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Sprinkles and vanilla frosting, move aside: There’s a better birthday cake in town, thanks to Emily Thompson.
Thompson is the pastry chef at the Wolf’s Tailor in Sunnyside, which has dazzled Denverites over the past five years with its upscale tasting menus. The concept from chef-owner Kelly Whitaker and executive chef Taylor Stark is well-known for its attentive, local sourcing and savory victuals often inspired by Asian cuisines. But since starting her position this past November, Thompson has ensured that the sweets at Wolf’s Tailor deserve just as much acclaim.
Thompson’s current iteration of the birthday cake starts with a batter made out of pinole—a type of roasted cornmeal—instead of wheat flour. The pinole, which the Wolf’s Tailor sources from Ramona Farms in Arizona’s Gila River Indian Community, imparts a rich, smoky flavor. It also makes up for the recipe’s lack of vanilla (which doesn’t grow locally) and makes the dessert gluten-free, to boot.
Three dreamy fillings are then layered into the gâteau: a brown butter buttercream, a cocoa nib praline buttercream, and a chocolate ganache using ethically sourced chocolate bark from Denver-based Bibamba. “[The birthday cake] was really a way to feature Bibamba chocolate,” says Thompson, who strives to support local small businesses when ideating her creations. Case in point: The whole affair is topped with a quenelle of ice cream infused with popcorn from Pueblo-based Musso Farms.
The slice is small but mighty decadent, and it shows off the many techniques Thompson has picked up in her career. The Texas native launched into pastry arts in 2012, studying at Rhode Island’s Johnson and Wales University and briefly at a program in France. An internship at the Castle Hill Inn in Newport, Rhode Island, led to a permanent pastry position. “I was really young to be the pastry chef [there],” she says. Reaching such a high-up role immediately upon graduation actually led her to question whether desserts were the right fit, so Thompson also explored savory cooking at the Relais & Châteaux–owned hotel.
But sugar wormed its way back into her heart, and in 2019, she earned the pastry chef role at the three-Michelin-starred French Laundry in Yountville, California. “I was in a really safe space,” says Thompson, who was able to develop her career through the COVID-19 pandemic under the care of chef-owner Thomas Keller. After three years at the world-renowned restaurant, though, she began to crave something new—and this time, she wanted to rise to the challenge.
“I came [to Denver] to really focus on baking,” Thompson says.
She deliberately moved to the Mile High City in 2022 to hone her skills in high-elevation conditions and began work at Füdmill, Alex Seidel and Keegan Gerhard’s six-year-old wholesale bakery concept. But she quickly learned that pure baking—in contrast to creating complexly composed desserts—wasn’t her passion. A timely job opening at the Wolf’s Tailor led her back to the fine-dining pastry world.
Thompson, however, wasn’t about to settle for something familiar. Instead, emboldened to strike out on her own, she doubled down on a craft she first explored at the French Laundry—chocolatiering—and launched her own small business, Emily Madeline Chocolates, this past January. Her menu of bonbons—think: flavors like cherry cheesecake, turtle pie, and PB&J, as well as non-chocolate confections like chai caramels—prioritizes organic, sustainable ingredients and is currently open for delivery orders. For the now 29-year-old, it’s the culmination of her life-long love for sweets.
But being a pastry chef isn’t just a line of work for Thompson. It’s a family dream realized. “My mom was a nurse,” she says, “but she always had this dream of being a pastry chef.” Thompson recalls her childhood home always being perfumed with her mother’s baking, which almost went professional until family health issues forced her to return to nursing. Still, baking remained part of the home. “We’re all addicted to sugar,” Thompson jokes.
Those early experiences have clearly influenced her career. In fact, her creations have been so popular that the Wolf’s Tailor will expand its tasting menu in the next few months to debut new sweet-savory bites and an extra dessert course—on top of the original finale to the meal, which in Thompson’s tenure has included seasonal compositions based around peach Swiss roll, vegan chocolate mousse, and other goodies.
But don’t count on your favorites sticking around: The desserts rotate around every four weeks, and Thompson says that even the birthday cake will change soon (in a more savory direction, she teases). Regardless, though, diners at the Wolf’s Tailor will have even more opportunities to sample her sweet treats, and that itself is a cause for celebration.