The Secret Life of Roselle

I remember the first time I bit into Roselle’s ethereal Banana Cream Pie Éclair.  It was my birthday cake (or rather, my birthday pastry), a year I had ironically decided that I didn’t want cake or anything sweet for that matter. I wanted croissants. Lots of them. So the 3 Spoons set out on an adventure, walking from Corktown to West Queen West, to eat every notable croissant along the way.

We hadn’t gotten very far, when I saw the sign: “dessert makes you happy”. A simple and honest statement; and, more importantly, one that is indisputably true. Peering into the window of the little shop revealed a white sign hung on a white wall, with white and beige tables.  One might expect this to describe a cold and austere place - on the contrary it was pleasantly warm and inviting. We walked in knowing there were no croissants to be had there - but, as per the universal rule, the birthday girl gets to choose.  After seeing a case full of beautifully crafted temptations, I chose the Banana Cream Pie Éclair and it did make me happy.

dessert makes you happy

It seemed appropriate to end our first issue with dessert, and there is no other place that celebrates dessert quite like Roselle. For one, each dessert takes an average 2 days of preparation prior to being freshly and lovingly assembled every day, to be served to the shop’s guests. No, at Roselle there are no mere customers; there are guests made to feel at home, treated to gustatory delights typically reserved for exclusive fine dining establishments.

During our interview, we were treated to a behind-the-scenes experience at Roselle. Co-owner and chef, Stephanie Duong, welcomed us into her kitchen to witness the making of the Turtle Tart and Passion Fruit Marshmallows. The small kitchen was buzzing with movement; it was business as usual, after all. Stephanie explained that she never has more than 3 people in her kitchen - herself and two other chefs - so with our presence that instantly doubled. At first, I felt that we might be in the way, that we might intrude and interfere with the normal flow of things. I came to realize rather quickly that this wouldn’t happen for one simple reason (perhaps one of the secrets behind Roselle’s impeccable execution): Stephanie’s conscientious character.

Stephanie has a way about her; a natural certainty of things, a sureness in her step and in her words, a calm preparedness for whatever may come, and, most importantly, a welcoming nature sprouting from the desire to share her passion with all who want a slice. Everything she does is with intention and this is reflected in every dessert she makes.

“All the things we have here, they’re here because I either like to make them, or either because they remind me of something. A lot of people do things because they’re trendy and we really try to avoid to do that,” says Stephanie. Everything is made in-house, with the exception of a handful of items such as the passion fruit purée she used for the marshmallows, which is imported from France.

'a lot of people do things because they’re trendy and we really try to avoid to do that'

As her delicate fingers moved swiftly and diligently, Stephanie talked us through the steps as one would at a live cooking show, pausing briefly to distribute tasting spoons of her creations along the way. We learned about caramel, different forms of gelatin, confectionary cooking temperatures. There were no clichéd secret recipes or covert manoeuvres, there was no need for that from a pastry chef whose pedigree includes Michelin-starred restaurants around the world.

Stephanie’s curriculum vitae is an impressive collection of fine dining and boutique establishments that would make any foodie’s culinary bucket list. Her journey began with a brief stint as a pastry cook at Luma, followed by a year at Buca while still studying Pastry Arts at George Brown. There, she met eventual partner in both life and business, Bruce Lee. Upon graduation in 2011, their desire to further their education led them both to pack their bags and try their luck in France. Both landing jobs at Michelin-starred restaurants, Bruce ended up in Paris, and Stephanie some 600 km away at Régis et Jacques Marcon, a 3 Michelin-starred boutique hotel and restaurant located in a small town of little over 200 in the South Central region of Auvergne. At the end of their season that year (the hotel and restaurant close for the winter), Stephanie joined Bruce in Paris, where she worked at upscale chocolatier Jacques Genin.

The two returned to Toronto in 2012 and began a cake and confectionary business primarily producing and selling caramels to farmers markets and high-end businesses. Before long, they realized that they still had more to learn. Hong Kong, where Bruce is from, became their new training ground. Both built upon their repertoire of Michelin-starred training, with Stephanie securing a position at L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon. A year later, they knew it was time to come home.  Toronto.

As I listened to Stephanie recount her journey and the experiences that led to opening Roselle at the ripe old age of 27, I became fascinated by her accomplishments. Watching too many food documentaries on Netflix, I recalled the familiar story of the young and eager chef writing hundreds of letters begging for an apprenticeship with the most prestigious and decorated restaurants, perhaps stubbornly camping out and refusing to leave without approval. I wondered how Stephanie and Bruce found the confidence to walk away from a career path others only dreamed of. Simply, it wasn’t their dream.

It was time to come home. Toronto.

Roselle was Stephanie’s dream before she even started at George Brown. “The thing that’s hard about this industry is either you work as a cook forever, or you do your own thing, or you are executive chef somewhere and that’s your thing, but I find that even at that level, you don’t do a lot of cooking, it’s mostly managerial [...]. I wanted to have my own place. I think that when I started to go to George Brown, I knew that I needed to learn what I needed to learn and do my own thing afterwards. And working abroad only confirmed that. It was so hard. We worked 8:00 in the morning until 1:00 at night, with a 2-hour break in between. For us, it was like ok, we’re doing this temporarily to learn so we can put in our hours and get this experience, but some people do that for a very long time and I can’t see that (for myself). I would probably burn out or lose my love for the craft and I didn’t want that to happen. [...] It was kind of my dream, but when Bruce and I met each other, he realized the same thing too; he didn’t want to be a cook for the rest of his life.”

With the completion of our pastry lesson, we moved from the kitchen to the front of the shop, where we enjoyed the fruits of Stephanie’s labour - the Turtle Tart and the Earl Take 2. Roselle’s desserts are thoughtfully layered, with each component delivering a clear, deliberate, and nuanced flavour coming together harmoniously into perfect and memorable bites. Nothing out of place, nothing unnecessary, nothing pretentious. Just real, honest, and heavenly moments of pure enjoyment.

As I savoured my last bite, I remembered that birthday, seemingly long ago. The three of us sitting happy and inspired in a time when 3 Spoons was just a dream. We resolved to come back and write about Roselle one day, and I was glad that we made good on our word. Roselle is what dreams are made of - for Roselle is, itself, the manifestation of a dream realized.

And that makes it all the sweeter.


Hungry? Visit Roselle online to check out their location and hours.

Written by Kimberley Kwo.  Photography by Abhishek Dekate.