Amid COVID-19, this chef started a cookie delivery business – Los Angeles Times

Jeff Kirshenbaum was a Wall Street refugee in search of work-life balance when he met Uyen Nguyen, a Parisian-trained pastry chef, four years ago while working for the same restaurant group in Manhattan Beach.

Kirshenbaum confirms that the perks of dating a pastry chef are exactly what one might expect. “My fridge was full of little personalized cakes and cookies,” he recalled, “but it was just me eating them all!” It was months before he confessed he was dairy intolerant.

Luckily, love and necessity are twin muses of invention. “I developed Jeff’s Cookie, which is like a dark chocolate brownie,” said the now happily married pastry chef (because who wouldn’t propose to a culinary sweetheart crafting cookie recipes in their honor?) “It’s gooey, gluten-free and dairy-free, but you wouldn’t know it if I didn’t tell you.”

Jeff’s Cookie became a fast favorite of friends and family. “We always thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool to start a bakery just from this cookie,’” Jeff Kirshenbaum said.

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They never imagined how that daydream would come to pass.

Among the assorted flavors are, clockwise from front bottom: chocolate raspberry; lemon poppy; rocky road; snickerdoodle; peanut butter chocolate swirl and salted chocolate chip.

(Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)

Last March, as COVID-19 erupted into a full-blown pandemic, the 40-year-old pastry chef who had been baking since she was given a Mrs. Fields cookbook at age 14 was told she was out of a job.

The entire management team at David LeFevre’s trio of fine-dining establishments, the Arthur J, Fishing With Dynamite and Manhattan Beach Post had been assembled in a conference room to learn of the company-wide furlough. “Everyone’s jaw dropped at the same time,” she remembered. “I immediately thought, this pandemic is a lot worse than we understand.”

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Jeff Kirshenbaum was also furloughed indefinitely. At first, the young family reveled in the unexpected time together at home with their toddler and then-5-month-old baby.

As the virus raged on, however, “Reality started to settle in, and it was like, ‘We’ve got to start planning,’” he said.

“We were sending out cookies to friends we weren’t getting to see,” said Jeff Kirshenbaum, and that’s when they thought, “We can pivot and do something with this idea.”

So the pastry chef who once plated fancy desserts for diners at Le Cirque and Restaurant Guy Savoy in Las Vegas began the process of research and development in the kitchen of her Long Beach home.

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“It’s something I’ve always dreamt about,” she said, “having my own bakery, a small storefront where I can bake and do what I love, and have my kids grow up in it with me. That was like the ideal, the beautiful image — but in a pandemic?”

On May 1, with Jeff Kirshenbaum helming the website and Uyen working the kitchen and baking late into the night after the kids’ bedtime, the Kirsh Baking Co. was launched. The online gourmet cookie delivery service now features four kinds of Jeff’s Cookies (dairy- and gluten-free) alongside five generously sized, individually wrapped classic cookies: salted chocolate chip, vanilla lavender, lemon poppy, peanut butter chocolate swirl and snickerdoodle ($31-$35 per dozen).

The response was overwhelming and immediate as quarantine cravings kicked in and word spread.

Since opening, the Kirsh Baking Co. has moved operations into a commercial kitchen and Uyen has resumed work part time as the executive pastry chef for the Simms Restaurant Group while moonlighting for herself at night. Jeff decided not to return to his job as general manager for Simmzy’s in Long Beach and is managing the bakery’s business side as well as two active kids.

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In spite of multiple roles and sometimes sleepless nights, the entrepreneurs report an exciting and rewarding experience. In the past, the couple struggled to find time together because they worked opposite schedules: The pastry chef was up early and baking, and the general manager worked nights.

“The time we get to spend together now with the kids is a gift,” said JeffKirshenbaum. “The appreciation I have for the time I get to spend with them and Uyen and build this together I wouldn’t trade for anything.”

“It’s a funny path,” added Uyen Kirshenbaum, “not quite the path I had imagined, but I think it’s still going to get us to our destination.”

For like-minded, would-be startups, the Kirshenbaums’ advice is to go for it. “If you can manage your home life and still carve out some time, now’s the time to try,” said Jeff. “I would really suggest taking a shot and giving it what you’ve got.”