When you push open the doors of b. Patisserie, the first thing you see is a glass display case filled with rows and rows of pastries, tarts, breads, cookies, and more. It's easy to get distracted by the golden, flaky croissants, or the chocolate chip cookies so fresh that the chocolate chunks on top are still moist. Children and adults alike are caught with their noses pressed up against the glass. When the spell is broken momentarily by a baker or server asking for your order, you glimpse up for the first time and see the source of all of the magic.
“[An open kitchen] makes the atmosphere more fun,” explains chef and co-owner, Belinda Leong. “There’s a lot of detail and time that goes into pastries and I think it’s good to expose that to people for them to see.”
Just behind the cases of delicious, homemade treats are rows of mixers, whisks, huge ovens and refrigerators. The first time I visited this popular San Francisco bakery, Chef Leong herself was covered in flour, eyebrows furrowed in concentration over a huge bowl wrestling the batter inside of it. The design of the bakery is wide open so that the glass cases holding the final products are the only thing that block the customers from being right inside the kitchen where the action happens. As a customer, you feel involved in the process. While enjoying a latte or biting into a fresh flaky banana bread chocolate croissant, you can see Chef Leong and her team working hard to achieve butter perfection.
The story of the open floor plan is one involving years of dedication to a craft, and the desire to make delicious pastries accessible to everyone. Over 10 years ago, Chef Leong worked at a prestigious San Fransisco restaurant called Gary Danko for 8 long years, learning the trade and experiencing how high end restaurants operate. After her time at the restaurant, she moved to Europe where she held positions at highly esteemed patisseries in Copenhagen, Barcelona and Paris. These years abroad were the turning point in her thoughts and ideas about the process of creating pastries. In Paris, the best pastry shops were unapproachable, unwelcoming to onlookers or casual customers. They were places of high society and the chefs slaving over the croissants were hidden away in the back kitchens. Leong felt that pastries shouldn't be so exclusive. It was the first seed that planted itself in the back of her mind. If she were to run a pastry shop one day, it would be different. It would be welcoming to anyone, even the pastry window shoppers.
After a few years in Europe, Leong made her way back to the Bay Area and worked for Manresa, a two star Michelin Restaurant before finally taking the plunge an opening her own pastry shop, b.Patisserie with her partner, Michel Suas.
Suas, a highly respected pastry chef, is the author of Advanced Bread & Pastry and founder of the San Fransisco Baking Institute. In 2005, Leong took a class at the Institute, meeting Suas for the first time. Little did they know that years later they'd launch a bakery together.
“I would go to him from time to time and just ask him stuff, and he helped a lot of bakeries around the country to set up. And so when I wanted to open a bakery, I approached him and we became business partners,” Leong said.
Suas has advised bakery owners around the country and is well-versed in the business side, as well as the creative side, of pastry production.
“He brings his skills and I bring mine, it’s a great partnership of our experience. For him it’s like forty years of experience and for me, it’s almost forty years [as well],” Leong says thoughtfully. We sit at a table near the front of the cafe and she watches customers come in, their faces lighting up at the site of piles and piles of croissants.
When Leong and Suas began planning the launch of b.Patisserie, they shared the same vision of creating a shop that was warm and welcoming (unlike the experience Leong had in Paris) without sacrificing pastry quality.
“I think [the best part about owning a bakery is] creating pastries and baked goods and watching people enjoy them and come all the time. Especially because it’s open kitchen so we can see the regulars come in," she says, smiling.
Leong creates all of the recipes for the bakery and then executes them with her team. A lot of her staff have been at the bakery since the beginning and have learned Leong’s style and preferences. They work with her to create some of the best pastries in the country.
“Inspiration for my recipes, well, it just depends how I feel. It depends on my mood. Like today I might be able to write something down and draw it out. I start on paper, I draw it out and give the composition to my staff and they put it together," Leong says, "It’s in my mind and I draw it out for them to make it.”
All of the bakers that Leong hires are well equipped with knowledge on composition, flavor and pastry experience. So even though Leong drives the creative production, her team is an integral part in making each recipe perfect and bringing new ideas to the discussions.
“Inspiration can be anything. You could be walking down the street and then see a flavor, or even a color, you know it just happens,” Leong explains.
Leong and her team bring out a few plates of pastries for me to try. They watched with curious, expectant eyes as I bit into the Kouign Amann, their specialty. This one was filled with Strawberry Guava jam. It was crispy on the outside, buttery and flaky on the inside and had just the right amount of sweet jam with each bite.
“Strawberry guava, oh my god, you know I just thought of it because of Caprisuns!” smiles Leong. “Those flavors are very approachable, people remember them. It’s a childhood favorite. I like things that you can relate to.”
Leong’s skill to create unexpected but recognizable flavor combinations and pastry compositions is unparalleled. She wants her customers to have the very best. Yet, even though she tries the batches to make sure the pastries are turning out well, keeping up with her high expectations, this renowned chef doesn't actually enjoy any of her own sweets. She claims that she doesn't have a sweet tooth, she simply loves the art of pastry making even though pastries aren't her favorite food. In fact, her favorite thing on the menu is actually their house granola.
“One of my proudest items that we make, a recipe I’ve created, is the granola. The granola is like a party in your mouth of textures. It's a whole combination of things. It’s different,” she says.
Dedication to pastries, to showing the process, to bringing people together over coffee and a pastry - these are all what drive Leong and Saus. And you can see it each day, when you walk inside b.Patisserie and see Leong and her team twirling up flour, throwing dough and experimenting with the next flavor of the month.