Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — Today, Margarita Lorenzana-Manzke is a major name in the Los Angeles food scene, as the James Beard-shortlisted baker behind the buzzy brunch-to-dinner L.A. concept République. But decades ago, when she was a six-year-old in Manila just falling in love with the craft, she started like most would-be bakers, experimenting with ingredients and producing things that were sometimes delicious but were more often than not, not quite edible.
“I vividly remember baking muffins and not having any measurements, literally just grabbing the ingredients that I thought in my mind would make a muffin — flour, eggs, water, butter — and just mixing it without any measurements and it would turn into, like, a rock,” she says, laughing. “My brothers used to call them ‘rubber muffins.’”
The last few years have seen Manzke, her husband Walter (the acclaimed chef behind République), and her sister Ana Lorenzana-De Ocampo, dominate and transform the local restaurant scene with the French-leaning, L.A.-inspired Wildflour Café + Bakery, a crucial touchstone in the local scene’s modern, multipurpose dining movement. Today, Wildflour has six branches, aside from two branches of their Filipino-focused Little Flour concept. Wildflour has gone a long way in making brunch a part of the dining scene’s lifestyle, and with their acclaimed pastries in elevating the standards of local baking.
Elsewhere, Margarita Manzke has made similarly great strides. Aside from the James Beard recognition, she has received acclaim from every notable food or lifestyle publication — from Bon Appétit (“Pastry chef and co-owner of République Margarita Manzke is the person responsible for your little croissant habit”) to Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop (“the baguettes are absurd”). Since République took off a few years ago, the Manzkes have since expanded their L.A. empire to the iconic Grand Central Market with Sari Sari Store, a silog concept.
“We talked about a silog concept because we felt it’s probably one of the most accessible Filipino foods around,” she says. “It’s pretty [easy] to understand — rice, egg, and protein. I mean, who doesn’t like egg on top of anything, right? Most people can appreciate that.”
How did Manzke go from ‘rubber muffins’ to international acclaim? Baking lessons under local pastry innovators like Sylvia Reinoso and Heny Sison were a big help. “I loved those classes,” she says. “It was the beginning of, ‘Okay, that’s how you do it. I can do that.’” And studying at culinary institutions like the Le Cordon Bleu in London definitely helped.
But a big part of her journey was learning from cookbooks. “It’s so important,” she says. “[Seeing the pastries in the cookbook] give you the inspiration. It makes your mind think of all these ideas, what you can do with it, putting your own twist on it… You aspire [because of cookbooks].” She mentions the "Tartine" cookbook and the San Francisco Baking Institute (“like a bible”) as two that she’s continuously turned to through the years.
Now Manzke is getting an opportunity to be that bible for a new generation of bakers.
A few years ago, Ten Speed Press, a publishing house under Random House’s Crown Publishing Group, offered her an opportunity to do a book.
“A book agent approached me and said that Lorena Jones, one of the editors at Ten Speed Press, kind of told her, ‘I want to do a baking book with Marge. Do you want to approach her and ask her if she’s interested?’” she narrates. Jones is apparently a regular at République.
“At first I was very hesitant. I didn’t know if I even had time for a book at that point in time. It’s a big commitment and from what I heard, it takes two years to do and all of these things. So I talked to Walter, my husband, and the question was, ‘When else is an opportunity gonna come my way to do a book with a reputable publisher?’ So you know, I just went for it and whatever happens, happens.”
The result is “Baking at République” by Manzke with the writer Betty Hallock. The book has chapters dedicated to teaching each dough or batter, with 100 recipes that put the lessons to work. Aside from classics like chocolate chip cookies and the almond brown butter cake, Manzke also throws in a tribute or two to Philippine cuisine, most notably the Halo Halo Cake.
“I wanted it to be a book that everybody could relate to, not just a home baker-type of book, where you dumb down everything and I don’t do what I do at the restaurant,” she says. “I wanted to feature the stuff that we really do so it looked authentic and it looked real. It was very important to me that professional bakers or pastry chefs would also relate to and not just look at it as ‘Oh, a home baker book.’”
The book launched in the United States last month, with Manzke doing guestings on Los Angeles Times Today and the LA Times Festival of Books 2019. And in a full circle moment, “Baking at République” has received praise from Elisabeth Prueitt, the cofounder of Tartine Bakery: “From simple crisps to traditional German stollen, Margarita Manzke proves her mantra: ‘attention to detail makes the baker.’ Manzke’s enthusiasm for teaching and love for the craft of baking make this one book you’ll keep nearby for inspiration and reference – like the pastry case at République, it is exceptional.”
“After the book was done, I kind of missed doing it,” Manzke admits. “It was such an easy, laid-back routine. Me and Betty would meet every week and talk about three or four recipes at a time… it was nice to talk about those recipes because they bring back memories. ‘Oh right! I got that from this person and this is how that came about.’ It was nice to remember how things started.”
"Baking at République" is available at Fully Booked and Wildflour branches.