With the opening of their family-friendly restaurant concept, Au Fudge, Jessica Biel and her fun-loving business cohorts prove that you can have your cake…and eat it too.
It is Jessica Biel’s birthday, and she is kicking off her morning at a make-believe party. She’s midway through our cover shoot, set at her new West Hollywood restaurant, Au Fudge, and thanks to the Oscar de la Renta dress, the free-flowing sparkling rosé, and a storm of gold confetti, the line between pretend-for-the-camera and actual fun is blurring. There’s also the fact that she’s mugging—to the tune of her husband Justin Timberlake’s “SexyBack”—with some of her nearest and dearest, a veritable squad of fellow co-owners comprising fashion stylist and interior decorator Estee Stanley, children’s book author Kimberly Muller, Greenleaf Gourmet Chopshop restaurateur Jonathan Rollo, Barry’s Bootcamp CEO Joey Gonzalez and real-estate maven Monica Saunders-Weinberg.
They’re due to officially open the next day, and unbeknownst to Biel, she will be lured back to the venue that evening for a surprise party organized by Timberlake, complete with close-up magic courtesy of David Blaine. But right now, there is a nervous frisson in the air, amplified by the arrival of the first print of The Story of Au Fudge, a modern fairy tale penned by Muller and sold in the venue’s front-of-house shop—it’s all starting to feel real.
After the shoot wraps, a “Happy Birthday” sing-along erupts, accompanied by a round of freshly baked chocolate cupcakes—such is the perk of having resident pastry chef Lidia Cancino on set. It’s a fitting snack, not only because Biel is turning 34, but also because it was a chocolate treat—a reputedly homely one—that led her to this moment.
Years ago, before fermented foods were de rigueur in Los Angeles, Biel’s parents got her interested in gut-friendly nutrition, inspired by the book The Body Ecology Diet by Donna Gates, now a personal friend of the Biel family: “I had been exploring trying to make recipes healthier,” Biel explains. “So I brought this chocolate brownie cake I’d concocted with low-glycemic sugar and coconut oil to Estee’s son Teddy’s birthday party.”
“This was before anyone was really doing anything like that, and she showed up to the party with the ugliest cake you ever saw, and everyone devoured it,” recalls Stanley, Biel’s longtime stylist and friend.
At the time, Stanley had already been kicking around the idea for a kids-and-adults-friendly clubhouse emphasizing wholesome food and thoughtful design—an antidote to those children-centric dens of animatronic entertainment and congealed pizza slices—and saw Biel’s latent talent as compatible. “We thought, maybe you should start the Ugly Cake Company, because your cakes are terrible,” she says, drawing it out for dramatic emphasis. “But delicious.”
“Of course, we never did that, thank goodness,” says Biel. “But I became a creative partner, because I started to really believe in the idea.”
The idea—more than five years in the making—is this: If you build a restaurant, outfit it in the manner of your most discerning, Europhile friend’s home, serve California-French comfort food and provide an imaginative play space supervised by au pairs, families will come. And enjoy. And return. And maybe even forgo iPads at the table.
When Biel signed on, her personal life looked very different; for starters, she wasn’t yet married, and she didn’t have a child (she now has a 1-year-old, Silas, with Timberlake), but she recognized the need for the project: “A lot of my friends had kids and everyone had the same problem. They’d tell me, ‘I’m going to a kids party,’ and I’d be like, ‘Maybe I’ll come,’ and they’d be like, ‘You don’t want to come: It’s a crazy place, there [are] kids everywhere, the food’s not good and it’s not fun.’”
For Biel, Au Fudge doesn’t signal a hiatus from acting, but rather, a sideline; the Minnesota-born, Colorado-raised actress has a full film slate this year, including noir thriller A Kind of Murder and drama The Devil and the Deep Blue Sea, which she also produced. (Her big break came at the age of 14 in The WB television series 7th Heaven, and she has peppered her resume with a mix of low-budget and blockbuster flicks since—from scream queen in the 2003 remake of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre to action bombshell in 2004’s Blade: Trinity to turn-of-the-century heroine in 2006’s The Illusionist to brassy, comic lead in 2008’s Easy Virtue.)
Each co-owner confers his or her own expertise on Au Fudge: Biel’s contribution is overarching and conceptual—her unofficial title, in Rollo’s words, is “the imagineer.” Stanley oversaw the design of the luxe-rustic space, from the oak floors to the artisan cement tiles on the patio and mounted stuffed animal heads on the wall. The vibe is British countryside gastropub filtered through a minimal lens—the better to squeeze strollers into, perhaps. Rollo and Gonzalez bring an entrepreneurial savvy and familiarity with the culinary scene. “The thing that really drew us to this was that it was imagined by three people who weren’t in the business; they were able to dream outside of the box, and be limitless in their creativity,” says Rollo of Au Fudge’s original founding trio, Stanley, Muller and Biel. Adds Muller, “We were three girls who knew nothing about the restaurant industry but had a great idea.”
The organic-leaning menu spans a grass-fed burger to a vegan Caesar salad, and under the supervision of chef James King (Sunset Tower Hotel), children’s options transcend run-of-the-mill chicken fingers—think truffled grilled-cheese sticks and deviled egg-lets. There’s also a marketplace stocked with the owners’ personal favorites, including Rococo Chocolates from England and Vittoria Coffee from Australia, the preferred brew of Saunders-Weinberg, who splits her time between L.A. and Sydney. “I have big dreams [for Au Fudge],” she says. “I’d love for it to be everywhere.”
At times, the media has portrayed the venture as an exclusive playpen for celebrities, with Biel as the ringleader. Of course, snark is a common reaction when an actress pivots to pursue a lifestyle project; just ask the likes of Gwyneth Paltrow (Goop), Jessica Alba (The Honest Company) or Reese Witherspoon (Draper James). “Jessica [Biel] is very talented in many different ways—being an actress is just one of those things,” says Rollo. “I’m not surprised that she is really good as a businesswoman, too.” Adds Gonzalez: “People are quick to judge in a negative way when there is a celebrity attached. But in the end, Au Fudge is bigger than any of us, and what we’re trying to accomplish is so differentiated.”
“You can’t help but get your feelings hurt,” Biel admits. “You think, ‘Well, hold on a second. I’m just trying to do something cool for my community. Why is this getting so turned around?’ But it inspired us to keep moving forward because we know our hearts are in the right place.”
It helps to be part of a close-knit team, and also to have support at home from a husband familiar with the territory (Timberlake co-owns the Memphis-style BBQ restaurant Southern Hospitality in New York). “He’s not one of those people to pooh-pooh an idea or a passion. He is the person who says, ‘Do it. And if it fails, it fails. But you did it,’” says Biel. “I’m sure he was probably thinking, ‘It’s going to be hard.’”
But on a recent Friday at 11:15 a.m., the place was humming with activity—kids jostling for a peek at the pastry case, post-yoga moms kissing hellos, and cappuccino and Champagne orders arriving in equal measure. “One lady came up to me and said, ‘I feel like I hit the lottery: My kid is enjoying his food, and then he leaves the table to go and play, and I can sit and enjoy a glass of wine. I cannot thank you enough,’” Biel recounts. “And that makes it feel like we should continue.” The ultimate test of whether the place has staying—and multiplying—power will be time, and, of course, the approval of the most discerning customer in Biel’s realm: “Silas doesn’t really talk yet—he says some words, but he hasn’t given me any real feedback,” she comments. “But—he eats the food.” Considering the source, that’s as close to a rave as it gets.
Photography by YU TSAI.
Written by MELISSA GOLDSTEIN.
Styling by JESSICA DE RUITER.