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By MARC LUTZ
Business Journal Editor
STOCKTON — It’s a fine balance between artistry and business management. Just ask Chef Tobias Cooks.
With a strong background in the culinary world, Cooks opened La Dolce Vita at 347 E. Weber Avenue in Downtown Stockton, and is quickly learning how to manage both her artistic side and business savvy.
“Being that I’m a chef, I’m artistic. It’s a way to express my artistry,” Cooks said as she topped cupcakes with strawberries and powdered sugar. “Being that artist and being a business owner is the most challenging part.”
Business majors, Cooks said, have the know-how to run a business and get things done, but not necessarily how to do the actual creation of the product. “I have to know how to do inventory, when to open and when to close, when to stop to eat, and when I run out of flour I have to go to the store now – it’s not going to magically appear. I am operating in two worlds now,” she said.
Cooks, who came to Stockton in 2003 with dreams of home ownership, began attending San Joaquin Delta Community College’s pastry and culinary program. She took the opportunity to volunteer for top chefs in the state and work at her craft at every opportunity. She dedicated two years to volunteering to hone her craft, all with no pay.
“Two weeks before I graduated, Google offered me a position,” Cooks said. “I graduated on Friday, and started on Monday.”
Cooks began as a prep chef with the tech giant. She did everything from assisting the executive chef to sweeping the floors, learning whatever she could.
“I decided that the only way to get where I wanted to go and do what I wanted to do, I had to work for myself,” Cooks said.
The dedicated pastry and culinary chef opened La Dolce Vita in February and has two employees, often working long hours just to ensure the freshest goods.
Eighty percent of the knowledge she utilizes on a day-to-day basis came from what she learned from her upbringing, cooking and baking by her grandmother’s side. The food science she learned in her formal education gives her a better understanding of what happens when foods are combined.
Her grandmother Ennis Lee Garner, who worked as a cook, was one of Cooks inspirations for becoming a chef. Her passion began when she would cook and bake with her grandmother and their friends from church.
Part of that passion, Cooks said, is to transport people away from their day.
“They can walk in, they get the smell, and it just gives them that feeling of happiness, even for a quick moment,” Cooks said. “That’s a natural gift that I can give from my universe.”
That universe is not limited to any one place or culture. Cooks embraces foods from any culture she can. She grew up in the Bay Area, with influences from her African-American and Middle Eastern ancestry, a southern grandmother, a best friend who is Mexican and another who is white.
“This is what you do in the Bay, we eat out. We go to the Indian restaurant, we go to Chinese food, we go to different places to eat,” Cooks said. “I think that it incorporated those different palates growing up.”
Which led to the cannoli, her specialty.
“When I went to culinary school, I specifically knew that I needed a niche, something that would set me apart from everyone else,” Cooks said.
Her instructor introduced her to the cannoli, which was daunting in its complex structure and different dough. “Of course, the only thing I knew about the cannoli is when I was in San Francisco and get them to eat … and, of course, ‘The Godfather.’”
Never one to back down from a challenge, Cooks took on the cannoli. Two years later, she has 30 cannoli recipes in her repertoire.
The dessert reminded her of her grandmother and her friends. Originating in Sicily, the cannoli was usually made by groups of ladies that would gather and prepare the treat.
Ben Sanchez, one of Cooks’ loyal customers, comes in as often as he can. It’s the cannoli that’s his favorite, though he usually shares it with others.
“I’ve never really had cannoli until Chef Tobias introduced me to it,” Sanchez said. “It’s very rich, it’s very good – it’s basically something I’d get and share with someone else.”
Cooks has cooked for celebrities, NASA and even a prince who personally requested her. For all the opportunity her culinary journey has afforded her, her over-arching goal is simple.
“My ultimate goal is to use this platform as an African-American pastry chef, and now a business owner, to teach and encourage other people. And my passion is to tell people that culinary is not a dying art,” Cooks said. “Working with your hands, creating dough, is not a dying artform. Our generation of children need to understand that having a trade is a great thing. You can have a trade and still have a successful career.”