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5 Food Thoughts: From Cuba to Utah with Adalberto Diaz, Salt Lake’s baker extraordinaire

How a humble upbringing in Cuba led Adalberto Diaz to Salt Lake City, then the Food Network, and beyond

Adalberto Diaz, owner of Fillings & Emulsions, at the bakery in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Aug. 22, 2019.
Court Mann, Deseret News

Editor’s note: 5 Food Thoughts is a recurring series highlighting notable people in Salt Lake City’s food scene.

SALT LAKE CITY — Adalberto Diaz is unquestionably friendly. But he means business, too.

The baker, who runs Fillings & Emulsions bakery south of downtown, exhibits the dual impulse while posing for photos behind the bakery’s main display case. In between photos, Diaz turns to the bakery’s cashier and kindly but directly gives her various instructions.

Beneath the glass in the display case, Diaz’s tarts, mini cheesecakes and other treats glisten and gleam. They’re glazed in bright yellow (passion fruit), orange (peach) and green (key lime). It’s not hyperbole to call them works of art.

A row of desserts at Fillings & Emulsions bakery in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Aug. 22, 2019.
Court Mann, Deseret News

“In Cuba, we didn’t have very much stuff to work with — it’s all fruit, sugar, eggs and flour — so most of the stuff that I made was sponge cakes with fruit fillings and meringues,” Diaz, a Cuban immigrant, recalled. “You see a lot of meringue stuff in here, a lot of sponge cakes in here, and a lot of fruit, too.”

Diaz sat down with the Deseret News and recalled his unique culinary upbringing, his many Food Network appearances and what makes Fillings & Emulsions such a unique bakery.

1. Who taught him to bake

As a child in Cuba, Diaz started baking at age 9, aided by the expertise of his mother and two grandmothers. They were poor: One of his grandmas didn’t have an oven, so she taught Diaz about meringues and custards; the other grandma had only a single kerosene burner, and she made sweet potato pies, dulce de leche and puddings while teaching Diaz about seasoning and texture. Around this time, Diaz got his hands on a cookbook published in 1948. He still has that cookbook.

“That’s my little Bible,” Diaz said.

“I didn’t have an oven until I was like 23,” he continued. “I baked everything in a pressure cooker. I made my cakes in a pressure cooker, eclairs in a pressure cooker, everything inside a pressure cooker. All those things got me to be creative and resourceful. So I don’t take no for an answer.”

2. How long he ran an illegal bakery (yes, an illegal bakery)

“Cuba is a communist country; there was no private property back then,” Diaz explained. “Now there are some restaurants that are allowed. But back then, it wasn’t.”

Diaz made desserts on the down-low during his 20s in Cuba. Once he got an oven, he could start doing larger orders. That proved to be a mixed blessing: More people wanted Diaz’s business, but that meant more secrecy.

Adalberto Diaz, owner of Fillings & Emulsions, at the bakery in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Aug. 22, 2019.
Court Mann, Deseret News

“And the government started looking at what I was doing,” Diaz said. “It was a fun experience, but scary at the same time.”

After five years of illegal baking, Diaz sought asylum in the United States. Arriving at an immigrant processing center in Texas, Diaz spent 21 days there while immigration officials worked to confirm his identity and determine whether his fear of returning to Cuba warranted asylum in the U.S.

“I could not say that they treated us badly, but the conditions were horrible — which is kind of the same,” he said of the processing center.

America’s current immigration issues, such as children being detained in facilities and separated from their parents, hits home for Diaz. His bakery and other Utah food vendors have partnered with the Texas Civil Rights Project, a nonprofit that helps separated families at the U.S.-Mexico border, to raise funds through things like bake sales.

“I just couldn’t understand — how would anybody put kids into that situation?” Diaz said. “I was 28 (when emigrating), and it was already horrible. What would a little kid think about that? It’s unbelievable.”

3. What it takes to run your own bakery

Diaz moved to Utah in 2000, shortly after leaving the processing center. He quickly began working in the food industry, getting his first job at the now-closed Urban Bistro in downtown Salt Lake. From there, he went to downtown’s Orbit Cafe, then the Grand America and a few others. In 2012 the American Culinary Federation named him the Pastry Chef of the Year, and in 2013 he opened Fillings & Emulsions. During those initial years Diaz mostly cooked breads and simple desserts — all while learning the intricacies of American life and business.

“I mean, I came from Cuba with absolutely zero knowledge of credit or banking because we didn’t have that — we lived in a cash society,” he said. “I didn’t have a bank account ever in my entire life, or a credit card or a loan or a car, or any of those things. It took me time to learn how everything works.

“I understood that the only way I’ll make it here is if I actually understood what this place was about,” he added. “That’s why I didn’t open a business right away. It took 13 years for me to feel like it was time to open.”

Fillings & Emulsions started small, with only three employees and a 900-square-feet workspace. F&E has since blossomed into a 30-employee operation in a much bigger bakery. They’ve also opened a second location in Provo.

Diaz knows how to make the classics — F&E’s baguettes and croissants are pitch-perfect — but he’s incorporated his Cuban upbringing into a lot of the menu, exemplified by the bakery’s use of guava, dulce de leche and Cuban meat pies.

“I didn’t want to do brownies or lemon bars or eclairs or Napoleons,” Diaz said. “I wanted people to come and find things that you couldn’t find anywhere else. That’s kind of what F&E is right now, and we evolve constantly to make sure that is the case.”

Various pastries at Fillings & Emulsions bakery in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Aug. 22, 2019.
Court Mann, Deseret News

4. When he became a Food Network regular

Diaz was recruited for the Food Network’s “Holiday Baking Championship” program in 2015. It was a slog — Diaz said the show filmed every day, nonstop, for nearly a month — but it led to more appearances. He’s been on a handful of other Food Network shows since then.

For Diaz, that initial Food Network appearance was a full-circle moment. He made a butternut squash cake for the judges, just like his grandma would have made decades ago.

“And for some reason, that cake turned out to be so perfect,” he said. “It tasted exactly what I think my grandma would make it taste like. Just to be able to present that to people from here, and to honor her for everything I learned from her, it meant a lot to me.”

Though Diaz was the first of his immediate family to come to America, they all live here now, with about half of them in Utah.

5. Whether Utahns love sweets more than other people do

Thanks to Utah’s Latter-day Saint heritage, the state has become fertile ground for nonalcoholic culinary vices — The New York Times even covered Utah’s contentious “soda wars” in 2015. But do Utahns really love sweets more than people from elsewhere? Diaz isn’t so sure.

“I don’t think it’s just Utah, to be honest with you,” he said. “I go to Europe and there are bakeries on every corner. That’s fundamental for people, as a daily thing to have. Everybody has a croissant in the morning, or a scone, or a coffee cake. In Utah, with certain people not having coffee or alcohol, in Provo that’s more of a factor. But here in Salt Lake, we have a lot of people that don’t have those restrictions, and they still come here all the time. So it’s not necessarily just Utah. It’s just people.”

Macarons at Fillings & Emulsions bakery in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Aug. 22, 2019.
Court Mann, Deseret News