You know the drill. Your workday has just ended, and you are now spinning inside the usual kaleidoscope of evening duties — homework help, the kids’ sports practice, your own workout (if you’re lucky) and OMG-what’s-for dinner panic.
On one such frenetic evening, I rushed to a little strip mall in Inglewood because it’s where I can find the closest Thai food. My eyes scanned the couple of Ethiopian and Jamaican restaurants, nail shop and hip fashion boutiques also housed in the strip mall before falling on a new sign with a photo of the Eiffel tower and the words “Crème Brulee LA” blazoned on it. The smaller words underneath confirmed that this storefront is, indeed, a new French bakery, café and restaurant. And it is the first and only of its kind in Inglewood, the owner and chef, Cynthia Wiley, told me after I all but skipped over.
French music bubbled out of the speakers. Chalk menu boards promised croissant sandwiches, omelets, chouquettes, pain au chocolat, Moroccan couscous, jambon beurre and more. Because I had preordered the Thai, I opted for just a couple of madeleines — pillowy, buttery goodness — from the pastry case. I vowed to return, but before I left, Wiley slipped a sliver of her quiche Lorraine, flaky and tender, creamy with just the right touch of smokiness, onto a saucer for me, and I ate it standing in the middle of the small café.
When I returned a few months later, she whipped me up a serving of crème brulee (a customer favorite) and cappuccino, and it was through this sweet portal that I learned more of her culinary story, which started in Paris, where Wiley was born and grew up. While she is not a classically trained chef, she was raised by an immaculate home cook who had a deep curiosity about the world and its food stories. “My mother was from Guadalupe,” says Wiley, “but she worked for Air France and came to Paris, where she met my father, who was a professional boxer from Africa. France is where I consider people to be culinary privileged. You know, we’re surrounded by a lot of great food, the art of cooking, really.
“My mother used to watch all these cooking shows, like the French equivalent of Julia Childs, and cooking was our thing to do together, she says. “She always was interested in trying anything. She had mastered all the Caribbean recipes. Then, she learned a lot of the French recipes — all the classics, like coq au vin, boeuf bourguignon, all of that. And she learned recipes from my dad’s country.”
When Wiley moved to Los Angeles in 2007, becoming a restaurateur was nowhere on her goals radar. But in 2013, after having cooked countless meals that filled the bellies of her friends, those friends started pestering her about opening her kitchen up to a wider audience. “I had divorced. I was 33 and was working at an office job at a shipping company. Somebody asked me: ‘What were you doing when you were 5?’ They say whatever you were loving to do at 5 is what you are meant to do as an adult, because at 5, your mind is still free.
“When I was 5, I used to bring food from my house in those little [empty] sour cream containers for my friends to try even before first grade. I was doing that: bringing food for my friends to share.”
Shortly after her reflections on her childhood, a friend hired Wiley to cater a meal at his company, launching a side hustle that morphed into more jobs, renting booths at farmers markets, landing a role as the chef for a rehab treatment and wellness center in Malibu for teens (where she made them, among other goodies, a ratatouille they devoured) and, eventually, to opening inside her first brick-and-mortar location last year.
“I ended up finding it through Craigslist,” says Wiley, still incredulous. The rent was steep for her at $3,000 a month, but a friend lent her $10,000 and she started a fundraiser. (At press time, Wiley was faced with negotiating to purchase the building where Crème Brulee LA is located — or the possibility of having to find a new location).
Crème Brulee LA’s grand opening was Nov. 5, the day Wiley’s mother died three years ago. And while business has seen its ups and downs, Wiley has expanded by offering summer cooking classes for kids and private cooking classes for families, couples or anyone interested in learning how to prepare French dishes. Email email@example.com to sign up.
Wiley’s daughter, 14-year-old Sacha, sometimes serves as her mom’s sous chef for the classes. Sacha speaks French fluently and started cooking on her mother’s stove when she was 3, continuing — and expanding — her family’s culinary traditions.
The recipe Wiley shares here, Gratin Dauphinois, or scalloped potatoes au gratin, is a perfect holiday side dish that Wiley promises “anybody could do even if they’re not a big cook.”
6 large russet potatoes
1 ½ pint heavy cream
1 cup shredded mozzarella (or any
cheese of your choice)
1 garlic clove
1 tablespoon grated parmesan
1 teaspoon butter
Chopped parsley or chives for garnish
A large bowl of cold water
A saucepan or small pot
Ideally, a 9-inch cast iron skillet; otherwise, any oven-safe dish (ceramic or glass over metal dish)
Preheat oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit.
Peel and slice the potatoes (no thicker than ¼-inch slices). As you go, reserve in cold water to prevent browning.
In a saucepan, mix heavy cream, salt, pepper and nutmeg, Heat to medium; it doesn’t need to boil.
Butter your skillet or baking dish, rub your crushed garlic glove on it, then sprinkle the grated parmesan.
Put the sliced potatoes in the buttered pan, then pour the heated cream over it. Sprinkle with the shredded cheese.
Cover tightly with the foil and bake in preheated oven for about 1 hour, or until potatoes are tender. Remove the
foil, then place the pan back in the oven, uncovered, for about 20 minutes, until cheese is browning.
Let rest at room temperature for about 30 minutes for any liquids to set. Serve with freshly chopped parsley or chives.