving product. We started with food photography. But, I’m sure you are familiar with that networking question, “if money didn’t matter what would you do?” My answer was always; I would be a pastry chef if money didn’t matter. So after a lot of number crunching to justify the cost of culinary school, I took the leap and finally signed up for Le Cordon Bleu.
I would be a pastry chef if money didn’t matter…
During my class time, I still wasn’t sure what I was going to do with it. So while at school, I decided to work at as many places as I could to get experience and help to understand what I liked and what I didn’t like about the restaurant world. I focused on fine dining restaurants in Austin. Then, I talked my way into an externship with a local chocolate maker in Austin. After that I was accepted at America’s Test Kitchen for a 6 month internship immediately after graduation. And here is where I was hooked. I loved working with the chocolate, and I received training from the most thorough test kitchen out there on how to create recipes.
What do you love about being a chocolatier?
As strange as it seems, I love the challenge of chocolate. It is one of the hardest things in the pastry world to work with. It’s a never ending learning experience, and for that reason, I just love it.
What is your favorite product that you make? Why?
I always say my favorite product is the one I’m going to make tomorrow. We are constantly adding to the product line, and by the time the recipe has been refined enough for me to present it to the public, it’s just a melt in your mouth, deliciously flavorful, piece of chocolate. But if I’m just craving a piece of chocolate and I walk into the kitchen, my go to is the passion fruit caramel bar. Not only is it delicious, It makes me feel like I should be on vacation somewhere because of the passion fruit and the memories I have of enjoying fresh passion fruit on vacations.
What’s a trick you use when making chocolates that everyone should know?
It’s not really a trick. Chocolate is hard to work with, so be patient with yourself. Not everyone is going to temper chocolate perfectly on their first try. Practice, practice and practice.
Any epic cooking failures? What happened?
Ha Ha Ha! Of course! And I’m glad to say no one was hurt in the making of the recipe and nothing was set on fire 🙂 I think for me, I didn’t grow up cooking in the kitchen with my mother. We never had dessert as a child. So in the cooking world, I’m a late bloomer so to speak. When I started at Le Cordon Bleu, I’ll say I was slightly afraid of cooking. I knew the basics, but classic French cooking was way above my skill levels. There were failed attempts almost daily. But with every failure, I learned something. And what happened over time was that I started to gain a lot of confidence, and I stopped relying on the recipe so much and started to create instead of follow. Do I still have failures, of course.
We did a series on the blog called “Nailed it or Failed it”. There were definitely some failures in that process. It was a fun series, that I learned a lot from. If there were failures, or the recipe was poorly written, we noted it with changes of how to do it differently. I constantly see new things out there, and I’m like….hmmmm I wonder how they did that? And off I go to figure it out. Lots of failures, but I like to call them learning experiences 🙂
Tell us about the upcoming Grand Taste Chef Showcase at the Austin Food & Wine Festival. How will you be involved? Excited?
NOTE: THE FESTIVAL HAS BEEN CANCELLED DUE TO WEATHER. BUMMER. SUPPORT SERENA BY BROWSING HER ONLINE SHOP INSTEAD. Click here.
I’m so excited about that event. I knew of it, but thought we are so small and new that we aren’t ready for it. I’ll ride it out for another year and then apply for the event. But the last day of entries for the event I saw something come through my email that reminded me they are taking entries. And I thought, what the heck…it’s free to apply, I’ll see what happens. And when the acceptance came through a month later with instructions that I needed to make 3500 samples and additional product for sale, I thought holy cow what have I gotten myself into?!?
We will be with 100 other culinary/wine/spirits exhibitors sampling our chocolates. There will be multiple celebrity chefs at the event including, Andrew Zimmern, Amanda Freitag, Aaron Sanchez. Many of the best chefs in Austin will be there. To be included in this company, is such an honor. I’m super excited, have I said that already?
What’s a fond memory that you associate with cooking/baking/chocolate making?
I have so many fond memories with the friends I made at culinary school. The failures, the learning experiences and the truly fun times we had as a group of people.
Recently you traveled around Austin tasting donuts. What was is the donut people should NOT miss?
Ha! Annually I do a food report for the City Guide for people coming into the city for SXSW. Rough job right, I get to wander the city tasting and photographing donuts. If you are a late night muncher, then Mrs. Johnson’s donuts shouldn’t be missed. They start serving fresh cooked donuts at 7:30 pm and stay open all night. And newest to the town is Voodoo donuts. These guys have an almost cult like following and for good reasons. Most of them are a little bit over the top sweet for me, but a few of the filled ones I can’t get enough of.
Being from the west coast, is there any food you miss from that part of the country you wish you had in Austin?
Coming from California, there is so much food that I miss. We could be here all day, as I list out all the things I miss. There are some parts of LA that make you feel like you have left the US and ventured into another country, it’s that authentic. I believe Austin is coming along in the food world. But we are still lacking so much variety in the cuisine.
Any exciting upcoming events/promos/etc for Serena Lissy coming up?
Once we get through the food and wine event, we will start to do more promoting and pop up shops in Austin. It was surprising for me to see that last year we sold more chocolate out of TX than in TX. It’s just a goal of mine to gain more visibility in Austin.
Any advice for women looking to follow in your footsteps? Biggest pitfalls to watch out for? How to learn, etc?
I have a very dear friend that tells me I’m the kind of person that runs and jumps off the cliff as fast as I can and will figure things out on the way down. She would stop at the edge of the cliff and just be afraid, and never make it down. I believe it is doubt that fuels our fears, and fear is what prevents us from having or doing what we want.
For me to make such a drastic career change at this age in my life, I spent a lot of time analyzing what’s the worst case scenario with such a change, and can I live with that worst case scenario if it happens. If the answer is yes, I can live with it, I move forward. If the answer is no, what changes can I make with the plan to get to a yes?
We get stuck in our society with keeping up with the Jones and always worrying about what others think. We tend to think it’s our jobs or our possessions that make us happy. But the reality is happiness always exists in our mind, but sometimes the clouds build up and we forget.
I can only say, be true to yourself. You may not go from executive level career to a life in the kitchen in a year’s time, but don’t be afraid of the steps to get you there.
Follow your passion and be patient with yourself.