Lagusta Yearwood, The Punk Chocolatier
by Alicia Kennedy
“Women! Let us meet.” This is how Lagusta Yearwood, chef and owner of chocolate shop Lagusta’s Luscious in New Paltz, New York, calls together her employees for a staff meeting. “And Jacob,” she adds, a sweet afterthought, to include her partner of 16 years, who’s running around the small shop taking care of orders to be shipped out. Four women stand around Lagusta, all in vintage aprons, listening as she discusses the business of the day: a new whipped cream recipe, strategies for most efficiently using the enrober to get 1,400 caramels out. Over to the side, I note a “Kill Your Local Misogynists” mug.
She’s a feminist, anarchist, vegan chef. No matter how much like a hippie-skewering skit the sketch of her might seem, this woman is punk. After getting a degree in women’s studies, she attended New York City’s Natural Gourmet Institute and trained in Connecticut at the feminist cooperative vegetarian restaurant Bloodroot. She began her foray into being what she calls an “antipreneur” with a savory meal-delivery service. It was in off-hours from running that business that she began rolling and selling fair-trade-chocolate truffles out of her home. In 2010, she and Jacob bought the foreclosed laundromat that would become Lagusta’s Luscious, envisioning it as a wholesale chocolate factory with a shop up front for selling extras. Instead, the business is about 60–40 retail to mail order, and has become its own little utopia.
When I had my vegan epiphany, relatively late in life at 26, I was baking at least a cake per week and considering going to culinary school. I bought all the vegan baking cookbooks available, and they all called for Earth Balance — a slimy, unpalatable, widely available vegan margarine. I knew there had to be a way to replace butter with coconut oil to make a classic-style buttercream, so I scoured the internet for guidance. That’s how I found Resistance Is Fertile, Lagusta’s personal blog. She was irreverent and relentless, railing against mainstream veganism and mainstream everything, and also giving the lowdown on coconut oil buttercream, its possibilities and its challenges. I spent hours and hours of a workday reading, and then, finally knowing it was possible, spent weekends scooping oil and wasting expensive organic powdered sugar in pursuit of this elusive dairy-free buttercream. Eventually, I figured out a formula (a complicated, time-consuming one) and made cake for everyone who would have me, naively starting my own little business.
Though my bakery, along with a relationship, ended in 2013, the influence of Lagusta, the deliciousness of her chocolate, and that weird year of running a business that I’ll always be grateful for are forever. The experience of having my own bakery as a person uninterested in anything about owning a business, apart from being in charge and making cool stuff, has left me fascinated by those who actually make it their lives, the people who are driven first by creative desire and then have to build a stable world around it. Lagusta has lived, and continues to live, this struggle in a rather public way. It’s why when I make the two-and-a-half-hour trek to New Paltz, I half-joke that it’s a pilgrimage.
Lagusta’s Luscious doesn’t advertise, and she herself is at the forefront of their social media presence: claiming fruit as her religion, writing poetic treatises in Instagram captions, railing against what many mainstream chefs conceive of as a vegan meal on her personal blog. She makes Sliding Scale Socialist Soup, for which customers pay what they can, and turns down potential deals with Free People because of their shady corporate practices.
The shop itself is tiny, with a teal and brown color scheme, as well-composed in its shabby-twee aesthetic as her chocolates are in flavor. The counter was made from reclaimed wood and bartered for with a local artisan; the lampshades were made by a friend. The bathroom is wallpapered in leftist political posters, including Ronald McDonald with a Hitler ‘stache over the toilet. It’s a place where workers are paid a living wage, and taken on field trips to restaurants and other chocolate-makers to develop their palates. It’s a place where a tween girl asks for a Furious Vulva in her assortment, please, without a giggle or a smirk.
Lagusta comes from a vegan activist background, but it’s emotionally exhausting work. She sees participating in capitalism as better than her business not existing, as we “don’t have 20 years to wait for a radical revolution.” In the meantime, she uses ecofriendly packaging, cuts waste wherever possible, and works with similarly minded businesses and artisans.
Along with the economic issues, there’s being the boss of eight people when one is not really down with hierarchy. Providing jobs, though, is a point of pride, as is allowing them all to find where they fit in best. She’s forgotten how to wrap her own chocolate bars and is no longer dipping every truffle herself, and the people she’s trained do these things exceptionally well, and she’s learned to be ok with that.
But the chocolates. They are what make the whole endeavor worthwhile and what truly set the shop apart. There are very few simple pieces in the case. There’s a Sour Sorrel Caramel in the spring, made with the strange, sharply flavored herb. Sorrel caramel is enrobed in chocolate and garnished with a matcha-mint salt. It’s odd and lovely, fresh and rich. A favorite of most is the Vandana Shiva, named for the anti-GMO seed activist. It’s made from stone-ground chocolate, which gives it an earthy texture, and flavored with mild ancho chilies, Maui vanilla beans, and Mexican cinnamon. The Furious Vulva a tween asked for is formed in a vulva mold — helpfully reminding us all that a vagina is what’s on the inside — with pink peppercorns and Hawaiian pink sea salt. It’s a bit sassy, a lot cute, and a delicate match of spice and bitterness.
When I ask her about the risk of making so many palate-challenging flavors, she mentions the Almond and Dark Chocolate Bark with Smoked Sea Salt. “It’s never something I’ll nibble on,” but it sells and perhaps serves as a gateway. There’s also the Rock Scramble, a bigger, affordable item that’s a bag of Sweet & Sara marshmallows, organic pistachios and corn flakes, pinot noir–infused sea salt, and dark chocolate — ”it balances basic and fancy, and stoner kids are obsessed.”
More in her wheelhouse is the Pig-Out Bar, made from infusing a caramel sauce with house-smoked shiitake mushrooms and red miso, as well as smoked yuba, a byproduct of the soy-milk-making process. It creates a smoky, bacon-y goodness without relying on ubiquitous Liquid Smoke. She bought the smoker in order to develop the richest pig-less bacon she could.
Her commitment to high-quality ingredients, weird flavors, and keeping things local is not just a contrast to how mainstream food businesses work, but a major anomaly among vegan offerings. There is no slick, palm-oil-based Earth Balance here. The chocolate itself, made by Tcho in San Francisco, is unapologetically dark. “They’re impressed with anything,” Lagusta says of vegans, and it’s true. Make us a cute cupcake and we’re just grateful to have something to put in our mouths, no matter the actual texture or flavor. But when someone moves beyond simply providing something animal-product-free and into doing exceptional culinary work, it expands the possibilities of the movement. If you know that going vegan doesn’t mean dooming yourself to a life of dry cookies and rubbery fake cheese, you’re more likely to make the leap. It’s activism through hedonism, proving what’s possible even when cutting animal protein, and using local, organic, and fair-trade ingredients.
It’s difficult to envision her kind of craftsmanship working on a massive scale, though, and that’s been the struggle facing the shop as it grows. With a logo that is her silhouette — a chef’s knife carved out in the space between nape and ponytail — it’s important that the growth of the business matches her ethics. When her mother, who lives in Chicago, asked whether she’d soon be able to buy her bars in Whole Foods, Lagusta had a meltdown: “Who am I if my silhouette is in Whole Foods?” In March of this year, the shop endured a test in this regard when offered a deal with Free People, which is owned by Urban Outfitters, to sell their chocolate bunnies in their stores for Easter. She wrote them a letter refusing, and then spoke on the shop’s blog about why:
“The argument could be made that one should sell one’s ethically-produced goods in unsavory stores because people in those stores will then at least purchase one thing made in a responsible manner. This argument smacks of using the master’s tools to dismantle the master’s house, which is to say: it gives me a stomachache to think about our lil floppy-eared bun-buns sitting next to, say Navajo Hipster Panties. Which is to say: a new world isn’t built of bricks made in sweatshops bought at the mall.”
Already, the growth has been jarring. She has three mortgages and has to consider providing health care, and as someone who obsessively creates things like polenta caramel chocolate bars, she doesn’t like taking time away from the kitchen to stare at spreadsheets. But she’s come to accept that she’s a boss, “going with the weirdness” and allowing Jacob to come up with business ideas. “It’s nice to hold onto your principles, but sometimes you have to rethink,” she admits, which maybe means allowing her silhouette into that major chain supermarket.
Though this shop would theoretically fit in perfectly on New Paltz’s main street, among the organic grocers and yoga studios, it’s a bit hidden on a back road, an almost too-perfect metaphor for its place in the world. Not content to hang out even with who you’d think are its peers, Lagusta’s Luscious needs its smallness and solitude to continue being this radical bastion of punky weirdness. They hang the leftist posters in the bathroom, hidden from public view, but every chocolate they sell furthers the cause.
Photo by Deena Feinberg.
Alicia Kennedy talks about eating and baking at la-pirata.com.