Bittersweet Treats co-owner and pastry chef Danielle Keene has always wanted to do her own thing. While other contestants made fancier desserts on Top Chef Just Desserts season one in 2010, Keene stayed true to her simple dessert aesthetic and philosophy, ultimately making it as a finalist. Prior to Top Chef, Keene had worked as a pastry chef at renowned restaurants, including Wilshire, while running an online catering company, also called Bittersweet Treats, since 2009 before opening the brick and mortar in December 2012.
At Bittersweet Treats, you’ll find unique, sweet creations (including a few gluten-free ones) made Keene’s way from scratch with fresh, local, seasonal ingredients. The naturally lit, contemporary space designed by Keene is a welcome spot to stay awhile. Some of Keene’s recipes, such as the one for the light poppy seed cake, are inspired by her great-grandmother. Each bite of devil’s food chocolate crunch cake (one of six specialty cakes available whole and by the slice) is moist and pleasantly layered with crunchy chocolate pearls, bittersweet chocolate mousse, and ganache. The house made, fresh mint ice cream is refreshing. The apricot scone is infused with fragrant cardamom and full of dried apricots, an example of Keene’s affinity for treats made with multiple, unexpected notes. The brown butter cookie is perfectly chewy on the inside and crispy on the outside.
The pastry shop’s name tells of a rough patch in Keene’s life eight years ago as well as the challenging adventure the talented chef has been on to achieve her childhood dream of opening her own shop. “It was crazy because I would work all day long and come home and try to make cakes,” said Keene of her efforts to run her online business while working a restaurant day job. While the traditional restaurant world was primarily about fine dining and plating, Keene simply wanted to focus on cakes and ice cream in her own kitchen. “It was kind of hard to get out of that comfort zone and into the unknown. What happens if I leave? Can I survive? It wasn’t easy, but I feel like it was meant to be, because somehow I was able to survive, even financially.”
Keene has survived more than financially, overcoming the loss of her mother/best friend who passed away three weeks after Bittersweet Treats opened. Along with Keene’s father, boyfriend, and co-owner/business partner, others on Keene’s personal and professional team have provided needed support. “It’s a lot about your talent and your skills, but building relationships is also really important. Once you have those people you can depend on, it makes your job so much easier,” said Keene. “I went from doing everything myself to realizing I can’t do everything to letting go and relying on other people.”
Keene met co-owner Linda Chen after Chen saw Keene’s pastry skills on Top Chef. The two discussed business ideas and overcame a mountain of details for a year and a half before finally opening the pastry shop in Pasadena, a city that Keene (a South Pasadena resident) loves. “The hardest part was, you never think it’s actually going to happen. It’s so much work and money, and a billion things such as workers’ compensation and payroll to figure out,” recalled Keene. “You could never do it on your own. Even outside of the money, the amount of things that you have to do, it’s so much.”
One of the things Keene refuses to do is please everyone, although keeping customers (including professionals, families with kids, and college students) happy is a priority. “Dessert is subject to opinions, especially with Yelp. I can’t please every single person as much as I would like to.”
Throughout her journey and successes, Keene has stayed humble. “It’s important to feel proud and good about what you do. It’s also really important to know that you’re still learning, and to keep progressing. I always want to keep pushing myself.”
Recently, Keene pushed herself by making the biggest cake (for someone’s 50th masquerade birthday party at the Langham Hotel) she has ever made. “Making and transporting gigantic cakes takes 10 years off of your life,” laughed Keene, whose boyfriend assisted her endeavor. “Of course, we went down the street that had 19 speed bumps. That’s why I like making ice cream. It’s much more relaxing.”
From ice cream, sorbet, and sherbet to locally roasted LAMILL coffee sweetened with house made sauces and syrups to cupcakes, bars, and strawberry ginger pie, you’ll find something palate pleasing at Bittersweet Treats.
Mon. – Sat., 10am-7pm
Single items: $1.50 (macaroon) to $3.50 (scoop of house made ice cream)
Specialty desserts: $10 (brittle bags) to $35 (9” chocolate salted caramel tart)
Specialty cakes: $35 (6” cake) to $95 (12” cake)
View the full menu here.