Saturday, April 21, 2012

From "Baby Gangster" to Aclaimed Pastry Chef

Edward Martinez gently places a chocolate orb in the center of a white bowl. To the touch, this confection is hard and impeccably smooth, like a small eight ball.

 His right hand, emblazoned with a skull tattoo, holds a small ladle of warmed chocolate-infused milk. He drizzles the liquid over the orb, accompanied by chocolate streusel and toasted hazelnuts. It soon breaks open, revealing a sumptuous filling of hazelnut and milk chocolate pudding, mixed with more crispy bits of chocolate and hazelnut.  "I like making pretty food," Martinez said. "The first thing you do is eat with your eyes. You want it to be beautiful. If the flavors work, it brings that whole dish together."

Martinez serves as executive pastry chef of Hawks in Granite Bay, which specializes in seasonal ingredients and is among the region's finest restaurants. Even in a chocolate-stained apron, Martinez doesn't look like a guy you'd want to mess with. He stands over 6 feet tall with a shaved head and a black widow spider on the back of his neck. His body is an evolving canvas of tattoos, some of which hark back to a past that he's since left behind: membership in one of California's most notorious street gangs.

Learning to make pastries may have saved Martinez's life, or at least spared him a stretch in the state penitentiary. In 2005, facing three felony charges, Martinez promised to enroll in a pastry-making program, leading to a reduced sentence – and perhaps a last chance at an honest life.

Martinez's Facebook photos show a collage of the sweet and a bitter taste of his past. There's a shot of his moelloux of white chocolate, compressed mandarins, pistachio macaron and mandarin sorbet; an "I heart foie gras" T-shirt sported by his baby son; and the casket of one of Martinez's homeboys from his Fresno gang days being lowered into the earth.

"I never expected to get this far," said Martinez, who recently turned 27. "I expected … (to be) in jail, or dead."

Now, Martinez surrounds himself with sugars, ripe seasonal fruits and delicate desserts. He's devouring "Modernist Cuisine," the six-volume book of cutting-edge cooking techniques. His repertoire at Hawks includes nitrogen-frozen chocolate mousse with gianduja crémeux and hazelnut pudding.

"He's the best working pastry chef I've seen," said Pajo Bruich, midtown's Lounge ON20 executive chef, known for his complex cooking techniques. "Hands down, nobody in the Sacramento market is doing the creative elements he's doing."

The rise of Baby Gangster

Baby Gangster was always ready to fight.

That's what the Bulldogs gang members called Martinez, after he was "jumped into" the gang at age 13.
"I was at the homeboy's house, in the backyard," Martinez recalled, between sips of coffee at a midtown Sacramento cafe. "I'm telling them, 'I want to be in. This is what I want. I want to be a Bulldog.' And they said, 'OK, let's do it.' They beat me up for about 30 seconds. It's weird. You're beating up your friend so they can hang out with you. I got "FRESNO" tattooed across my chest about six months after that."

The Bulldogs have few friends, except for those also inked with the dog paws and "BD" tattoos. Bulldogs are recognized as a violent California gang, based primarily in Fresno. Law enforcement estimates the gang has more than 6,000 members. The Bulldogs, who take the name and logo from the mascot at California State University, Fresno, have no allies and no leadership structure. Crips, Bloods, Norteño and Sureño gangs are all sworn Bulldogs enemies.

Both of Martinez's older brothers were Bulldogs; so were other close family members. One cousin was nicknamed "Big Gangster," while an older brother was "Lil Gangster." Baby Gangster Martinez was "Baby G" for short – and had it tattooed into his left forearm.

He said his turf was on the east side of Fresno, where he claimed "Mariposa Street Gangsters" – or, "MSG" for short. He'd moved there from San Jose at the age of 9, about two years after his mother, Theodora, died in a car accident. He said he still thinks of her baking in the kitchen, surrounded by the smells of sugar and frosting.

His father, Joe Martinez, said his son didn't cope well after her death. The elder Martinez, who earned an economics degree from Stanford University, had hoped his four children would get educations, but his wife's death fractured the family spirit.

"With Edward, he kept a lot inside and started getting into trouble at school," said Joe Martinez. "Prior to that, he was doing excellent in school."

Baby Gangster developed a taste for stealing. He was charged and later convicted in 2004 with grand theft for stealing $2,000 worth of DVD players and other merchandise from a Blockbuster Video.

In April 2005, while at a Fresno fast food restaurant, Baby Gangster thought someone looked at his girlfriend the wrong way. He attacked, punched the victim and fled. According to documents in Fresno Superior Court, the victim identified his attacker as a gang member because of his tattoos.

The victim and two witnesses picked Edward Martinez out of a photo lineup. Martinez was already on parole for the second-degree burglary at Blockbuster. Baby Gangster went on the run for more than three weeks.

He knew he couldn't hide forever.

"I finally got tired of running and went to my dad's house," said Martinez. "I knew they were going to get me there. When they came to the door, there were cops everywhere. I was going to jail."

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