Michael Russ II and Sasha Yilmaz-Ward met as pastry chefs at Oakland restaurant The Wolf, where Russ was executive pastry chef and Yilmaz-Ward was hired to be his assistant.
It was one of those culinary mind melds, where the two hit it off both as friends and as colleagues, and knew that eventually, they should strike out on their own together.
“Michael is extremely talented,” said Yilmaz-Ward. “He has such a creative mind, and watching it at work is fascinating.”
Meanwhile, Russ knew he found a dependable partner in Yilmaz-Ward; he immediately saw that he could rely on her, knowing she could execute his vision in his absence right away.
They began fleshing out a concept to open their own place together. Called Delphinium, it was going to be a mid-century modern bar with a pastry tasting menu featuring confections made from botanicals, with a sultry, “poisonous but beautiful” vibe. By January 2020, they were working with a branding agent and were beginning to seek out investors. But well, it’s now obvious what happened next.
Due to the coronavirus, they were both laid off from their jobs.
“We had to scale back our expectations just a bit,” said Yilmaz-Ward. “Michael just said, ‘let’s take our opening menus and recipes and turn them into shelf-stable bonbon fillings.” Delphinium launched its online shop in mid-October with a Halloween-themed box.
Response to their confections has been positive, but word of Delphinium is spreading only through word of mouth thus far.
“We always say we’re one big order away from collapse,” Yilmaz-Ward joked.
Before working at The Wolf, Russ spent three years as head pastry chef at Tableau, a restaurant in the Wynn Hotel in Las Vegas. He competed on the Food Network show “Best Baker in America,” although he was eliminated in the middle of the series.
Describing his style as “modern with a whimsical flair,” Russ cooks savory food as well. But his passion is definitely pastry, and he especially loves making specialty cakes and what he called designer pastries.
And before working at The Wolf, Yilmaz-Ward helped open Daily Driver, the large, now multiple-location bagel operation in San Francisco. But before pastry, she was on an academic path to getting a Ph.D. While visiting Turkey for research purposes, she realized she’d rather study pastry than Turkish politics. She attended pastry school in Turkey because it was much cheaper, but the catch was that classes were taught in Turkish, which she wasn’t fully fluent in.
Delphinium recently released its winter collection. The four bonbons we tried were from its holiday offering: Butter Me Up, a gingerbread milk chocolate ganache with brown butter cookie crumble; Christmas in Hawaii, with spiced rum and passionfruit in white chocolate ganache; Don’t Be a Grinch, salted caramel rosemary milk chocolate ganache and Naughty and Nice, sharp yuzu white chocolate ganache with black cocoa cookie streusel. A box of four bonbons is $14; eight for $30.
Made with Valhrona chocolate, the bonbons are beautiful to look at, with primary colors like red and blue inflected with gold, atop the brown of the chocolate. We were also impressed by the unique flavor profiles.
While mass-produced chocolate bonbons are everywhere, the duo wanted to offer something different. They are going for “provocative flavors with a wild, whimsical kind of intriguing energy that you can’t get from the larger brands,” Yilmaz-Ward said. Her parents have a seven-acre ranch in Castro Valley, and the Delphinium partners use some of their produce in their confections.
Along with bonbons, we tried Delphinium’s Earl Grey shortbread cookies ($8-21), package of spiced pecans ($12) and a trio of jarred items ($35): a black plum jam, egg nog milk jam and a spice mix for making mulled wine. Delphinium also makes chocolate bars ($12) made with Valrhona Jivara 40% milk chocolate, caramelized cocoa nibs, finished with a sprinkling of Maldon sea salt.
Expanding Delphinium’s bonbon selection is first on the partners’ agenda after the holidays, especially as spring will bring new flavors to play with.
Of course, the pandemic affects everything logistical, as they figure out whether they’ll ship outside the Bay Area, and the most effective way to scale up.
“We’re constantly bouncing around ideas, but the bonbons are our baby,” said Russ. “We’re learning so much about fillings, and our customers and their preferences.”
While it’s a precarious time for any new business, the pair are excited about their new venture and look forward to what lies ahead.
“We had to completely change our whole game plan,” said Russ. “Luckily when it came to opening our own space, the ball was rolling very slowly, so it gave us a chance to regroup and reanalyze and see what we wanted to do, and what was possible in this time with all these uncertainties.”
While there’s no doubt COVID is horrible for the entire industry, Russ said, “this is not at all what we intended, but it’s better than what we first imagined.”
Yilmaz-Ward added that they are glad they can provide indulgences to people at a time when they are so needed.
“People are tapped out of their sourdough phase and their banana bread phase,” she said. “The holidays are coming and people are depressed that they’re forced to be at home, it’s not as cozy and quaint as it was in the beginning. People are looking for something to enjoy, and it’s nice to be able to provide them with something special they can’t make for themselves.”
Delphinium offers nationwide shipping and free deliveries to customers in the East Bay.