For some of us, growing up looked a lot like going to Chuck E. Cheese with our parents in a minivan. For Margarita Kallas-Lee, childhood looked a lot like a fairytale.
"I grew up in a forest in Latvia," the co-owner and pastry chef of Scratch Restaurants said.
"My parents on the weekends took me to the forest to pick berries and the good mushrooms, not like the crazy mushrooms, so we took them back to my grandparents' house—this sounds like a fairytale, but it is [true]. It's amazing there."
At seven years old, Margarita's family moved to Los Angeles, ending her weekend jaunts in Eastern European forests. But the time she spent cooking with her chef grandparents instilled a passion for the craft that stuck with her, even though she didn't initially jump into a culinary profession.
"I got into modeling and acting from when I was 14, but I was super into food," she said. "I read a lot of cookbooks, I made stuff at home."
Years later, her now-husband Philip Frankland Lee asked her to help him do the desserts for a catering event, thrusting her into a career in pastry. The two now work together on all of their restaurants in Southern California.
One of her signature creations is her charcoal ice cream, a refreshing dessert served at the end of the tasting menu dining experience at Scratch|Bar & Kitchen. Philip's cooking tends to be on the healthier, more wholesome side, so while you're not bursting at the seams, it's still nice to get an ice cream digestif at the end of seven-plus courses. The idea came from her grandma.
"Whenever I was feeling ill or she wanted me to detox, she always gave me charcoal," Margarita said. It seemed like a perfect fit for a dessert ingredient. "It creates this beautiful color and it also is unbelievable for you to have after dinner."
The ice cream is topped with colorful sprinkles, and not the shitty supermarket kind.
"Philip and I created the sprinkles together. We used to do carrot puree or corn puree, anything that has a vibrant color," she said. "But then I thought about turmeric and spirulina. Those things are so good for you."
Margarita mixes the colorful ingredients with coconut milk to create the dessert's subtly sweet finishing touch. Her mother was always into holistic and Eastern medicine, so keeping the nutritional benefits of food in mind while cooking came naturally to the pastry chef.
"I don't use a lot of sugar, and in some instances I don't use sugar at all," she said. "Your body—it needs nutrients. It needs real things. It's not supposed to be eating Flamin' Hot Cheetos, which I love. But you have to have real food."
Although charcoal isn't necessarily scientifically proven to be a helpful ingredient for detoxing, something feels very cleansing about lapping up a scoop of Margarita's charcoal ice cream post-prosciutto and pinot noir. Maybe it's the soothing temperature and texture, maybe it's the lack of sugar, or maybe it's the idea of a Latvian grandmother watching out for your hangover.