World Cuisines Elevated by Fresh Local Ingredients: A Swedish-Californian Chef’s Artful Expressions

Emily Glarner-Chan

Founder and Owner of Food by Emily/ Mother of Two

(Manhattan Beach, CA)

Emily met me and my two daughters on a sunny Sunday at a professional kitchen she rented in Redondo Beach, California.  When we arrived, she was already almost finished preparing the ingredients for the dishes she was going to put together in front of us.  Emily and I met at a global retail company’s U.S. headquarters in Los Angeles more than 13 years ago.  She was working in Information Technology Education and Training and I in Audit.  I even took her maternity photos when she was about to have her first daughter and it was so great to see her again after all these years of being in touch through Facebook.  She was still gorgeous as ever!

Emily expertly piping whipped cream on top of meringue
Emily at third trimester with her first child in August 2008

Hazel:  Thank you so much for being my subject!  Tell me a bit about the first dish you are making for me today.

Emily:  I’ll be making my own renditions of Swedish sandwich cakes, “smörgåstårta,” two ways, vegetarian and seafood.  I feel they represent my culinary style as they combine my Swedish heritage with Californian seasonality and freshness.  I find that vegetables are especially aesthetically pleasing with vibrant colors and I love to figure out a way to highlight their uniqueness with different cooking techniques and spices.

It was a pure joy documenting the creation of vegetarian smörgåstårta. A truly memorable experience!
I labelled all the ingredients just for kicks!

When I watched Emily assemble the vegetarian smörgåstårta, it was as if she were an artist decorating her blank canvas of white bread covered with crème fraiche mayonnaise.  She carefully selected and placed each vegetable and fruit to create harmony and accent in aesthetics, flavor and texture.

Emily:  I’m now going to make the seafood Swedish sandwich cake.  In Sweden, we love all kinds of seafood particularly skagen, Swedish shrimp salad. I am including crab, too, because it is in season in California right now. Swedes also love dill!  By using tomatoes and freshly grated horseradish as my ingredients, I create the flavor that you find in cocktail sauce, which goes well with shrimp and crab. 

My mouth watered like crazy when I saw the perfect snow crab claw!!
The finished seafood Swedish sandwich cake! Notice how carefully thought out the aesthetics are. It’s truly a 3-dimensional experience. The height of Buddha’s hand is balanced well with crab claw’s horizontally prominent form!

Hazel:  Do you go to Sweden often?

Emily:  I go pretty much every summer with my girls.  I also make an annual procurement trip near Christmas to buy ham, cheese and other Swedish traditional ingredients for holiday cooking. It is very important to me that my daughters get to spend time in Sweden to learn and appreciate their heritage. I was born and raised in a small village in the woods, which is very different from our environment in Los Angeles. My girls get to experience the outdoors, pick berries in the woods and just spend time getting to know the people in the village.

Emily then assembled another dish, a parmesan custard topped with Swedish skagen and fresh citrus, including oro blanco and Buddha’s hand.    

Emily’s signature flawlessly split sugar snap pea is such a marvelous accent to the dish in both aesthetics and taste.

Hazel:  How did you become interested in the culinary arts?

Emily:  For my entire life, I’ve always loved to cook.  I started to sell baked goods when I was 9 years old to my neighbors in Sweden, who became quite accustomed to me selling things. When I was 11, my neighbor Ammie asked if she could buy cookies from me. That inquiry started a small business for me. My entire village and my dad’s colleagues started to order cookies, cinnamon rolls and cakes from me and I became quite the little successful kid entrepreneur. I got up around 4 a.m. and baked on weekends and all summers and then delivered on my bike.

At 14, I worked at a restaurant as a dish washer.  This was the best job starting out in the culinary world as I was able to smell all the things that needed to be washed. I could also taste all the sauces, the flavors of dressings, the chocolate cake. The chef was amused how interested I was and started to just leave things for me to try. That was the extent of my culinary training and, while brief, it was good.

At the same restaurant, which is a well known five star institution, I then advanced to become a waitress. My duties included arranging flowers, cleaning the floors and getting educated about wine. I learned the importance of service, teamwork and respect for everyone involved in the culinary art making from dishwasher to executive chef. I was so dedicated! I worked nights, holidays and all summers. I knew at some point in my life that I would become a caterer and have my own business.

Hazel: What brought you to the States?

Emily: I came to the States when I was 20 years old to study international business at UMass Amherst.  I received my bachelor’s degree in international business and hotel management with minor in psychology.  I had a career in training and education at various corporations. For six years, I was a road warrior and traveled 35 weeks of the year. I loved every single minute of it!

After a decade in the corporate world, I got married.  I told my husband that when we had kids, I wanted to exit Corporate America and start a catering company.  Fortunately, I was able to follow my dream.  I started with chocolates and plant-based food line first for a couple of years.  These ventures provided a great experience preparing me well for my later transition into a full-service catering business specializing in artful world food.

Hazel: Tell me more about your experience with making chocolate and plant-based food line.

Emily:  My chocolate line was created accidentally when I was making some as thank you gifts for a wine bar which was celebrating the 1st anniversary of its opening.  The wine bar owners liked them so much that they wanted me to make more for them to sell. I was immediately put to work and produced chocolates for a 300 people event the next night at the wine bar by working 24 hours straight.

At this event, a board member of Gelsons, a local gourmet grocery chain, offered me a deal to put my chocolates on their shelves. I had to scramble that night to create a website and a business plan, file business licenses, order business cards and learn extensively about chocolate making.

Hazel: And this is after you pulled an all-nighter for that event! Oh my goodness!! Go on. Tell me the rest of the story!

Emily: Two days later, I had my initial meeting at Gelsons with samples. When asked how long I was in business, I told them honestly…merely three days! Gelsons generously educated me and took me under their wings and my chocolates became popular enough that they were eventually sold in 15 different upscale stores in the Los Angeles area.

Hazel: Incredible! So then, how did you start the plant-based food line?

Emily: After my chocolates became famous, Good Eggs, an on-line food distributor, approached me to start a plant-based food line. I agreed and did that for a year.

Hazel: I see… So you don’t produce chocolates and plant-based food any more?

Emily:  Unfortunately, I don’t.  Frankly, they were a lot of work with very little profit. To keep up with orders, I had to rent the professional kitchen from midnight to 6 a.m. daily. It was impossible to sustain long-term while having a family life. My husband finally advised me to stop that line of business and go full time on catering, my original plan. It was a hard but right decision for me and my family.

Hazel: I understand. Tell me more about what you strive for with your catering company.

Emily: I try to create a glamorous experience from the beginning to the end of a food event, from the moment guests arrive at the table to finishing their last bite. Catering is all about the details. I pay attention to even the tiniest details in table settings, flowers, attire I and my staff wear and, of course, food. I want the guests to feel wonderful and be completely taken cared of.

I love the challenges of creating different types of food, even ones I’ve not tried making before. I did a gingerbread house party in December and a spectacular Bat Mitzvah in November. I even did an intimate seafood extravaganza. Each event, no matter the size and type, is equally important and memorable. 

I also try to think out of the box. I once made small edible wreaths as decor on the buffet table for a client who hired me for the 16th time. The wreathes became one of my signature presentation styles:

Hazel:  What has been the most challenging aspect of your catering business? What lessons have you learned?

Emily: It took me a while to find the right work/life balance. I had to figure out how to spend quality time with my family while keeping up with work. I’ve gotten much better.

I learned that having great mentors is important and listening to them is even more so. I’m forever grateful for my mentors throughout my catering business journey.

I have been reaffirmed that hard work and following my passion truly pay off both financially and psychologically.

Hazel: Any last thoughts?

Emily:  As women, we have to believe in ourselves and know our worth. It’s so important for us to be more than just moms. We have to be role models for our daughters and show them that we can take charge and be our own bosses. It’s important that we don’t lose sight of why we started something in the first place and enjoy the ride every step of the way.

Lastly, Emily prepared the dessert.  It was meringue topped with whipped cream and a variety of fresh citrus that she had marinated in star anise simple syrup.  The colors were just amazing!

The aforementioned dessert! My kids consumed every atom.

At the end of our interview/photo shoot, Emily had us taste all the dishes she prepared.  They were delightful explosions of flavors and textures.   We had a chance to try some ingredients we’ve never had before.  Buddha’s hand was so complex in flavor and texture.  Its firm and crispy texture and bitter and tangy flavors were truly stimulating.  Romanesco was extra crunchy and slightly (and surprisingly) nutty in flavor.  Romanesco created a wonderful contrast against the crème fraiche and mayonnaise icing.  The girls especially enjoyed the citrus meringue dessert.  They loved the full spectrum of tastes from sweet to tart rendered by various citrus pieces balanced with cooling and creamy whipped cream and light crunchiness of the meringue.  I especially loved the skagen, the balance and contrast the salad struck among its key ingredients: shrimp, dill, lemon juice, oil and salt.

We thank you, Emily, for an extraordinary tasting experience!  We loved visually admiring your art and savoring all the ingredients you so carefully and lovingly put together.  We wish you much continued success!

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