Looking back on her childhood, it seems like a career in the food industry was inevitable for Ashley Ugarte, pastry chef at San Francisco’s esteemed Dandelion Chocolate. However, despite growing up Mexican, Spanish, and American and being surrounded by traditional cooking and food culture from a young age, Ugarte did not always imagine a career in food. In fact, she started her career journey as a pre-med major at Rice University and held several jobs and internships in the health field before pivoting to a more food-centric path.
“I had no idea that I would even go into chocolate one day in my life,” Ugarte said, reflecting on her career path before a pivotal trip to a cacao farm in Costa Esmeraldas, Ecuador her freshman year of college. The main purpose of the trip was to learn about community health education, but Ugarte’s main takeaway was the concept of holistic medicine. “We had experiences tasting chocolate there, and the medical aspect of it was amazing.” At the time Ugarte was going through her own personal health journey, and seeing cacao through the lens of holistic medicine was eye opening. “That was a moment that completely changed my life,” she said, “It was one of the first times I’d ever been abroad and I just fell in love. When I came back I had something inside of me that shifted.”
Ugarte entered the world of sustainability and activism when she met Judi Shils, founder of Turning Green and the Conscious Kitchen, when the organization visited her university on the Conscious College Road tour. Before she knew it, Ugarte was on a plane to spend the summer in the Bay Area as one of Turning Green’s very first interns. After spending the next three summers with Turning Green, Ugarte returned to a job in medicine after graduation. The job “was kind of melding my college experience [and] my Turning Green experience with medicine, which is what I thought I wanted to do,” she explained. However, it just didn’t feel right. She returned to the Conscious Kitchen as a program manager for a few years before she decided it was time to become a chef. Ugarte got a job in the kitchen at Cavallo Point, where she dove in head first, navigating the male-dominated environment. “I think having this beginner’s mindset where you don’t know the rules was my advantage through this whole thing. I never went to culinary school, I never had any legitimate training, so I think being blissfully unaware and ignorant actually helped me succeed and maybe helped me move as quickly as I did through the kitchens that I worked in”. She enjoyed working in the main kitchen, but still something was missing. “I remember I would look over at the pastry department … as there was all this hustle and bustle and yelling in the savory kitchen, over there it was like a symphony. It looked like so much fun, and I realized that I kind of wanted to be over there,” Ugarte recalls. After moving into the pastry kitchen at Cavallo Point and working there for six months, she discovered that Dandelion Chocolate in San Francisco was hiring and never looked back.
Growing up with a Mexican mother and Spanish father, Ugarte has always been surrounded by traditional cooking that influences her own work as a pastry chef. “I remember as soon as I could reach the stove I was cooking,” she said. The sweetened chocolate used today is a result of both Mexican and Spanish influence, and to Ugarte, “those two influences of Mexican and Spanish in a way are like me. To work in chocolate just makes so much sense.”
Dandelion is unique from other chocolate companies because of their intense dedication to the highest quality ingredients and ethically, single-sourced cacao to make bean-to-bar chocolate with the highest integrity. In Ugarte’s words, “They are so proud of the fact that their bars can be comparable to wine. Each bar has unique flavor and tasting notes, and has been sourced so thoughtfully.” Dandelion does whatever they can to apply these values to every other ingredient, with organic dairy from Straus and produce from local farms.
However, as soon as sugar and flour get involved, as they do in pastry, things get harder to source locally because it just isn’t feasible. Unlike produce and dairy, flour and sugar are not commonly available from local farmers so Dandelion must source them from larger distributors that are not necessarily local. Ugarte’s latest project is heading the new confections team, crafting creative candies and bonbons while continuing to uphold Dandelion’s values as much as possible. “Because I come from Turning Green and the Conscious Kitchen and I have those same values very much ingrained in me, starting this new program with confections we have to keep that same integrity.” When it comes to confection, it is especially difficult to maintain these values, because pastry chefs often have to add additional ingredients or preservatives in order to make the chocolate behave in the way it needs to. However, Ugarte is ready to face the challenge head on. “We just have all of these other additional obstacles and challenges to face but I think it is very exciting because bean to bar is so new, and I think bean to bonbon is an even newer concept.”
Some ingredients in Ugarte’s repertoire include chile, hibiscus, and tamarind, and she is ready to bring them out at Dandelion. She adds, “I obviously have to keep in mind that Dandelion has its brand, they have what they want to look like and how they want to present themselves in this space. But, I think the opportunity to put my own spin on it is very much welcome.” Her career came full circle when she learned that one of Dandelion’s chocolate bars came from the very cacao farm she visited in Ecuador her freshman year of college. “I think when I saw that … the dots connected me starting from childhood … to that moment I [thought] ‘this is where I’m supposed to be.”
Looking forward, Ugarte hopes to continue working with chocolate and upholding Dandelion’s high standards while honoring her own heritage. She says, “The reason that I want to do chocolate, the reason I want to stay in this field and hopefully one day have my own chocolate factory, is that chocolate is so rooted in my culture.”
Recipe: Mexican Hot Chocolate with Hojicha Tea
You might not be surprised to find that I prefer a warm mug of hot chocolate over a cup of coffee to start my day. Growing up, my mother would make us traditional Mexican hot chocolate almost everyday, using Abuelita chocolate tablets, Mexican cinnamon, and a little bit of piloncillo. She was always proud that this drink originated in her home country, where the Mayans were grinding chocolate beans as early as 500BC to be mixed with water, cornmeal, chili peppers, and other aromatic spices.
My mother immigrated to Texas in her mid-twenties, where my father is from, and where my sister and I were eventually born. Being Mexican-American and of Spanish descent on my father’s side, my sister and I grew up feeling neither fully Mexican or Spaniard. Instead our American environment introduced us to a third culture, where our Latina and Hispanic heritages commingled with culturally diverse friends and classmates – like the Japanese family we befriended who lived near our childhood home. These friends joyfully influenced our palettes and lifestyles, and even inspired my culinary journey by introducing me to the art of drinking tea.
Later in my culinary journey, I found myself in Taiwan, the birthplace of boba tea. Dandelion Chocolate was hosting a pop up shop and the experience further submerged me into tea culture. Here I observed traditional Taiwanese flavors and local ingredients being fused with chocolate. I quickly realized how beautifully chocolate and tea paired together – one of my absolute favorite items on our menu there was the Taiwanese Black Tea Hot Chocolate drink using our 70% Anamali, India chocolate.
Tea is another origin-based and craft culinary industry that I’ve fallen in love with – second only to chocolate! My partner, and his family, who are Chinese, have introduced me to a variety of traditional Chinese teas, and have inspired me to discover others on my own. This beverage recipe is a homage to my third culture experiences, as well as to all the people who have inspired me during my time at Dandelion Chocolate, both in San Francisco and abroad.
● 350g oat or almond milk
● 28g 70% dark chocolate (for this pairing, I recommend Dandelion Chocolate’s 70% Ben Tre, Vietnam or 70% Gola Rainforest, Sierra Leone)
● 8g Hojicha tea (whole leaf or powder)
● 1 inch of a Mexican cinnamon stick
● 10g ground almonds or almond flour
● 1 T coconut sugar (or to taste)
● Optional: a pinch of chile de arbol or pasilla powder
1. Combine the oat milk and cinnamon in a small saucepan, bringing it to just under a boil.
Let the cinnamon steep for about 3 minutes 2. Remove the cinnamon stick and add the tea, chocolate, sugar and the ground almonds
or flour. Whisk and let the tea steep for 1-3 minutes. 3. Pour directly into a blender and emulsify until frothy. 4. Pour through a fine sieve to strain out the tea (if using whole leaf) and any other undissolved granules. Serve hot or chill over ice and enjoy.