Sometimes your life’s calling has been right before your eyes all along. Despite growing up in the kitchen with her mom, Coco Kislinger never thought she’d become a professional chef. But her instinct to help others led her down an unlikely path to running her own healthy baking company.
You’re originally from LA?
Yes, we are rare. We don’t really exist anymore. I’m from Santa Monica, born and raised. I was really lucky to have grown up here. It’s incredible. I live right by the ocean.
I never really realized how lucky I am until a couple of years ago. I have an overwhelming sense of gratitude to be by the water, to be in a place where it’s peaceful, to be able to do what I want, to be able to be a woman and not be told what I can and can’t do. I don’t know. I just feel so lucky.
When was that moment of realization?
I think I was driving on PCH, or maybe I was hiking up to Eagle Rock, and I was looking out at the ocean. I mean, we all go through a phase in our lives and that shift happened for me a year or two ago. I think it was once I ended my five-year relationship, it was like, “Okay. I’m on my own. I have a job and I just came back from Paris from culinary school. I feel free and easy and open and there’re so many opportunities for me to do what I want, to be who I want.”
You grew up cooking with your mom, too. Is that something that she encouraged you to do?
She grew up in a house where they ate liver and stuff like that, but our mom was a health-food nut. She was really into yoga. My mom remembers going to [Venice natural foods store] Erewhon Market before it was really Erewhon.
She didn’t have a good example of cooking, though, so she took this cookbook—she’s going to kill me for not remembering, but I think it was one of Julia Child’s books—and cooked the entire thing. She’s vegetarian, so she didn’t cook the meat dishes, but she and a friend went through the entire book and learned how to cook. And so, she passed that onto us.
I think that when I came back from culinary school, being a “chef” was not really a thing. It wasn’t this great profession. Now, we hold chefs in such high regard—it’s like this whole new world where being a chef is something that people praise. It’s not this dirty kitchen job.
My family encouraged me to be a chef and to do what I want. They’ve always been so supportive of all three kids. So, yeah, I spent a lot of time in the kitchen with my mom when I was little. She taught me so much of my foundation. When I started my company, everything that I made came from her pantry.
Did you ever think you would do anything besides cooking?
Oh, I never thought my path was cooking. Not at one point did I ever think that. I thought I would go to law school. Then I was like, “Okay. If I go to law school, I want to take a year off first.” So, during my year off I went to the Cordon Bleu in Paris and studied there for three months. I came back and started working at Huckleberry, a café on Wilshire. It’s great. It’s run by [LA-based baker] Zoe Nathan.
So, she opened Huckleberry and I worked there for a little over a year and a half. There was this moment where I was creating some recipes for them and they were selling what I was making. And I thought, “If they’re selling what I’m creating, you know, within their guidelines and their boundaries, then why can’t I do this on my own?” And at that point, I’d gone gluten- and dairy- and sugar-free, and I was like, “Why can’t I do this gluten- and dairy-free?” And so, that was kind of the moment where I thought, “Oh, I could be a chef.” That was 18 months into my culinary journey. But growing up, being a chef wasn’t a thing.
What was that moment of realization like?
Oh, I remember. I went home and started pulling things out of my mom’s pantry. I had a recipe for a cookie I’d made maybe a hundred times. When I gave it to people, they loved it and couldn’t believe it was gluten-free.
That was four years ago, right at the beginning of the gluten-free trend. People didn’t really know what it was. It was kind of picking up. It was just kind of a new trend, and people loved it. So I thought, “Okay. I can create things that people love. It’s good for them. I’m going to do this.” And I quit my job at Huckleberry.
Also this was a moment of realization for me—my mom’s a jewelry designer, and my sister is incredible at drawing. They were very creative and I always thought, “I’m not creative. I can’t draw. I can’t paint. I don’t watercolor.” So, it was also in that moment that I thought, “Oh my God! This is my creativity. I am creative.” It was this validation, just an incredible moment all around.
And I did not think that four years later, I’d be sitting here. First of all, starting a company is really difficult. Ninety-nine percent fail in the first year. And to be in the food space is so crowded.
I leaned on my family a lot. Like, “Dad, what do I need to do?” He and my mom both studied law and my mom also started her own business. When I was born, she started her jewelry company and my dad was an integral part of how super successful she became. So, he was like, “You need to form an LLC. You need a business license. Let’s go trademark the name.” There’s just a laundry list of stuff that you have to do.
There are things that you absolutely need. If you try to get your products into a store, they’ll say, “Do you have the paperwork?” Or, “I need a copy of this….” So you start to learn all the things you need and keep learning as you go.
How did you go about setting up your kitchen?
So, there are kitchens that exist where you can pay a certain amount per hour and they have all the equipment you need. When I first started, I spent a year and a half in my parents’ kitchen; there’s a permit you can get for that, where the health department inspects your kitchen at home. I think it’s the California Homemade Food Act that Governor Brown passed four years ago. I was so lucky for that. So, I had the cottage-food permit for three years, worked in my parents’ kitchen for a year and a half. Then I moved in with my ex-boyfriend, so I had that kitchen.
I was producing out of a kitchen that’s just an apartment kitchen—it was so tough. I did not have enough counter space for everything. I was packaging and labeling and pulling things off the oven and my ex-boyfriend was helping, too. It was such a wild ride. My UPS driver, Gerry, told me about this place I’m in now.
That’s so random.
So random! [Laughs] When I was living with my ex-boyfriend just up the street, I would have 50 pounds of almond flour delivered in five-gallon jugs. The UPS guy would knock and I’d scream to him, “Thank you!” through the door and he’d leave.
Then, one day I actually opened the door. Gerry said, “What are you doing here?” And I said, “I’m a baker.” And he said, “Well, if you're ever looking for a space….” I wasn’t at that time, so I kind of ignored it. But four months later, my ex-boyfriend and I broke up. I was moving out of the apartment, and Gerry pulled up with, like, 75 pounds of almond flour. I said, “Gerry, where did you say that kitchen is?” So, I drove over and by some miracle, this space still existed. It was completely empty, but the previous tenant had redone the floors and the plumbing and the electrical and put in AC. I mean, this place was totally outfitted. It just didn’t have any equipment or any tables or anything. I called the realtor as soon as I saw it. The next week, it was mine.
Gerry got a bonus that year. [Laughs]
Now I’m thinking, “What is the next step?” Because I can’t do this kind of fresh delivery every week—that model doesn’t work. I could do catering. I could do wedding cakes, which cost a little bit more money. But really, what I’m trying to move into now is shelf-stable products. I’m developing a couple right now, so that seems to be the next step. And then, opening this space up once a month to sell products. Once a month is doable.
It’s all about baby steps. I remember I hit up so many markets, I was in maybe ten stores within my first month and I just could not keep up with it. I got dropped from most of them, and that was really difficult. They want you to come in and do in-store demos, but because it was just me, I couldn’t keep up. So I had to come back to the drawing board. I thought, “How do I make this successful? How do I do this so I don’t have to hire anybody right now, so I don’t burn myself out? Okay. Let’s start with these three stores, and see how that does.” So, it’s just been a lot about baby steps.
That’s interesting that you decided to take a step back, which some people might see as the wrong move.
Like regression. It was totally the right move for me.
I think it was a mixture of fear. I was afraid that I was going to fail, as well as afraid of success. So, I was in a middle ground. If I kept going at the pace that I was going and surviving, then I wouldn’t fail. But if I didn’t take risks to propel myself forward, I also wouldn’t fail because I would never succeed to the point of getting overwhelmed and needing more help and money. Now, four years later, I’m like, “Eff surviving! I need this to happen. So, what are we going to do, Coco?”
I’ve put off coming up with a business plan because I’ve always just gone with my gut. It’s an instinctual process for me: “Does this feel right? Does this market feel right?”
What’s next is really what I’m thinking about. As great as wholesaling is, it’s just not sustainable to be on my feet 16 hours a day for three days a week, and eight hours on the other days of the week. I want to have a family. I want to get married. So, the shelf-life products will hopefully be sustainable for me. There are so many ways it can go. I’m just ready for it to move a little faster now.
Do you describe yourself as the work that you do?
This totally defines me. It’s defined me for the last four years. I don’t really know that I have an identity without it.
I started this business because I had food allergies. I wanted something that I could eat that was good, and I want to be able to provide that for everybody else. The best part of my day is if I get an email from somebody saying something like, “My daughter has this, this, and this allergy. We’ve tried everything—is there anything you can make?” So, I run through what I already make and I run through the ingredients and come up with something. That’s what drives me—being able to give back is really why I do this every day. If I didn’t feel like I was helping somebody and I was just baking to bake, then forget about it.
Is there any advice you would give?
Recently, I met this wonderful guy who got me into yoga, and I’ve become more conscious and open and exploratory because of it. I’ve just begun to listen to my instincts more. I’m kind of learning to put myself first, which is a first. So, I would just say, listen to your gut, trust your instincts. And f you're going to do something, don’t half-ass it—really do it and be true and be honest and be open and be kind. I think being honest and kind is so important.
What does LA mean to you?
As much as I hate it sometimes, LA is home to me. At a really basic level, it's home.
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Photography by Magdalena Wielopolski ©