Burnt to Order: Jesse King's 3-day process for an 'outstanding' creme brûlée
King's single-servings in custom flavours now a popular alternative to traditional wedding cakes
Many chefs have a specialty they do really, really well. For Jesse King, that thing is creme brûlée.
King grew up on Cape Breton Island, went to school in Halifax and came to Calgary in 1997 to work in community rehabilitation.
- FOOD AND THE CITY | New Calgary ice cream shop experiments with flavour to master science of ice cream
- FOOD AND THE CITY | The Guild infusing life into iconic corner of downtown Calgary
It was a high stress job, with many high-needs clients.
When she wasn't at work, she was often at home cooking.
"My husband is a musician, and we'd always have these big dinner parties," King said. "People would contact me after about making things for their events, but I never really thought it was something I could do as a job."
When the stress level at work made her realize that burnout wouldn't benefit her or her clients, King took a few months to travel around Central America and think about what she wanted to do next.
Her thoughts kept going back to the kitchen, and so she came home and started a personal chef service, primarily for people with complicated dietary requirements.
She then did a stint in the kitchen at Heartland Cafe in Okotoks before returning to school, taking the culinary arts program at SAIT.
"When I went I decided to just be a sponge, and go with the intention of learning everything I could possibly learn," King said.
She graduated with the Dean's Award of Excellence and became chef Roy Oh's sous chef at Anju, and then a private chef for an oil company.
When she was laid off, King took her severance package and decided to do her own thing. She was 40, and knew first hand how many hours were required in a restaurant kitchen.
"I didn't really have any money. I literally had $6,000," she said, "so I pitched a few ideas to a couple of markets, where you don't need much start-up capital, and this was the idea people were most interested in."
100s of variations
Her idea? To focus solely on creme brûlée.
Although she knew how to make it, and had learned the technique at culinary school, she didn't get know how to make the creme brûlée she wanted to build a business on.
So King spent six weeks just making creme brûlée, tweaking the formula to make the very best custard she could.
"I made hundreds of iterations of just the classic formula," she said. "I played with ratios of sugar, egg yolk and cream, temperatures and fat content of various creams, until I found a recipe I thought was outstanding."
In her rented commercial kitchen, it took eight conventional ovens to make 96 creme brûlées.
"Because I was spread out all over the kitchen, I could only go when no one else was there," she says, "so I was doing most of my cooking at 3 or 4 in the morning."
Nearly burnt through
After a few months, she realized her method wasn't scalable — she would never be able to sustainably grow her business.
"I got the chef at Smuggler's on Macleod Trail, where they have eight different types of ovens, to let me come in at the crack of dawn and test on all their ovens to see if I could get away from the traditional type of dead heat oven."
Her testing didn't work, and she thought her business was done.
And then one day she was chatting with a chef friend as he poached eggs in an immersion circulator (also known as sous vide — a machine that keeps water at an even temperature to gently cook food in their own juices), and had an aha moment, realizing it may be possible to cook creme brûlées the same way, using it as a giant water bath with the custards sealed in their own jars.
"I borrowed his machine and made some," she said.
"It was a fail, but it was enough of a success that I realized it had potential."
She bought a couple of immersion circulators from Germany, and after working out the kinks with her 26-year-old son, Chance, figured out a consistent way for their creme brûlées to turn out perfectly.
A 3-day process
King now makes 80 creme brûlées at a time in her small space at the Crossroads Market, where her company, Burnt to Order just celebrated its one year anniversary.
It takes three days to make her creme brûlées. After making the batter, she ages it for 24 hours, which makes the custard more sophisticated and complex.
They then need to be cooked and cooled in such a way that a milk skin forms on top to help them get torched properly, for a perfectly crackly surface.
King has seven notebooks full of flavour ideas, ranging from traditional to unique dessert combinations to cocktails, which she always finds interesting.
"Creme brûlée can be ruined like that," she said, snapping her fingers.
"It doesn't want fruit in it, it doesn't want acidity in it, but booze you can add liberally. When you work as a chef for a long time, there are lots of flavour combinations you're exposed to."
Vegan brûlée too
She taught herself to make suspensions — fruit compotes that are thickened in such a way that they'll support the delicate custard on top.
She can even make a vegan brûlée, making one out of coconut milk, coconut yogurt, and Ataulfo mango purée.
King's creme brûlées have become popular with couples looking for an alternative to traditional wedding cakes; many are ordering single-serving brûlées in custom flavours reflecting the seasons or their personal stories.
King has had custom tiered platters made, and will come to torch them onsite to add an interactive, visual element as well.
"I'm lucky. I have a really loyal customer base," King said.
"Many businesses have customers; we have fans. People come in and try the brûlée and they see that it's something special."