Given her last name, it would seem Julia Baker was destined to become a pastry chef. But as a trained statistician, even the data-driven Baker couldn’t forecast the probability she’d find success in the luxury chocolate business.
Today, she oversees Julia Baker Confections, a chocolate and custom cake operation that includes a retail store at the Biltmore Fashion Park in Phoenix, an online storefront and a production facility in Scottsdale. There, the master confectioner develops all recipes for her decadent cakes and sweets, which include truffles and hand-cut artisan chocolates that range in flavors from dark ganache to passion fruit and French caramel.
A Chocolate Star is Born
She counts one-named celebrities like Bono and Oprah as customers, which has earned her the nickname “chocolatier to the stars.” And then there’s the Cooking Channel TV show “Sweet Julia” that showcases her culinary expertise to the cable masses. While she’s experiencing celebrity chef status now, her rise in the dessert industry has been 14 “hard” years in the making, according to Baker.
After pursuing undergraduate studies in applied statistics at North Carolina State and then graduate work from The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, she set off on a corporate career working as a data software consultant that took her around the world at age 22.
While Baker’s mother was a great cook and she has fond memories of food experiences growing up in Cincinnati, it was Baker’s globetrotting ways that exposed her to a taste for the finer things in life.
“I would buy the Zagat’s Guide and then pick three top restaurants to go to in every city I visited,” she says. ”It was an escape. I learned about food and wine and fell in love with the industry.”
Student of the Classics
Realizing that her true passion was cooking—not numbers—at age 30, Baker enrolled in the Le Cordon Bleu in Paris, taking notes in French phonetically since she didn’t speak the language. By the time she graduated, she was first in her class, achieving the highest honors in both pastry and cuisine—a fait accompli rarely achieved by a student at the prestigious culinary school. Her academic accomplishments led to an internship at Lasserre Restaurant under chef Jean-Louis Nomicus where she honed her classic French cooking techniques.
After living in Paris, Baker followed her then-boyfriend to Scottsdale in 2004. Despite her world-class education, she didn’t have much of a culinary direction until a neighbor sampled her petit fours and insisted Baker should sell them. That led to a an introduction to chefs Beau MacMillan and Chuck Wiley at the Sanctuary Resort, and an immediate dessert order of 400 for an event the following Saturday night.
“I had no idea what I was doing,” she says.
By 2006, Baker had a fledgling catering business and her warehouse in Scottsdale. She then opened her first retail chocolate boutique, which has since closed, at the Montelucia Resort.
“I’m happy to have landed here in the Valley,” Baker says of her Southwestern base. “It’s a great place to grow my business and it is an environment that embraces delicious food.”
Passion for Cooking
Baker is serious about cooking, but is equally interested in making it accessible to everyone. “Sweet Julia” is a vehicle for her to deconstruct classic cooking techniques and teach non-chefs to prepare otherwise intimidating recipes. Her high-likeability factor, combined with an authentically sweet and easy-going disposition, make Baker a natural TV chef.
“This isn’t rocket science,” she says. “I want viewers to know how to be successful bakers or make an exquisite dinner.”
As the founder, CEO and executive chef of Julia Baker Creations, her momentum is fast moving. She’s just completed two cooking books and is in the middle of a company rebrand, including a redesign of her signature red hat box.
Besides launching another line of chocolate bars and a snack assortment called Sweet Essentials, she’s slated to open additional locations of her flagship Biltmore chocolate store/wine bar. A second one will launch in Dallas in October, then in Beverly Hills, as well as Atlanta, New York City and possibly Singapore. Plus, she’s in negotiations to buy a cocoa factory in Ghana.
“I wanted to show [people] in the Valley what it’s like to eat fresh chocolate in a boutique setting, as if they are being transported to another part of the world,” Baker explains of the luxe concept that serves her natural and preservative-free chocolates, specialty cakes, wine and champagne. “It’s similar to a European dessert experience. It mirrors a restaurant dessert service rather than something from the shelf.”
The Exact Recipe
Baker attributes her success as a culinary artist to sweat equity, but also her early training as a statistician and having a head for numbers.
“The difference between cooks and chefs is math. As a chef you have to understand food costs and know how to increase or reduce ingredients based on percentages. Especially when you are baking and making chocolates, you have to be precise to the gram. It’s scientific,” she explains.
Baker’s analytical skills also have served her well as a business owner and TV chef.
“I’m still a statistician, trying to analyze and figure out the probability if a certain product or if a TV show recipe will work, or what day of the week a customer will buy something.”
Rather than stirring up ingredients, Baker now spends the bulk of her time managing her explosive brand including 47 employees. And she remains on a path of sweet self-discovery.
“I embrace food and live for it. I’m constantly learning. I get up in the morning and think about what I want for lunch. I visit every good restaurant. I taste every flavor and then think of it in terms of sweet,” she says.
But don’t expect any cheese or curry to show up in Baker’s original chocolate confections.
“I want to be different, but classic—and do them well.”