Desiree Engman is the owner-operator of Desiree Chocolates, an event caterer in suburban Chicago known for its sweet table of hand-made chocolates and unique baked goods. Engman was born in South Africa, where her mother, Myrna Rosen, was one of the best-known and most-loved culinary figures and cookbook authors.
What was it like growing up the daughter of such a famous cook?
I feel very lucky. I’ve had my mother as a teacher and an inspiration for many years. I didn’t intend to be in this profession. My background is in graphic design. As a little girl and a teen I was always surrounded by good food from my mother and my grandmother, my mom’s mother. My mother was one of seven sisters. None of them went to culinary school, it was just in the genes. They all were into food. One of them owned a restaurant, another was a caterer. So I’ve been lucky that I grew up in the middle of all that.
What do you remember eating?
Everything! My mother was always working on things as a cook and a baker. She was very creative. The thing she was most interested in were desserts because of the creativity involved. But I’d say she did all types of cooking and baking. My family is Jewish, so we ate all types of Jewish dishes. But also all manner of [other] ethnic cuisines, from Greek and Italian to Indian. She’s always enjoyed learning about and experimenting with flavors and spices from different cultures. Traditional South African dishes are in my mother’s cookbooks, but really they’re a small part of the total.
Did you feel destined to a life the kitchen yourself?
It was a hobby for me when I was little. I didn’t know it would be my business, too. I was trying to pursue a career in graphic design and got sidetracked into this business.
Was there a time when you decided you’d be anything except a foodie?
No, not really. I didn’t do that rebellion period. When I was little I would go out to lunch with my mother and her friends and they would sit and discuss recipes and food and I would think “My gosh, this is so boring.” But years later I found myself sitting with friends doing exactly the same thing. I do think this is what I was meant to do. I love it; I’m passionate about it. But it’s a lot of physical work because I create all my own desserts and chocolates.
Do you think people appreciate how much work and how much hard work goes into your sweet tables and creations?
I think people do see that it’s a lot of work but probably not how hard that work is unless they’ve been in the kitchen with me. I do a lot of bar and bat mitzvahs and weddings, and typically they’re on weekends, typically on a Saturday night. Three or four days before the event I start doing my premade items. All my baking; all my chocolate items that might have a filling in it, like a caramel or toffee and what have you.
And then I work the sweet table. I take all my own staff and my props and lighting and one or two chocolate machines and we create what I call a “live sweet table.” That means that we do some of the chocolate dipping on site.
It makes us a little different than those who buy desserts at a bakery, put it all out on a table and leave. We actually make it, bring it, set it up, do all the displays, replenish it. So by the time I get to a party on a Saturday, I’ve already put in lots of hours.
When did you make the transition from pursuing a graphic design career to revisiting the food world you grew up in?
Early on. I graduated from the University of Miami and I had an internship with a frozen-yogurt chain. I worked in the art department and I did a lot of packaging design. But the man I worked with wasn’t very nice and it was a short-lived experience. I left with the idea of finding another design job. I moved to California briefly but I didn’t find anything and I missed my family [who had since moved to] Cincinnati.
I looked for something in design and then a friend who was an event planner told me about a woman in her 70s who had a candy business [in Cincinnati] and was hoping to retire. She said she knew how I always was interested in food and did I want to go talk to this woman. I went more out of curiosity than anything else, but I fell in love with the whole Willy Wonkaness of it!
And you said goodbye to graphic design?
You know, not really. That background has helped me tremendously. I did a lot of the work on my website and other business elements. But even with a sweets table, it’s all visual arts, you know? My creativity is visual coordination. There’s a lot of classic design in what I do [with chocolates], just different media.
How sharp was the contrast between life in South Africa and in Cincinnati, Ohio?
We actually moved first, in 1978, to Kentucky. My father was in the horse business at the time and he had the opportunity to manage a horse farm in Lexington, Ky. When things started getting bad in South Africa with apartheid in the late 1970s, my parents looked to leave, and this was an opportunity for my father to move us out.
But Lexington was a very difficult transition for me. I was a teenager, and we went from a big city, Johannesburg, to a small farm town. I was at the age where you want to fit in, and I didn’t. I have a younger brother and I think it was easier for him. For me it was difficult. I went to high school and then I went to university in Miami, where we had relatives. It was a bigger city. I’ve always been a city person.
And chocolate took you from Cincinnati to Chicago?
Yes. I worked in the chocolate business in Cincinnati for many years. I bought the business from the elderly woman. She stayed on and trained me for several months. And then she didn’t want to leave. My father had to be the bad guy and explain that she had agreed to stay only for a certain time. She thought she could let go, but she couldn’t. She was a lovely woman, though, and I did learn a lot from her.
My mother and I changed the business in many ways. I purchased recipes and chocolate molds and such from the woman who owned the business but she hadn’t done any baking. It was just chocolate. But I took it into baking and other chocolate items on my own.
Was that expansion purposeful?
I always had a little bit of baked goods on my sweets table, like brownies or lemon bars or biscotti. But people were asking me, do you have anything besides chocolate. I said, Well what would you like? My menu was pretty limited before, and then maybe two years ago I decided to incorporate more baking. It’s more work, of course, but it allowed me to offer a more complete table. Clients would use my chocolates but then get baked goods elsewhere. So it allowed me to do all the desserts. The people who hire me don’t need anyone else.
Would you call yourself entrepreneurial?
Yes, some. I had sold my business in Cincinnati to a couple who still operate it. When I came here I first worked for a retail chocolate company here. It was owned by a couple; the husband bought the business for his wife who always wanted to have a bakery. She knew a little about baking but not about chocolate. They hired me to make all their candy and that was great. I could be creative and not worry about the other aspects of the business. I didn’t have to do the taxes or the paperwork. The store was on a street that catered more to clothes than food. We sold a lot of chocolate, but the shop didn’t make it. They closed it and I was back to square one.
I went on some interviews with caterers and others, but the money was really low. The hours were terrible. And I thought that if I was going to work that hard I should try to do it for myself again. So I went back into business again.
A lot of people are afraid of taking that leap and putting themselves on the line by opening a business. You’re not, why?
It is a big leap. And usually I’m not fearless. But I’d already had experience [in chocolates]. I knew the ins and outs of the chocolate business. What was most difficult for me was moving to a new city without any business connections. I knew everyone in Cincinnati. I wasn’t intimidated by what I’d need to do, but facing big competition [in Chicago], that was tough, and frightening. But I had no choice. It was the only way I was going to make it.
I remember calling all the event planners to get my name out there. I went on some meetings, and, I tell you, that was difficult for me. I was so uncomfortable. I’m a creative person and not a sales person. I remember coming out of the meetings feeling totally intimidated. Fortunately, one party led to another and I got work and confidence. In the last several years, it has picked up and I get most of my business by word of mouth.
And you’re more comfortable now balancing that creative and business sides?
I’m more comfortable because I don’t have to go knocking on doors as much. And now I’m married and I have two daughters, and I want to spend time with them . My husband works so I’m not the only income. That makes it easier.
Are your daughters old enough to know how lucky they are to have a mother who makes
My older daughter, who is 10, is very creative. I work out of a commercial kitchen and she always asks if she can go with me. I take her often and she’s helped me set up a few daytime parties. She’s got the gene! My younger daughter, who is 8, is also creative but she’s more into traditional art. She’s more interested in eating the candy than in helping me!
Would you encourage them to follow you and your mother and your grandmother into the kitchen?
I tell my older daughter to think of this as a hobby. It’s a really, really difficult way to make a living. I love it and it’s what I know, but I’ll try my best to give my daughters a fabulous education. Not just undergrad degrees like I have. Medical school or law school. Something that is a career you can always depend on. I love what I do but it’s a luxury, not a necessity.
Do you have regrets, then, about the choices you made for yourself?
No. I love it. But I’ll tell my children to look at careers where you always have work. My work can be seasonal. I’d hope they’d have something more steady, but I also believe that you have to love what you do. You can’t just be in something for the money.