Monday, July 7, 2008 | When Lachlan Oliver went to Louisiana to help with the rescue effort after Hurricane Katrina, his plan to open a dessert shop was just taking root.
He had an idea — to honor a fallen friend. But he didn’t know much about the business, and he took any help he could get.
So, as Oliver, a medic, and his helicopter pilot brother, Sean Davis, lifted a stranded 83-year-old Carol Bearnuer from her rooftop in the days following the 2005 disaster, he got a hand from Bearnuer as well.
Oliver told the woman about his plans to open the shop; she offered her mother’s secret recipe for bread pudding. “She wrote it from memory and put it in my pocket,” he says.
Oliver kept that recipe for Bourbon St. Bread Pudding intact, aside from having to cut the amount of bourbon in half. It’s now one of the 600-plus recipes in the master book for Oliver’s dessert shop, Heaven Sent Desserts, which he opened about two-and-a-half years ago.
At that point, he knew nothing of the foodie world, especially not of the gourmet pastry concoctions the shop now serves on the corner of 30th and University in North Park.
What he did know was the Air Force, where he’d served as a medic for nine-and-a-half years. Oliver was burned out from long tours served in Iraq and Afghanistan. He lost his best friend Mike to an improvised explosive device. After that, with financial backing from a couple of other medics, Oliver opened the shop and dedicated it to Mike, their sweet-toothed practical joker of a best friend. (Oliver didn’t want to use Mike’s last name without the permission of his family, which couldn’t be reached for this story.)
Finding levity in turmoil defined Mike, Oliver says. The 6-foot-2, blond, “almost All-American” medic poured eight packets of sugar in his coffee in the mornings. A natural student, he’d set up pranks while Oliver and the others studied. Later, they’d find ketchup packets hidden under their seats to explode when they sat down, or their eye drops laced with lemon juice. On some of the noisiest, tensest flights through war zones, Mike would watch silent movies on a portable video player. He’d be laughing while the fists of his friends were balled in tension.
For years, being a medic in the military meant Oliver served mainly in humanitarian aid around the world. He worked in 31 countries and held babies affected by AIDS. He passed out eyeglasses and gave housebound African children wheelchairs for the first time. Oliver thrived on using the techniques he’d studied to draw pain out of someone’s body, even across language barriers.
“It’s such a natural high,” he says. “It’s the best thing that I think I’ve ever done.”
But the events of the early 2000s meant Oliver’s role shifted to searching for and rescuing soldiers in combat. He went to Pakistan, to Afghanistan, to two tours in Iraq. He lost friends for the first time in his career.
“You lose your innocence,” he says.
Well into his second tour in Iraq, Oliver watched three of his patients die in one week. At 5:30 one morning, he loaded his breakfast tray and carried it toward the table where Mike was sitting. Before he could sit down, his knees buckled and he collapsed.
“I couldn’t stop laughing, I couldn’t stop crying,” he says. “I couldn’t breathe. My throat felt like it was in my stomach.”
Mike helped him into a chair. Oliver asked him, “How do you handle it?” These were heavy responsibilities: the questions from soldiers asking if they were going to make it, the inability to save everyone.
Mike said he considered it an honor to take whatever pain he could away from someone. If he was with a soldier when he died, he said, that meant that soldier wasn’t dying alone. He said he told the soldiers that one of two things was going to happen. They would go home and see their parents, or they would go home and see God. But either way, they were going home.
Five weeks later, Mike was killed by an improvised explosive device.
The next day, Oliver and a couple of friends went out to talk about Mike. They reminisced over all of the jokes he’d played on them, all of the characteristics he’d displayed, what he’d taught them.
Then, as they sat there, a 14-year-old Iraqi boy came up to them. He offered them baklava wrapped in newspaper. They brushed him off at first. But he persisted, stringing together a few English words he knew: “Sweets make you feel better.”
It reminded Oliver of nights with his family in Temecula. Where a dinner conversation might center on politics or philosophy, when Mom brought out dessert, the jokes came out and the air thinned.
“We were burnt out, honestly, doing what we were doing,” he says. “But we fully believed this kid.”
Nearly a decade after enlisting as a medic, having lost his best friend, Oliver left the Air Force. His brother left the military, too. And with financial backing from the two others who’d shared the baklava in Iraq, Oliver searched for a place to open a dessert shop in Mike’s memory. He looked in 16 cities up and down the coast, he says, refining the vision for the shop along the way. They’d call it Heaven Sent, invoking the counsel Mike shared with his patients as they struggled for life. It would be open and welcoming, natural and calming, painted with earth tones and simple.
He found the organizers of revitalization efforts in North Park. One said, “I have been waiting for you” when he pitched his idea. He found the corner and built a new shop. They opened. Oliver worked the evening 15-hour shift. His brother worked the morning 15 hours, seven days a week.
Never a foodie, a sheltered Oliver had ridden horses as a boy to elementary school in Temecula. And his time in the military taught him nothing about savoring food.
“They taught us how to eat really fast and move quicker,” he says.
Oliver hired Tina Luu as a consultant. She was the pastry chef lecturer at San Diego’s Art Institute culinary school, had opened five-star hotels and restaurants from Singapore to San Francisco and had been flown around the world to cater parties and weddings.
But Luu had grown up in North Park after sneaking out of Vietnam with her parents as a child. Her parents still live in the neighborhood. And as Oliver and Luu became friends, they joined visions for the shop. Luu left her six-figure post as a fulltime lecturer and joined Oliver’s team.
She’d felt the shop would become part of her future ever since she saw the construction signs for a new dessert place in North Park, her neighborhood. Now, she says, she talks to Mike, whom she never met, in the restaurant.
“This place has soul,” she says.
They’ve catered film premieres. And Luu was commissioned to create a massive chocolate sculpture covered in edible orbs and leaves and butterflies for a private party for Beyonce Knowles at Stingaree.
Oliver speaks disparagingly now of flash-frozen desserts. That’s where desserts are made and then frozen and reserved for up to a month. It’s a convenient but cheap convention for the vast majority of San Diego restaurants, he says.
Some of his shop’s specialties: the Guinness Stout cake with a shamrock on top and the strawberry fraise with pastry cream layered with white chiffon cake.
Luu’s mark is evident, touted in banners hanging from the windows. Take, for example, a chocolate treat called Lava Lust. A fresh-baked cake sits on a white plate, oozing with gooey molten chocolate when pricked with a fork. Sharing the plate is a salad of mint and mango and a scoop of mint chocolate ice cream decorated with a crisp sugary swirl.
Or a summer dessert soup of lemon verbena and passion fruit puree, fresh kiwi, poached pineapple, tapioca pearls and mint chiffonade. In the middle of the soup bowl is a creamy coconut panna cotta and crisp cookie.
Luu’s favorite creation is her Sunday Bloody Sundae, a brownie sundae topped with mint ice cream and blood orange sorbet. It’s the pair’s tribute to U2 and the band’s efforts to educate people. Both count Bono a mentor for his humanitarianism.
Other elements of Mike’s personality, and Oliver’s time in the service, show up in the restaurant. Oliver projects Charlie Chaplin movies on the wall of the restaurant, like the ones Mike would watch on the noisy flights.
The numbers customers carry to their tables once they’ve ordered are attached to Beatrix Potter books. Those come from the times when Oliver and his brother would receive the books in the mail from their mom, a “little Swedish woman,” while they served in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Though he hears complaints sometimes that his coffee is too dark, he’s not about to change that. The beans are special-ordered from Ghana, from the Awaiembi village of women who took over a coffee plantation when their husbands were killed in the conflict between the Hutus and Tutsis. Oliver met the women when he was there working as a medic and they stayed in his mind ever since.
Oliver is one of the more than 261,000 people in the county whose careers have included military service, whose weekly routines may have at one point included burying friends lost in combat.
Representing 12 percent of the county’s population, many such civilian veterans face challenges when they return. They might mentally wrestle with what they’ve seen. Or they might, like Oliver did for a long time, feel the urge to swerve into the furthest lane when they see a garbage can on the side of the road, subconsciously fearing a bomb inside.
What once Oliver dreamed as a tribute to a fallen friend has become more than that. If the job of a startup restaurant owner wasn’t stressful enough, Oliver has assumed some leadership among business owners in North Park, a diverse neighborhood in the middle of redevelopment.
In a given week, Oliver juggles scheduling employees, coordinating neighborhood meetings, ordering detergent, dreaming new ideas with Luu and organizing fundraisers and events for military members. They deliver leftover desserts to the amputee ward at the Navy hospital in Balboa Park or to the Children’s Hospital in La Jolla. Oliver helps with events, named things like “Wounded Warrior” and “Sweeten a Soldier’s Life.” Those capture some of the connection between Oliver’s former and current gigs.
Despite soaring costs for flour, butter and sugar, the shop has picked up about 20 percent more business lately, Oliver says. He speculates that people are eating dinner more often at home, but then coming out for dessert to have the experience of being out at night.
Turnover in kitchen help has proven frustrating. Oliver says he offers his hands when work gets overwhelming, but he admits they lack Luu’s artistry.
“These hands — I’ll suture but I make a horrible fraise,” he says.
A civilian might assume Oliver’s stress level has dropped incredibly since leaving the Air Force. But on deployment, he says, there were no bills, no image to worry about, none of the day-to-day processes and messes that pop up now.
“The action itself isn’t stressful,” he says. “It’s the post-action that gets people. And when it hits, you can’t leave.”
When the post-action montage begins in Oliver’s mind, when a slideshow of 10 black and white images from Afghanistan and Iraq cycles through his mind, sometimes the only way to slow the images down is to come into work.
“Literally, as I walk in here, as cheesy as it is, it helps,” he says. “It’s all the best of Mike. It’s having a difficult conversation like this over something sweet.”