Pastry chef extraordinaire and owner of B. Patisserie in San Francisco, Chef Belinda Leong is a baking force to be reckoned with. Born and raised in the Bay Area, Chef Belinda started building her impressive CV straight out of culinary school. As the former pastry chef of Michelin starred Gary Danko and three starred Manresa, her dream of venturing out on her own never left her side. After an impressive world tour and learning from the absolute best in the business, her dream finally became reality in 2012 with the opening of the highly successful B. Patisserie. We had the pleasure of asking Chef Leong all about her journey and how she became the Viennoiserie queen of the Kouign-amman.
Where did the pastry story begin?
“At Gary Danko. I always knew I wanted to work with Chef Gary and shortly before graduating from culinary school I did an internship there and basically stayed on after that. I started out as the Garde Manger and would jump in at the pastry station every now and then. The more I did that, the more I started to realize: wow, this is well fun. Gary was having a really hard time finding a good pastry chef back then, so the jumping in started to become more frequent and at some point I just asked him if I could stay in pastry and I did. He really gave me the freedom to explore myself as a pastry chef. A lot of my learning was definitely self-taught. I didn’t really have anyone to ask, so I was constantly researching, testing, working on my techniques and trying to get quick internships at some of the best restaurants in New York and Canada. I was just always trying new things and a lot was trial and error, and me motivating myself to keep going, keep trying and keep making mistakes. Which paid off. I came into the restaurant two months after they opened and stayed for nine amazing years.”
“I did an internship at Michael Mina’s Aqua and while I was there I just really realized: ‘okay yeah, this is where I want to be.’ From the beginning I just absolutely loved it.”
What was the first thing they had you do?
“Pick herbs. Lots of herbs. [Laughs] And sometimes I would help out at the pastry station there as well.”
Seems pastry life was just meant to be.
“Pastry was always the problem for restaurants for some reason. At Aqua I was at the Garde Manger station too, which was okay, but pastry looked so much more fun and playful than making salads, plating smoked salmon or picking herbs. Especially since it was the time of sugar work and tuile on plated desserts. It all looked so whimsical to me, I knew then that I wanted to explore pastry.”
What is the biggest misconception about pastry chefs you think?
“Hmmm … That we’re all snobs? [Laughs] Right? Everyone always seems to think that we’re these high maintenance people. I mean, don’t get me wrong, there are a lot of high maintenance pastry chefs out there, but absolutely not everyone. At all.”
What did the world look like after Gary Danko?
“Most pastry chefs want to open their own bakery, and while that had always been my dream, I didn’t think I was ready for it. I felt that if I was really serious about pastry, I had to go to France and learn from the best. My strategy has always been: find the best in the field and try to work with them. In this case that was Pierre Hermé. Not an easy place to get in and France is definitely not an easy place to work either, but I was very naive and determined at that time and totally thought I would just go there, knock on their door and they’d let me in. I heard you could do that in Spain, so why not in France, right? Luckily, a few days before I was about to leave, someone asked me where I was going to work and I answered Pierre Hermé. They asked me if I had actually already gotten in because they had friends who knew him. They made a call and the very next day I received an email from Pierre Hermé himself. I was beyond excited, packed my bags and went. I had been working since I was twenty one, needless to say I basically had no idea what I was getting myself into. I’d never traveled outside of the US, I had no apartment and I didn’t speak a word of French. All I knew was that I had to go to Paris, the rest I would figure out along the way. How hard could it be? So, I landed in France and immediately thought: oh my god, what was I thinking? I cried non-stop the first two days. I didn’t know anyone there, I only had a week to find an apartment, I had no clue where to go, I couldn’t understand a word of what anyone was saying and on top of that had no paperwork to actually get an apartment because I had no idea that this was a requirement. I decided to call my old pastry assistant who’d actually studied in Paris and she put me in touch with her old landlord. I was so relieved when he agreed to rent me a small place and I could finally focus on what I came there to do: work. The first few months at Pierre Hermé were very tough. Like I said, I didn’t speak French and the very few people who did know English only knew the bare minimum. But, after four or five months things started to become more comfortable. I had learned the kitchen language, I was starting to making friends, life just became easier.”
What was it like to stage at a later time in your life, when you had already accomplished quite a bit?
“You know what? I honestly think doing an internship when you’re a little older and have been in the business for a bit is incredibly helpful. Usually people who stage have absolutely no experience and therefore get stuck with all the repetitive work like opening cans or picking herbs, things like that. But I was able to work every station at Pierre Hermé, all of them, and I learned so incredibly much. It honestly was one of the best experiences of my career.”
Time to head back home then?
“Not quite yet. I still had a few more places and chefs on my list who I knew could help me grow and determine the style of my bakery. One was René Redzepi of Noma in Copenhagen – who I had met in San Francisco when he was doing a collaborative dinner with David Kinch at Manresa – and the other was Carles Mampel at Bubó in Barcelona. Both had already given me the nod to come do a stage after my time at Pierre Hermé, so, when the time had come I was off to Spain. I did the same thing I did in Paris: had no clue where to go, didn’t speak the language, figured it all out as I went along. I was at Bubó for about two or three months and after that decided I wanted to experience a three Michelin star kitchen. Since I was already in Spain this meant either El Bulli or Lasarte with Martin Berasategui. I knew my style of pastry would fit the latter best, so I packed my things again, got on a bus to San Sebastian and went straight to the restaurant. I didn’t last very long though, they had me staying in a room with about nine other people and that just wasn’t really my thing … Off to Denmark! To Noma. It was there that I really learned how to incorporate savory into my desserts, and because of my extensive experience they would actually let me work the stations. I was even able to go on the boat where they did all their research, I absolutely loved it. Especially because this was the time when all of these places were still relatively small, so I would actually work with these chefs in their kitchens. At Noma for example I was one of just five interns, nowadays that is unthinkable. After my time ended in Denmark I did a little stint at In De Wulf in Belgium before finally heading back to the US. To three Michelin starred Manresa as their pastry chef. I knew this was the place I would fit in best, however I ended up staying for only a year. I would’ve stayed longer but I was just itching to open up my own place. I knew I was ready, I knew it was time.”
How did you the determine the style of your bakery?
“The Kouign-amman was always a specialty of mine, basically from the beginning of my pastry career. I saw it for the first time in New York and got so intrigued by it, because I had never seen anyone do this in the US. I wanted to learn and basically taught myself how to make it. For years and years I kept on perfecting the recipe – making it lighter, flakier, work on my folding – and I did. I actually ended up making it wherever I went. At In De Wulf I made it, at Noma I made it and everyone always seemed to love it. The beauty of teaching yourself something is that there are no rules, you can really make it your own and that’s how it became my signature. I knew this was going to be my one product that would make me stand out from the rest.”
Where did your business partner Michel Suas come in the picture?
“I knew I needed a partner. I’m not good with numbers, I can’t do all the HR and administrative stuff, I needed help. I went to Michel – who is the owner of the SF Baking Institute, one of the best bread and pasty schools around – and I asked him if he maybe knew of someone looking to invest. He asked: ‘What about me?’ I was in shock. I mean this is the man who helped so many bakeries all over the world set up shop – places like Tartine, LaBrea, Acme – this was the best scenario possible and on top of that our vision and philosophy were totally in line. I was over the moon. We wanted our bakery to be French in the sense that it’s all about the product, but we didn’t want it to be so sterile like a lot of the patisseries in Paris tend to be. We wanted people to walk in and immediately feel comfortable, not intimidated by the white gloved humans behind the vitrines. It had to be fun. I always stood out when I was at Pierre Hermé because while everyone else was very serious, I was always the one chatting, laughing and inviting people to do things. I wanted this to translate into my bakery. Plus, we’re casual in San Francisco, so stuffy just won’t do. We came up with a great concept involving an open kitchen – so people can actually see how much works goes into making pastries – and a warm and welcome vibe. That’s B. Patisserie. The ‘B’ is a little nod to France though. It’s very common to name your bakery after yourself and while I’ve always wanted to have my name on something, I didn’t want to use my full name, so, we went with my initial.”
What does the Leong family do?
“My parents are in Chinese food manufacturing. From dim sum to wontons to Chinese sausage, everything. So, very early on in my life I was already introduced to good food and the feeling that creating good food and sharing it with people can give you. It’s truly wonderful.”
How does your heritage play a part in you creations?
“Our most popular menu is our Chinese New Year menu. I’m full Chinese and we have all the Chinese desserts, just not in a traditional way. I use a lot of the Chinese ingredients like black sesame, matcha, mango, lychee, red bean and I incorporate all of those into our French style pastry menu, using French techniques. Our customer base is eighty percent Asian and I think this is because I don’t really eat that many desserts and therefore our pastries tend to be not overly sweet, it makes sense that this would cater to the Asian market. Actually our black sesame Kouign-amann is our most popular flavor, and we only make that twice a year.”
This may be a horrible question since you just said you don’t really enjoy sweets all that much, but being around all this goodness all the time, is there even a guilty food pleasure?
“I know I just said that, and this may sound crazy right now, but it is definitely a chocolate chip cookie. I eat at least a piece a day, every day. I love it.”
How do you feel about inventions like the cronut?
“It’s smart. It’s trendy, it’s gimmicky and I absolutely commend people trying new things. To me personally, it just seems so hard to be on the level of a Dominique Ansel right now, because from here on out all people will expect from you is the next cronut. That’s a lot of pressure. Especially considering the amount of bakeries out there these days, you constantly have to keep looking at what is setting you apart from everyone else.”
What do you think sets B. Patisserie apart and makes you so successful?
“We keep true to what we do. We’re not a trendy bakery, and I know it’s all about the Instagram nowadays, but honestly, we’re terrible at it. I’m not saying that it’s not helpful, but I sometimes just feel bad for taking a picture while my customers are looking at me. To me, my customers are what I care about most. As our daily volume is growing – we expanded across the street from our bakery and are opening a new location in South Korea in a few weeks – I just really keep my focus on consistency of quality. I don’t want to become too big. People want to see you, your customer wants to see you and they are the ones who pay your bills at the end of the day. Michel and I are still at the bakery almost every day, so I really get to make sure that whatever comes out of that oven is up to my standards. When you grow too big you won’t be able to do that. I truly love what I do – I’m one of the crazy ones – and I still have so much fun doing what I do every single day and I cherish that. And so does my staff. I really try hard to create a positive, happy, motivating environment for them. I’ve worked in some of the toughest kitchens in the world and I don’t want to run mine like that, because I know how I felt and I don’t want my employees to feel that way. Doesn’t mean I’m not strict or don’t raise my voice from time to time, but to me it’s so much more important to keep a positive, happy atmosphere and make sure people want to keep working for you. That’s why, when you walk into our bakery, you will hear us talking and laughing all day. I really want to keep it that way, not just for us but also for our clients. I think that’s what sets us apart.”
Speaking of tough kitchens, current climate and all, have you ever felt like you were treated differently as a female chef?
“I, myself, have never experienced any of that. I’ve been very fortunate. I can honestly say I have never been treated any differently from anyone else or have been approached by anyone in a way that wasn’t in line with what’s expected of a normal work environment.”
“Expansion to Korea first, which is very exciting and I really do so our staff can travel and train and learn. But, I’ve also recently started working on a new mochi donut concept. It’s something I was introduced to in Hawaii – where we have our other location – and it’s already all over Asia. They’re just so good! Like I said, I am not really a sweets person and neither is Michel, but when we were in Hawaii we just kept eating them and eating them. One day we looked at each other and said: ‘Okay, if we already like them this much, other people will love them.’ It’s basically a cross between a soft, glazed donut and a mochi. We just finished perfecting a recipe which is not too chewy and not too soft and will hopefully satisfy our entire client base. We’re now working on incorporating my pastry background and deciding on how we’re going to combine flavors. There will be a baklava mochi donut hole for instance, a Boston cream pie one and many more. It’s so much fun and because so many people love them, we really wanted to introduce them to the US market. You won’t be able to find them at our bakery though, it’s going to be a whole new concept on its own in a separate location in San Francisco. After that’s up and running some vacation time would be great. And ultimately, I’d really love to open a spot on the East Coast one day. It has always been a dream and I’d really love that.”
A visit to B. Patisserie when in San Francisco is an absolute must, and to see more drool worthy snaps in the meantime, take a peek at their Instagram. But before you do that, scroll down to find one of Chef Belinda’s favorite recipes for Chocolate Fudge Cake. Simple yet amazing!
CHOCOLATE FUDGE CAKEMarie-Thérèse Verbruggen Pastry chef extraordinaire and owner of B. Patisserie in San Francisco, Chef Belinda Leong is a baking force to be reckoned with. Born and raised in the Bay Area, Chef Belinda started building her impressive CV...
- 510g. all purpose flour
- 813g. granulated sugar
- 170g. cocoa powder
- 1 tb. + 1 tsp baking soda
- 1 1/2 tsp. baking powder
- 2 tsp. kosher salt
- 200g. whole eggs
- 1 cup brewed coffee
- 2 cups buttermilk
- 1 cup corn, canola or vegetable oil
- 1 tb. vanilla extract
- 120 g. Valrhona 66% Caraibe chocolate
- 80 g. heavy cream
For the chocolate cake: mix all the dry ingredients together in a mixing bowl with a paddle. In a separate bowl, mix all the wet ingredients with a whisk. Then slowly whisk the wet ingredients into the dry ingredients. pout the batter into a loaf pan and bake 350′ F for about 35-40 min. Set aside to cool.
Unmold and place on a cooling rack upside down
For the chocolate ganache: In a pot, bring the heavy cream to a boil and pour into the chocolate in 2 stages, emulsify in between stages. When it is shiny and emulsified, pour the ganache over the unmolded cake and scrape off the excess. Dust with cocoa powder and cut into slices.
Chef Belinda Leong