If you were following the She can. She did. Instagram stories back in September, you would have seen that my 48 hour journey back from Italy (!) was quite the chaotic one. From the freak storms that led to flight cancellations, power cuts and flooded hotels, to the drenched clothes from waiting for taxis that never came, more flight delays and a broken down car when we eventually landed back in the UK, believe me when I say that it was far from ideal…
However (!), before the storm put a slight damper on things, I’d spent a week in the sunshine, spoiling my waist line with every sweet treat that Tuscany had to offer. From cannoli filled with the sweetest of creams, pistachio and almond biscotti that allowed for some serious dunking and my all-time favourite sfogliatella, (which incidentally, before writing this post and looking into its actual name, I referred to as “those bumpy, triangle pastry things”), my usual savoury-over-sweet preference went right out the window.
When an email from Serena De Filippis found its way into my inbox on my return therefore; my waist line and I instantly took note. Going on to explain that she’d walked away from a life as a criminal barrister in Rome in favour of starting Dolce – an Italian Patisserie that she runs from her flat in Angel – my decision to interview her was in no way a hard one.
She can. She did. I genuinely felt like it was a sign when I saw your email come through- I was missing those pastries so much! I think I’ve got a pretty good idea from the photos but can you explain what your business is all about?
Serena de Filippis. It’s so many things for me! In concrete, I make Italian cakes but I made a big change in my life to do that so this is my project! It’s my way to make people happy and make the dream in my head come true I suppose… something I’ve made from scratch that I always had in the back of my mind.
I was born into a typical Italian family from the South so we cooked from the early morning until the night so it’s always been about more than just food. For instance, the first thing my Mum asks me when she calls is “did you eat?!” It’s to show the care and the love. My Father was the best cook ever- my mother can’t cook at all (!)- so I learnt a lot from him. I suppose this company is also about keeping hold of that memory too!
SC.SD. I love that. You mentioned that you made a change in your life to do this. You were a criminal lawyer before starting Dolce weren’t you?
SC.SD. I mean, that couldn’t be more opposite to what you’re doing now!
SF. I know! I think I’ve always had that creativity inside of me though. I used to draw all the time in school, I’d go to art classes in the evening and after high school I wanted to study art but my parents were so strict. They’re both doctors so they said either you choose medicine, law or engineering…!
Studying law was ok but when I had to actually work as a lawyer it was different. I was a barrister, so I was in the court rooms…
SC.SD. You had to wear the wigs!
SF. We don’t actually wear wigs in Italy, just the black gowns! It was a good job but I was completely overwhelmed by the bureaucracy- it was so slow to even do the most basic tasks and I was paid so badly…
SC.SD. Really? Gosh in the UK, if you become a barrister, your salary is more than comfortable…
SF. It depends in Italy… if you’re working in a famous law firm then yes…
SC.SD. But you weren’t?!
SF. No! I didn’t know anyone else that was a lawyer so I had no recommendations about the good firms. I was just frustrated because I wasn’t happy with my life and I could see that the people who had good contacts but weren’t necessarily as good as the job as I was, were getting the better jobs….
SC.SD. That’s the classic story isn’t it…
SF. I think in Italy it’s even worse! I like baking cakes though; it’s what I’ve always done for friends and family. If ever there was a party, they’d say “right, Serena you bring the cake!” and my personal life was really bad at that time too…
SC.SD. As in relationships?
SF. Yeh, my relationship with my ex-boyfriend was a mess, so I just said “stop”. I just wanted a huge change so I spoke to my boss and said “either the situation changes or I have to leave”, and he said the situation won’t change so I said ok I’ll leave!
Without a proper contract in place, Serena left the firm immediately, broke up with her ex-boyfriend and decided to up and leave for the UK.
SC.SD. Why the UK?
SF. I knew my now boyfriend was living over here and he was super happy here…
SC.SD. Where did you meet?
SF. At a wedding!
SC.SD. Not his wedding I hope!
SF. No, a Sicilian wedding! So I moved to London… When I first arrived I tried to work as a lawyer because I just felt like I’d studied for so many years, let’s just see… maybe it’s better over here?! But it was so complicated for me as an Italian. The systems are so different, I would have had to go back to university, retake the bar exam, and then I would have been a solicitor as opposed to a barrister and the only thing I liked was being in the courtroom! It would have meant spending all this time and all this money to do something I knew I wouldn’t enjoy. So I thought if I’m going to restart my career, it had to be for something I loved.
SC.SD. What was it that you loved about being in the courtroom?
SF. It’s difficult to explain in English! First of all, I like the challenge and the competition and a trial is really just a competition- I like to win! It’s so easy to say someone’s done something bad, how can you defend them? But I believe that there is the right to have a fair trial…
SC.SD. Innocent until proven guilty…
SF. Yes, it’s a constitutional right so you have to try and detach yourself. And then you need to understand the psychological side of things; what led them to it, their influences growing up etc… It’s really tricky. We all make mistakes, of course there’s level but that’s why I loved it. It’s why I chose criminal law, it’s the only one I could do.
But it was so frustrating sometimes… because I’m a woman, the criminal work atmosphere isn’t nice.
SC.SD. Were you not taken as seriously?
SF. Sometimes and also because I’m young and look younger than I am, people would treat me like I was their secretary or something… it’s not nice.
SC.SD. No, I can relate to that. Ok, so you leave your job, you leave your ex, what was going through your head on the flight to London?
SF. I was so unsure but I kept saying to myself, “let’s just try it”. It was very much I’ll come over here and see what happens.
Initially Serena stayed for a week before flying home. A week turned into a month on her next trip, and then two years ago, she made the permanent decision to move.
SF. I’d never lived with a man before either so it was such a big change for me! The first thing I did was to look for a school where I could make my hobby a profession and it was obviously Le Cordon Bleu. You know what it’s like… when you’ve got nothing better to do you start looking at all the amazing places!
SC.SD. And that’s the very best isn’t it? For anyone that’s thinking of following in your footsteps, was it expensive and/or competitive to get into?
SF. Not competitive but yes, it’s expensive so I had this idea but I couldn’t afford it! Because my salary was so low in Italy, my parents used to help me out a lot- they’d helped me through my education in Italy but the minute I said I don’t want to do law anymore they weren’t happy at all so I couldn’t ask them to help me again…
SC.SD. What did you do then?
SF. I worked for the first year I was here. I found a job in a chocolate shop- the owner was a former student of Le Cordon Bleu.
Before fully committing herself to saving for Le Cordon Bleu, Serena emailed and wrote letters to the school’s alumni who had gone on to create their own businesses after graduation. Asking for general feedback about the school and about how successful they were as a Le Cordon Bleu graduate, their responses only confirmed her decision to attend.
SF. I was like a stalker! I just thought if I’m going to completely commit myself to this, I want to know that it’s really worth it! Everyone was so nice with their feedback and I came across Caitlin Paxton, the Founder of Paxton Chocolate- she looked so nice in her picture and she was here in Shoreditch – so I went to her shop directly and she was great. She shared her experience, she was so honest, the chocolates were amazing, she let me try them all…
SC.SD. Ok that’s the dream…!
SF. Yeh I know, they were so pretty! I absolutely love chocolate so it was the best day! I left her my contact details and after a couple of hours she contacted me and just said ‘look, I need some help in the shop, do you want to work here? I’ll explain everything, you can see how I make the chocolates but I’ll also show you how I run my business…’ For me it was perfect.
SC.SD. Exactly! Why not?!
SF. I know! It’s what I needed because in my mind, I’d already decided I wanted to start my own business but I had no idea how so I said ok deal!
SC.SD. Would you say that was a career defining moment then?
SF. Yes definitely, it helped me decide to move here permanently. It was so, so useful! I learned how to work with chocolate, mix flavours, how to use spices… I was used to traditional Italian things! I had no idea I could make a chocolate that was…. I don’t know… mojito flavoured for example or other strange stuff…
She was also amazing because she showed me things – that now seem easy – like how to make a label for the product, what’s needed on that label, how to order in bulk, where to source supplies, how to plan for seasons in advance. I was like seriously!? You start Christmas before summer?! How to keep in contact with wholesalers… she also let me use her shop for events!
SF. I know, I was like are you serious?! In Italy, that would be impossible. Nobody would take you seriously without any experience.
Serena spent just under a year with Caitlin. However, with long hours every day, there was little time to set up Dolce.
SF. I just had a Facebook page and would test ideas. I’d make little cakes and cookies and give them to my boyfriend to give to his colleagues and then I ran 2-3 events to see if people liked what I was making but it was very basic.
Paxton Chocolate moved to Brighton in February this year, ultimately ending Serena’s internship. However, as the course at Le Cordon Bleu did not start until March, Serena put the spare month in between to excellent use…
SF. I knew I wanted experience in a patisserie before school started because it’s completely different so I worked as an intern in a French patisserie. I learnt all the timings, how to prioritise what comes first, how to work in a team (because at the chocolate shop it was just me and Caitlin) but it was super tiring! It was 7 till 5 with no break- my back was awful!
I also started to plan Dolce properly. I started by making a website because I thought the Facebook page didn’t look professional…
SC.SD. Did you make it yourself?
SF. Yes, with my boyfriend’s help- he’s always helped me and supported me. It sounds so stupid but I’d never used Microsoft Excel in my life before starting this and it’s the basic tool for pricing an item.
SC.SD. Really?! Is it not used in Italy then?
SF. Not for what I did, no! I guess if you studied Economics..! So it’s a good team, me and him. I have the creative side and he helps me with the business side!
Anyway, then I started making the basic range of cakes that I wanted to sell on the website and took all the pictures. I love taking photos; it’s one of my hobbies after baking anyway so I really enjoyed that bit.
SC.SD. I was going to ask you that actually because taking high quality photos of food is a real skill- it’s hard to make it look yummy and not flat!
SF. Definitely. When you want to buy food – especially cake or cookies – it’s difficult when you can’t see it or try it or smell it so the visuals are so important.
I already had a camera but I was used to taking photos of people. I didn’t want to go to a class so just thought I’m going to try. I bought the light and some equipment and then my boyfriend went on a Photoshop class because we didn’t know how to do that. He discovered he liked making videos and stuff so we thought it would speed up the process and it gave him a little project away from his real job!
SC.SD. That’s handy! Where did the name come from?
SF. Dolce? Well first of all I needed something that the British could pronounce..!
SC.SD. Hahaha thanks!
SF. I wanted one word that was quite short and it had to deal with cakes. Dolce in Italian means ‘sweet’. Also, my favourite restaurant in Rome was called Dolce! I love the style there, I love the food- it was a place I used to go with my best friend when we had lots to talk about… so it’s a memory too!
SC.SD. I love that!
SF. For me food is always linked with memories. When I eat something that I really like, I always remember it. I remember who I was with, I remember how I felt….
SC.SD. Same, in a big way! Obviously the food culture in London is always thriving- How aware were you of the competition?
SF. So before deciding to set this up, I had that free time so I used to just walk around London and see if I could find a store that was similar to what I had in mind and I didn’t!
SF. At least not in Central London. Yes I could find a lot of French patisseries which are quite similar (because we steal each other’s ideas!) but I couldn’t find a traditional Neapolitan patisserie. I could find ones that pretended to be Italian but I’d go in and they’d be selling chocolate brownies and Victoria sponge too… there were no traditional sweets so I just thought there’s a market!
I also looked at competitor websites and prices because I didn’t know how to price things over here. In Italy you price by the weight whereas here you price the item.
SC.SD. It’s funny because when we were in Italy we bought so many amazing pastries and we were like broken records. Everyday we’d keep saying “this is so cheap, if this was in London, it’d be triple the price” etc… so was it tricky getting your head round the fact that you could charge a lot more over here?!
SF. Yes, yes, yes! I remember the first cake I made. It was a traditional Neapolitan cake made with chocolate and almonds – two expensive products – and I made this file on excel… obviously I bought the ingredients here in the UK so it was already more than I was used to but I was going to charge X amount and I spoke with my boyfriend and he was like “you’re crazy!”
SC.SD. This is London…!
SF. “You have to charge at least this amount!” For me it was really too much, but he was right, people pay it here. If they see something they like, they don’t care!
SC.SD. I also think, with things like Instagram, it’s no longer a case of let’s bake a Victoria Sponge for so and so’s birthday. It’s got to be a four tiered Victoria sponge! And if people can’t bake, they’re willing to spend much more for it to look good.
SF. Definitely and that’s something I really had to learn because in Italy, you’ve been there, they don’t care about the packaging! It’s a napkin…
SC.SD. Or a plain white box!
SF. Exactly! Here if you have a beautiful box already, you’re winning. I once sent a box into my boyfriend’s office with a ribbon on it and they loved it and all went on to place orders. Sometimes I think over here it’s more about how beautiful it is than how it tastes…
SC.SD. Like on the Great British Bake Off? “Style over substance..!”
SF. Yes! And that’s…
SF. Yes! Because it’s the opposite at home but it’s been a nice challenge.
SC.SD. How did you go about designing your packaging?
SF. To be honest, I’m still working on it. Because I don’t have a shop and have to deliver – I use Quiqup mostly – it’s not easy to guarantee that the cakes are 100% safe because they’re so fragile. I’d like to customise a box with inserts inside so nothing can move but getting those here in London is so expensive. China can do it cheaply but you have to order in bulk which means I can’t test them and I don’t have enough room to store that many boxes!
I’m working with a friend who is an Art Director and he’s helping to design them but he lives in New York!
SC.SD. Have you had any scenarios where they’ve arrived wonky then?
SF. Not with the cakes, but once with some mini pastries. It was at the beginning as I was still experimenting the best way to place my products in the boxes and deliver them. I emailed the customer – as I always do – to ask for feedback and that’s the only negative thing I’ve had but she just said “it’s no problem, it tasted so good!” At the time though, I was upset! I’m a perfectionist.
SC.SD. I’d be the same! What’s been the biggest challenge that you’ve faced since setting this business up then?
SF. Erm, understanding the British mentality…! All the bureaucracy was super easy.
SC.SD. As in registering as self-employed, that kind of thing?
SF. Yes that was all easy. Also, getting the license from the council to bake from home was simple enough.
SC.SD. Have they visited here then?
SF. Not yet but they told me I can start and then they’ll visit. I checked about having cats too but they told me that it’s fine. The important thing is that you sterilise everything before you make anything and they stay in a different room while I bake! I have a cleaning schedule and procedures to respect and I passed an exam to get a Food Safety and Hygiene certification. I really take care of it because it’s so important when you’re dealing with people’s health.
But yes, the biggest problem was trying to understand whether people would like what I’m making!
SC.SD. Were you conscious about the stereotypical Brit politeness where we say ‘Oooo yes that’s lovely’ when really we’re thinking ‘bloody hell, that’s rough’?!
For the record, I’ve tried Serena’s baking and it’s anything but rough…!
SC.SD. One of my friends is Spanish and she’s forever saying “Eurgh, you’re all so polite!”
SF. Yes that’s definitely true! Very formal too! I was used to that attitude with my ex-boyfriend though- he was American. If I don’t like something, I’ll tell you! I have to say though, when I was at the chocolate shop, Caitlin really appreciated it! She was a typical British girl but she found it useful. I guess I’ve just learnt that if people come back they must like it… My best marketing tool is definitely word of mouth.
SC.SD. I imagine it would be with this. How do you juggle your studies with running a business?
With courses ranging from French cuisine to wine and spirit training at Le Cordon Bleu, Serena opted for the Diplôme de Pâtisserie- a course recognised globally as one of the most respected culinary qualifications in pastry and baking.
SF. Hmmm I’m in school for 18 hours a week but now I’m nearing the end – I graduate in December- I’m in the superior patisserie term which is more difficult so you have to practise at home. It’s why I’m not pushing Dolce so much at the moment. I’m still in the testing period for the business, the boxes, the flavours, Instagram, it’s not set in stone yet because I don’t have the time to do it…
SC.SD. The fact that you’ve got the business up and running before you’ve even graduated is really impressive though. Do lots of other students have businesses?
SF. Not really, either their family has a business already or they’re just doing it as a hobby or they want to work in Michelin starred restaurants or luxury hotels. We learn all the basics right through to the modern designs, confectionery, sugar work, chocolate design…
SC.SD. It sounds like the best school ever!
SF. It’s been the best decision of my life!
SC.SD. I bet! You mentioned that your family weren’t happy with this career change initially. Has that changed at all?
SF. Now I guess… they’ve accepted my choice (after almost two years)! I no longer get sent emails with applications for other jobs anyway! They ask me now how school is going, how the business is going; they ask for pictures… but it was really difficult at the beginning. We’re a really close family.
My best friends were sceptical too. Especially my bestest friend and I didn’t expect that from her. She was like “Serena you’ve done all this studying, why are you wasting everything you’ve done for something you don’t know!?”
It was upsetting because she is young like me. I can understand my parents. They’re from another generation, they’re probably thinking ‘how will she survive if she’s not a lawyer or a doctor’ (!) but from my best friend, it really hurt. She’s so happy for me now though.
SC.SD. Do you think seeing how well you’re doing and seeing how happy you are has helped that?
SF. Yes definitely. They see how into it I am and how many ideas I have for the business so now it’s ok but it was so difficult. My boyfriend has been an amazing support throughout though.
SC.SD. What’s your favourite thing to make?
SF. The little choux- the chocolate ones and the chantilly cream ones which are our best seller!
SC.SD. See I have this memory of being in a food tech class at school – I must have been about 13 – and my best friend tried to make choux pastry but it just turned into scrambled eggs…!
SF. You have to be so careful!! Patisserie is so much harder than traditional cuisine because it has to be so precise; but I love that. It allows you to play out your fantasies and make such beautiful things! I can just get so creative.
SC.SD. You’ve mentioned that you’ve got all these ideas… now that you’re coming up to graduation, where do you see this business going?
SF. Ok, so my final goal is to open my shop…
SC.SD. I had a feeling it might be!
SF. Yes! When I dream, I already know how I want it, the design, everything but I need to wait to get there because I can’t afford it straight away!
I want to start doing pop ups and go to the markets because it’s a good way to get direct contact with customers, it’s not expensive and you can see first-hand what people like.
SC.SD. And there’s always the best vibe at food markets isn’t there? I can’t imagine anyone going to a street food market miserable…
SF. Exactly! Then I want to start organising more workshops and classes.
SC.SD. If you were a barrister, does that teaching role come naturally?
SF. I love it. I did a workshop for one of the South Kensington clubs- they contacted me randomly on my Facebook page and asked me to run a workshop – and it was really fun. It was more of a demo though so I’d like to find a place where I can have a group of 6-8 people and they can all make it as we go along.
SC.SD. Do you have an idea of which borough you’d want the shop in?
SF. This is the difficult thing…
SC.SD. I’m guessing you’d want somewhere like South Kensington or Chelsea but they come with a much higher rent rate…
SF. Exactly. I talk about this a lot because I’d like to have a place where I can make everything downstairs and then sell upstairs because you avoid all the problems with the transportation, but if you want to rent somewhere like that in London it’s so expensive. There are categories though so because I’m not a restaurant and I don’t sell hot food, it’s less expensive but still, in a place like Chelsea or South Kensington, I mean…! When school’s finished I’ll do a study properly!
SC.SD. Sounds like a plan! Very last question then… can you see yourself working on this business for the rest of your life?
SF. Yes, definitely! I want to train people and grow it and I’d love to do YouTube videos one day too… how to make pastry cream, choux, recipes… but even if in 10 years’ time I’ve expanded to 2 or 3 shops, I always, always want to be in the kitchen!
After sending me on my way with a box of ridiculously yummy goodies, (this YouTube channel needs to happen ASAP FYI) I can’t help but feel that her story can teach us a lot.
By refusing to let over a decade of studying the wrong subject define her and bravely walking away from a career that had been forced upon her, Serena has paved a new life for herself that is the antithesis to that which she lived before. She held her nerve, aimed high and simply refused to settle; even when those closest to her were vehemently opposed to her dream.
With her graduation from Le Cordon Bleu fast approaching next month, and an already successful business waiting in the wings, her favourite quote summarises it well…
SF. “Believe you can and you’re half way there!”
To find out more about Serena and browse the whole pastry collection on offer, visit her website here.