They are artists. This was the first thought that came to mind as my partner and I left the Sixth Course confection shop on 1544 15th street in San Francisco, sweet treats in hand, after spending a lovely afternoon with Bridget Labus and Gianina Serrano, the masterminds behind Sixth Course. From the moment you cross the threshold of their shop, to the first bite of something utterly delicious, (like the chocolate pot de crème we inhaled walking down Folsom Street on the walk home), you are immersed in beauty.
There is an undercurrent of artistry running through the walls of the space and within all the beautiful confections that beckon from behind the glass cases. It almost feels more like an art gallery than a store. Proudly displayed in the center of the space is Bridget’s grandmother’s cookbook – the inspiration for the name Sixth Course. (The book is open to a page featuring the seven courses of a classic dinner, and the sixth course is dessert.) But beneath this sophisticated and refined experience are two people who are the heart and soul of this business, two people exploding with such joy, passion and excitement for what they are creating at Sixth Course that they want to do cartwheels, as they said when asked about how they feel having their own store now.
With 16 years of experience in fine dining and the kitchens of high-end hotels like the Four Seasons and the St. Regis, Bridget and Gianina are true confectionary artists who struck out on their own to make Sixth Course truffles nearly six years ago. They began selling their chocolate in local markets, restaurants and hotels, and as the demand grew, so did the business. With the opening of their brick-and-mortar space this past October, they expanded their menu to include pastries and gelato.
Every handmade truffle, tartlet and adorable miniature gelato pop is like a work of art reminiscent of confections in French patisseries. The attention to detail is profound, and they are fiercely committed to sourcing from local, sustainable purveyors. The pride and joy in their work is palpable, and this extends to the design of the shop itself, where the first big difference from many other confectionary establishments in the nearby Valencia Corridor of the Mission District is the presence of a kitchen in the shop. “That was really important to us,” says Bridget. “It was really important to us to have both to be able to do the retail and manufacturing right on site.”
The kitchen is bright and big, and everything is on wheels to be completely mobile and make room for future plans, such as demos and classes. It is the space where Bridget and Gianina do it all. (Apart from the occasional helping hand at busier times like Valentine’s Day, they are literally doing everything themselves.) It is home to a clean room, which is where Bridget and Gianina are licensed to make their own gelato base – a rare thing in the world of ice cream in this city as most others buy their base from creameries. There is also a large glass window overlooking the kitchen not only so that customers can witness the creative process but also so that Bridget and Gianina can see the customers’ reactions to what they are eating.
“Bridget and I worked in a lot of kitchens that had windows into the pastry shop, and we’d always have audiences outside of them,” says Gianina. “So that was definitely part of the design. Because if a wall was here, we’d never get to see anybody or their reactions eating it [the confections] or the smiles or the kids lining up and freaking out at the window.”
In addition to their own taste instincts and flavor preferences, Bridget and Gianina use this customer interaction to help guide the products and experience they create at Sixth Course. They take everything into consideration, from how easy the packaging is to open to the fluidity of the caramel.
“Little things you wouldn’t think you need to worry about have a huge play,” says Gianina. “How they’re holding it [the product], how they’re seeing it, how they’re eating it. It’s the whole experience.”
For example, the caramel truffles, which are an award-winning signature offering at Sixth Course, involved a lot of rigor in perfecting the ultimate caramel texture. Gianina and Bridget have a preference for caramel with greater fluidity, just one step away from a caramel sauce, and this is a big point of distinction from the thicker, chewier caramel fillings of other truffles in the market. But it took some time, and a good bit of watching customers eat the actual truffles, to get the texture just right.
This level of rigor in taste testing goes into each and every product Bridget and Gianina produce for Sixth Course partly because of the very nature of the materials they use and partly because of their desire for the end results to taste really good.
“At the end of the day, it’s still raw product being transformed, and anything can change it,” says Gianina.
“You have to check off your flavor balance,” adds Bridget. “And then especially with the chocolates, the combination of the interior and exterior really needs to marry together.”
This perspective is felt in every single morsel Bridget and Gianina make and inspires the creativity of the rotating cast of flavors. There is an almost symphonic balance to each delectable truffle, and with flavors like Ceylon Cinnamon, Habanero Passion Fruit and Maple Bourbon, the truffles each have highlights and lowlights of flavor that blend harmoniously with the chocolate. There are 24 types of truffles on any given day: six Chef’s Choice flavors, six caramel flavors, six wine-and-spirits flavors and six rotating seasonal flavors. For Valentine’s Day, they created a rose truffle and a champagne fizz truffle. (They also made hilariously snarky anti-Valentine’s cookies to offer a tonal range.)
Bridget and Gianina also change up the gelato and pastry menu regularly, experimenting with new bases and different recipes. They take a contemporary spin on classics like pecan pie and carrot cake, are one of the only folks in town making semifreddo, (a frozen treat made of two or three cream bases such as whipped cream, meringue or pate de bomb to create a mouth feel similar to mousse), and create playful gelato pops like Caramel Popcorn and BP (Banana Peanut Butter) Sandwiches, banana gelato sandwiched between chocolate-dipped waffle wafers with peanut praline.
At the end of the day, all the Sixth Course confections reflect the artistry of Bridget and Gianina as well as their desire for happiness: happiness in their own lives and happiness on the faces of their customers as they enjoy something sweet.
“We want them to feel joy,” says Gianina. “We want them to be as excited about eating what we make as we are to make it.”
More on Sixth Course
Sixth Course is located at 1544 15th Street in San Francisco. They are closed Monday and Tuesday but are open from noon to 10:00PM Wednesday through Saturday and noon to 6:00PM on Sunday. The menu changes regularly, so make sure you stop by regularly. For Valentine’s Day, Sixth Course is partnering with Farm Girl Flowers to do flower and chocolate packages and Luke’s Local for rose and champagne truffle packages.
Photography: David Brown
You can see more of Alexandra and David’s work on their blog, www.thisispossible.org