It’s been two weeks since the latest layoffs at Starbucks, when the company passed the pink-slip to 1000 employees nationwide, including nearly 200 locally. That’s when the SBUX stopped here for pastry princess Sue McCown, seen prettier in pink in June at the James Beard Awards in NYC, where she kicked up her heels with “Best Chef”-award nominee Maria Hines and PR-pal Michi Suzuki:
It’s been nearly two years since the rise and demise of Sue’s much-anticipated dessert lounge Coco La Ti Da, and a year since she signed on at Starbucks’ corporate headquarters, where her business card read “Senior Product Developer, Global Food Solutions, Research & Development.”
Last spring, when discussing the new gig, she told me that as part of Starbucks’ research and development team, “the creative part is exciting and fun,” and that her job description entailed working to ensure product consistency, making certain “if you have a blueberry muffin in New York and you have one in Singapore, it’s going to taste the same.” Starbucks, she said then, was a place where people have “a lot of passion, a lot of heart.”
What do you want to bet she wasn’t feeling quite that way on the day she and her pals down in SODO are calling “Black Tuesday.”
“I’m almost ready to leave Seattle and relocate,” she confided early this week. “I feel like I’ve met the challenge of working in restaurants and hotels and it was an awesome experience, but I need something new. I need creativity. I need to be working with a team, doing something different — not making a dessert menu that’s been in place for four weeks. For me, it’s the universe saying, `OK, Sue. We gave you Starbucks for a year, we gave you a year to regroup.’ It was a great job, but not the right job.”
That job, she said, will get her juiced all over again about creating the kind of sweets people talk about. In Seattle, she insists, “We’re still not there with desserts yet, and we have a long way to go.” With all the talk about the local food scene, our talented chefs and the incredible ingredients available on area menus, she wonders, “Where’s the conversation around desserts? Where’s the excitement?” Desserts are the last memory a patron has about time spent in a restaurant, she said, so “What’s with the `let’s get one and share it’?”
With the implosion of Coco La Ti Da, and the layoff from Starbucks coming on its heels, I asked Seattle’s erstwhile pastry diva if she’s sorry she left her longstanding job at the W Hotel. There, nearly 10 years ago, her whimsically named desserts — including “www.chocolate.com” and “Pie the Way it Should Be” — left a lasting impression on this savory-toothed restaurant critic. “I was definitely ready to leave the hotel. I’d done it and then I’d done it again — which is a miracle,” she said. “Was I ready to have Coco close? No, but that’s a different story.”
As for the rest of her story, “I feel like the next stop is very important. I’m not the kind to flit around,” she said. But she might be the kind to move around. “If I open the doors outside of Seattle, my opportunities might be better. With six degrees of separation, maybe somebody who knows somebody who knows somebody will know of a great job that’ll be a great fit for me.”
So: When it comes to desserts in Seattle, what do you think? Do you agree with Sue, or disagree. And where do you go when the you get a hankering for something sweet?
Posted by ts
6:22 PM, Aug 13, 2008
With bakeries opening everyday, Neil at Canlis, every pub and restaurant making their own ice cream and sorbet, ice cream stands and stores opening left and right, lovely desserts at Lark, and my own kitchen, I enjoy plenty of treats. Sue was working at a different level. I loved her work, but didn’t crave it. I’m just not a high concept king of girl.
Posted by ts
6:23 PM, Aug 13, 2008
make that “kind” not king!
Posted by CindyW
6:44 PM, Aug 13, 2008
Tell Sue to leave the city and come over here to the eastside! We don’t have the same sort of bakeries and dessert options over here, and I bet she’d get a great following. 🙂
Posted by lt
7:34 PM, Aug 13, 2008
It’s really true…dessert in Seattle restaurants is frequently a boring, hackneyed, “oh-crap-we-HAVE-to-serve-dessert-so-I-guess-we’ll-throw-together-creme-brulee-and-tiramisu” affair. I miss the dessert bars in NYC, like Chikalicious and Kyotofu.
Posted by Kairu
10:22 PM, Aug 13, 2008
I have been going to Le Panier for chocolate éclairs and fruit tarts for well over twenty years. I am sorry that I never made it to Coco La Tida, but many a night has ended at Dilettante’s (on Broadway) with a slice of cake, or at B&O Espresso, or 611 Supreme for their chocolate-mousse filled crêpe.
In the past week I ate 1) a home-made s’more at Quinn’s Pub, 2) the chocolate-orange cake at Volterra, 3) and the chocolate pot de crême and custard-filled cornmeal cake at Palace Kitchen. They were all wonderful. And with the exception of the first one, I shared the desserts with other people, because if I ate it all myself I would probably keel over and die.
There are, of course, restaurants in existence where dessert is very much an afterthought. But these days it seems an exception rather than a rule. And aside from the restaurants (and I want to chime in that I love the desserts at Lark, especially the tarte tatin – pineapple is my favorite – although last time I had an incredible bread pudding with a caramel sauce that I almost licked off the plate) there are so many bakeries that produce no end of fantastic sweet things – the Columbia City bakery, Macrina, the aforementioned Le Panier, Sugar, so many more that I have heard about but haven’t tried. I haven’t even gotten started on my cupcake obsession, but I will save that topic for another time.
Maybe we weren’t ready for a place like Coco La Tida.
Posted by Nancy Leson
10:26 PM, Aug 13, 2008
Kairu: I swear! You dine out more than I do. Sheesh! And you’re right. We’ve got lots of great bakeries in and around Seattle. So, how come there aren’t any up here in Edmonds (or in close proximity)?
Posted by csimmonds
6:29 AM, Aug 14, 2008
Did Sue McCown ever work at Brasa’s? I had the very best dessert of my life there about 8 year ago. Chocolate and cherry Neapolean. Increadible. I still can taste it.
Posted by Kate
8:59 AM, Aug 14, 2008
I went to Coco a couple of times, but though the desserts were phenomenal, the service was poor (rude waitstaff and order errors both times!) and the seating was uncomfortable. In order for a dessert-specific place to be viable, I think it needs welcoming staff and ample, good seating, as well as late hours–I only ever go on dessert outings after 10pm myself!
Dilettante and B&O are standards for me, though I find the desserts themselves a little uninspired.
And Sue, if you happen to read this, please stick around Seattle! It would be a shame to lose such a talented artist.
Posted by Anne
10:13 AM, Aug 14, 2008
I would love a creative dessert place that also offered sugar free treats. I can’t eat sugar, but I’d love going out after dinner for something sweat to eat.
Posted by ts
2:02 PM, Aug 14, 2008
Brasa’s pastry chef, if I recall, was Valerie Mudry, who is at (an owner?) of Whoopemup Cafe in Waitsburg – outside Walla Walla. Worth a trip.
Posted by Dan
9:27 PM, Aug 14, 2008
Wow, this blog is such a great place to visit each evening.
I didn’t know Lark had such great desserts. Now I’ll
have to get myself over there. West Seattle, btw, has great
desserts at Bakery Nouveau.
Posted by Kairu
10:25 PM, Aug 14, 2008
In my defense, Nancy, I only eat like this when my parents and other out-of-town friends are here.
Another good way to end a night is at Palace Kitchen, over a slice of their coconut cream pie. When we were in our early twenties my friends and I would go there, or to Earth & Ocean or the late, lamented 727 (I loved their bar menu) for dessert after a play or the symphony (with tickets cadged from out-of-town parents) or a movie. We were young and relatively impecunious and a dessert and a shared pot of tea at a fancy restaurant felt like wild extravagance.
Posted by etta
11:45 AM, Aug 15, 2008
I wish more restaurants offered just a taste of something sweet, like a little plate of cookies. It’s fine if people want to eat a big slab of something at the end of the meal, but it would do us all a favor if we had the option of some small yet yummy treat.
Posted by dk-rumi
12:56 PM, Aug 18, 2008
Seattle needs Sue. She is such a warm and talented Chef who’s vision and creativity has elevated the level of desserts in Seattle. Her creations are the sunshine that Seattle needs during those dark winter nights. I hope that she stays here and continues to wow our city with her sweets. Seattle loves you Sue.