Pastry Chef Luis Villavelazquez wants you to buy his conchas not just because it’s tradition – but because they taste mind-blowingly delicious. (Photo/Courtesy Luis Villavelazquez)

In honor of Cinco de Mayo, a new generation of Mexican-American chef (Part 3)

In honor of Cinco de Mayo—the day in 1862 when a small Mexican militia defeated a French army attach in the Battle of Puebla—we’re devoting an entire week to celebrating an exciting new generation of Mexican-American chef. A generation who’s not only keeping the food of their ancestors alive but elevating it to new heights. These chefs are young and up-and-coming, classically trained in some of America’s best culinary schools and have worked in some of the world’s most renowned kitchens. But when it came time to open something of their own, they looked to their heritage for inspiration. Today: Luis Villavelazquez of La Victoria Panaderia in San Francisco, who is redefining Mexican pastry to include a nod to his American upbringing and French training.

As a child growing up in San Francisco’s Mission District – home to many of the city’s Mexican immigrants – Luis Villavelazquez’s days often began and ended with warm, fresh pastry at his mother’s workplace, a small but legendary café-bakery named Sally’s. Villavelazquez’s memories of donuts fresh out of the fryer, hand-rolled cookies and warm conchas with crackled frosting have inspired him to reinvent classic Mexican pastry with French technique and fresh, organic ingredients; a task that flies in the face of the abuelitas who vow to uphold traditional cuisine at any cost.

However, at San Fran bakery chain La Victoria Panaderia, Villavelazquez charges on, churning out conchas coated with freeze-dried strawberries instead of milky frosting, creating pastries – like sticky buns studded with crunchy pepita seeds and crumbly biscuits layered with chorizo and Oaxaca cheese – that taste of Mexican heritage but reflect time-tested classic pastry technique and a modern American sensibility.

Luis Villavelazquez has revamped traditional pan dulce to include a coffee-infused concha (l) and a version coated with a frosting made from strawberry juice and freeze-dried strawberries.

Luis Villavelazquez has revamped traditional pan dulce to include a coffee-infused concha (l) and a version coated with a frosting made from strawberry juice and freeze-dried strawberries (r). (Photo/Courtesy Luis Villavelazquez )

“I’m responding to old foods in a new way, removing the barriers around what we think of being purely, traditionally Mexican,” says Villavelazquez of his modern approach to traditional Mexican pastry. “There’s so much to be gained from moving Mexican food forward and elevating it to the European-class cuisine that it can be.”

Villavelazquez’s early exposure to pastry as a child inspired him to spend hours in the kitchen as a teen. An only child, he would bake massive cheesecakes (“it’s still my favorite dessert,” Villavelazquez says) to share with high school friends; by high school graduation, he was determined to become a pastry chef and enrolled  in the San Francisco City College Culinary Program.

Villavelazquez was only months into the program when he secured back-to-back jobs as a pastry assistant at Chaya Brasserie and Bacar. In 2004, at just 19 years old, Villavelazquez became the youngest employee at Citizen Cake under acclaimed pastry chef Elizabeth Falkner, where he became experienced in bread and dessert production.  Named one of the Bay Area’s most talented pastry chefs by San Francisco magazine and dubbed one of the city’s top five pastry chefs by 7×7 magazine, Villavelazquez moved on to develop pastry programs at Orson and Absinthe, where his unique flavor combinations – think tobacco-infused panna cotta with olive oil roasted figs, goat cheese ice cream and black currant and violet jam – quickly earned notice among the city’s foodies.

But it wasn’t until Villavelazquez started his own bakery and consulting company, Les Elements Patisserie in 2010, that that he ventured into the world of Mexican pastry. Offered the chance to modify the 30-year-old pastry program at La Victoria – one of California’s oldest and largest Mexican bakeries, with its pastries sold in more than 50 restaurants and cafes across the state – Villavelazquez quickly realized that this was the challenge he was born for.

“This project was important to me because bread is living history,” says Villavelazquez, whose love of fresh Mexican ingredients like limes, hibiscus and raw goat’s milk comes through in all of his products. “I take it as a point of pride that I’ve decided to go back to my roots, instead of taking the path many Mexican pastry chefs do, which is to get their classical training here and return to Mexico.”

Villavelazquez is continually testing new ideas (like a concha with chamomile-infused milk and fruit jelly squares in flavors like chili apricot and tamarin lime) for La Victoria and says his “ultimate goal” would be to open a La Victoria location in New York City.

“Changing the taste of tradition is exciting for me,” says Villavelazquez

“This is uncharted territory and I’m not interested in doing anything else.”

Here’s Villavelazquez’s recipe for cornmeal linzer cookies with prickly pear jam, a sweet treat that’s reminiscent of the cookies the 28-year-old grew up eating at Sally’s, reinterpreted with classic Mexican flavors.

Cornmeal Linzer Cookies with Prickly Pear Jam


1 cup softened butter

1 1/3 cup granulated sugar

½ tsp. salt

4 egg yolks

2 tsp. vanilla extract

2 tbsp. lemon zest

1 cup and 4oz. all-purpose flour

9 oz. multi-colored fine ground cornmeal

2 tsp. baking powder

2 tsp. ground cinnamon

Cream butter, sugar, and salt on medium speed until light and fluffy, about 3 minutes.

Add yolks, vanilla, zest, and beat until well mixed.

Scrape down bowl and mix for a few more seconds.

Sift together flour, meal, baking powder, cinnamon and on low speed gradually beat in.

Mix just until the dough holds together.

Roll out to ¼-inch thickness and cut with 1-inch circle cookie cutter.

For each 1 cut, cut one with a smaller cutter for the window to place on top of the jam.

Line pans and bake at 325 degrees for about 15 minutes or until cookies are golden brown.

Let cool completely.

Prickly Pear Jam

1 cup and 12 oz. prickly pear puree (look for it at your local Spanish market)

8 oz. corn syrup

6 oz. sugar

1Tbsp apple (jam) pectin

In a pot, mix together puree and corn syrup. Bring to a boil.

In a separate bowl, mix together sugar and pectin.

Once liquid boils, temper in liquid to sugar and pectin…and mix vigorously to dissolve.

Add into pot and return to boil.

Turn down flame and let simmer for 10-15 minutes.

When ready, spoon a bit a jam onto a cold plate and wait 5 mins — if it has the jam ‘texture’ it is done.

When completely cool, place a 1 tsp of jam on the complete cookie. Let stand for 2 mins, then place the window cut cookie on top and press lightly to sandwich together. Let dry to adhere (5 mins).

Part 2 of our series on a new generation of Mexican American chefs featured Julietta Ballesteros on her go-to ingredients and favorite indulgences. Craving more? Check out Part 1 of our series, featuring Rick Ortiz of Chicago’s Antique Taco and his Abuelita’s Pop Tart. Read his story here.

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