Bonbons from Delphinium. (Photo/Courtesy Delphinium)
Bonbons from Delphinium. (Photo/Courtesy Delphinium)

Turkish-trained pastry chef Sasha Yilmaz-Ward’s pandemic plan: stay in the kitchen and make bonbons

Food coverage is supported by a generous donation from Susan and Moses Libitzky.

Sasha Yilmaz-Ward was heading toward a career in academia. After majoring in Jewish studies and Spanish literature as an undergrad, she was accepted to a Ph.D. program in Istanbul, where she planned to study contemporary antisemitic myths about Jews, how they are depicted in the Turkish media, and what role these issues play in Turkish-Israeli politics.

And then, “I just hit a point where all the breaks I was taking to relieve myself from academic stress were baking,” the Castro Valley native said. “I was stress-baking, stress-cooking, stress-eating. And it quickly became the most pleasurable part of my day.”

Once she realized she didn’t want to be in academia after all, she made an abrupt about-face and enrolled in pastry school. In Turkey. Learning in Turkish. She had lived in the country for a while and met her husband there, but she wasn’t totally fluent.

“Culinary school is a bit traumatic on its own, but it’s extra traumatic doing it in Turkish,” she said. “I definitely struggled to feel confident enough to assert myself with the chefs. Everyone obviously knew who I was [as an American] and were intrigued by me, and had a bit of disdain for me at the same time.”

Now the Turkish-trained pastry chef has started a boutique chocolate business with fellow pastry chef Michael Russ II. The pair met while working at The Wolf, the Oakland restaurant where Russ was executive pastry chef and Yilmaz-Ward his assistant.

Pastry partners Sasha Yilmaz-Ward and Michael Russ have adapted their business venture during the pandemic. (Photo/Courtesy Delphinium)
Pastry partners Sasha Yilmaz-Ward and Michael Russ have adapted their business venture during the pandemic. (Photo/Courtesy Delphinium)

It was one of those culinary mind melds, where the two hit it off both as colleagues and friends, and they knew that eventually they would strike out and do their own thing, together.

“Michael is extremely talented,” said Yilmaz-Ward, 27. “He has such a creative mind, and watching it at work is fascinating.”

Meanwhile, Russ knew he’d found a dependable partner in Yilmaz-Ward; he immediately saw that he could rely on her, confident she could execute his vision if he were ever absent.

They began fleshing out a concept to open their own place together in Oakland. Delphinium was going to be a midcentury modern bar with a pastry tasting menu, with confections made from botanicals, with a sultry, “poisonous but beautiful” vibe. By January of this year, they were working with a branding agent and beginning to seek out investors — and, well, it’s obvious what happened next.

Both were laid off from their jobs during the pandemic, “and we had to scale back our expectations just a bit,” said Yilmaz-Ward.

Because their concept was already well developed, though, “Michael just said, let’s take our opening menus and recipes and turn them into shelf-stable bonbon fillings,” she said. They launched an online market in October with a Halloween-themed box.

I’m still finding my voice as a Jewish chef.

While mass-produced chocolate bonbons are everywhere, Yilmaz-Ward and Russ saw a gap in the market and decided to go for “provocative flavors with a wild, whimsical kind of intriguing energy that you can’t get from the larger brands,” she said.

So far this season, the pair has focused on Christmas-friendly flavors, such as gingerbread and spiced rum. The four bonbons we got to taste were part of their holiday offerings. Made with Valrhona chocolate, the bonbons are beautiful to look at, with primary colors like red and blue inflected with gold atop the chocolate. The flavor profiles use such ingredients as yuzu (an Asian type of citrus), passion fruit and brown butter. Also showcased on the website are Earl Grey shortbread cookies, spiced pecans and a trio of jarred items: a black plum jam, a spice mix for making mulled wine, and an eggnog milk jam.

Along with her successes, Yilmaz-Ward notes that “I’m still finding my voice as a Jewish chef. I’m an example of the postwar American Jewish woman, the one who assimilated into mainstream culture because the traditions of her Jewish family weren’t passed down due to fear of persecution, because it was too painful to acknowledge the Jewishness that tore the family apart [during World War II],” she said. “I hope that in the future, I can begin to unpack what all of this means for me in my work.”

She said the response to Delphinium has been positive, but the buzz has been entirely through word of mouth. “We always say we’re one big order away from collapse,” Yilmaz-Ward joked.

Regardless, she said they are glad they can help people enjoy indulgences 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’s bonbons and other products are delivered for free in the East Bay and shipped elsewhere. See delphiniumbar.com for more information. A version of this story first appeared on Berkeleyside and is reprinted with permission.

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."