How does a woman who was born in Shanghai, graduated from UC Davis in finance and international relations, and worked for Bank of America on the foreign exchange trading floor, become the maker of a line of fine caramels?
“As a currency trader, brokers took us to the most amazing restaurants. It opened up a whole new world for me,” Cassandra Chen recalls. “I realized that, even though my family’s expectation was that I would stay in my successful professional career, it just wasn’t for me.” On a whim, Cassandra walked into Vertigo Restaurant and asked for a job in the kitchen. She was hired on the spot and told to “stage” (kitchen lingo for “trail after the cook and work the line”). Given a pair of chef’s pants to wear, she had to use Saran wrap to keep them from falling off. “I worked the pastry line that night, slipping and sliding as I raced around, working like crazy, and loving every minute. There was more energy in that kitchen than on the trading floor! I guess they liked my enthusiasm.” She had found her calling. “I realized that I loved food people. The staff in fine restaurants loves food so much, they will answer any question you ask. You can learn at an amazing rate.”
Cassandra then went to work at Jardinière on the pastry line and met her husband, Manuel Guzman, who at the time was the floor manager and assistant wine sommelier. “I knew nothing about wine, so he taught me about food and wine pairing, another new world.”
The next changes were a move to Marin County, Manuel’s starting a computer business consulting with restaurants, and the birth of the couple’s children. “I stayed in touch with all these great food people, through our business. Jardinière, Boulevard, Chez Panisse, Spruce, are among our clients.”
Ready for a new venture when her youngest son started pre-school, Cassandra decided to take the caramel corn she had been making for family and friends to the commercial level. “When I was making pastry at Jardinière, I discovered that working with sugar is just plain fun – in spite of the fact that it’s like 350 degrees of molten lava! If it sticks to your skin, you get a bad burn.”
This risk did not stop her. “I love caramel over chocolate, and I couldn’t find one that I felt was really good quality. Our caramel candy, caramel sauce and caramel corn are all made with ingredients that are locally sourced. For instance we use organic yellow popcorn from the Sacramento area, and the almonds come from a valley grower we know.”
The owner of Arlequin Café and Wine Bar wanted to sell CC Made caramel products in the Café. Another friend who owns the Tyler Florence gourmet store wanted to carry the products as well. Dean and Deluca ordered. Soon the reputation of the products spread. “Just as important to me as my recipes are the people who make the products. We have a great group. The handmade touch is simply special.”