When I first met Chef Belinda Leong it was for this interview. It was a Friday morning at her Pacific Heights patisserie just off the corner of California and Divisadero Streets. I’d eaten there many times before, but was always in a rush, and never had the chance to stop and soak it all in, and perhaps catch the petite pastry proprietor herself. Like most mornings, the long line of impatient patrons eager to get their pastry-fix on, was out the door, and there wasn’t an empty seat in sight. b. patisserie has indeed “made it!”
How do I know? What makes me so sure this Paris-inspired neighborhood viennoiserie is here to stay? Because after the morning “drop offs” at the school around the corner, young mothers park their strollers and gossip over lattes and yuzu lemon tarts. Because unshaven hipsters code on their MacBook Airs and only pause their frantic tapping for a nibble of whatever seasonal quiche or fresh baked almond croissant capped with powdered sugar is closest. It’s a place where people come to sit and stay for awhile. And it’s also the kind of place where people stop in for a box of baked awesomeness before hosting a sunday brunch. It’s magical.
Off to the side and away from the hustle, I first closed my eyes and then my mouth…and then took a deep breath—a really deep breath. Immediately I was consumed by a wave of olfactory goodness. My nose could barley keep up with all the scents swerving through the air, jostling like a ping pong ball from the richness of bubbling butter, to the sweetness of sugary fruit jams folded into flaky doughs, and the toasty comfort of crackling crusts.
“Hi Philip,” Belinda said with a smile, “I’m gonna do some refills real quick, and then we can start.”
And for the next hour, Chef Leong welcomed me with open arms into her world of delicious wonders—arms, I should say, that dawn the faintest of battle scars like faded burns, each one a badge of honor earned at some of the most respected kitchens in the world.
While we rapped about the joys of baking and running a business, I watched her match blueberry macaron tops to bottoms, and stir fresh apricots on the stove while pulling hot scones out of the floor-to-ceiling oven with continuously spinning racks. She introduced me to her staff of artisans, many of which have followed her throughout her career, because they’re talented, have a passion for the old school tradition of French baking, and they love their multitasking ninja-of-a-boss.
But you want to know what was most amazing about my time with pastry chef Belinda Leong? Her genuine passion for what she does. It oozed out of her smile when she talked about her homemade granola with purple rice puffs, or when she talked about the delicate interplay between a pastry chef’s dedication to consistency and the limitless creativity of an artist.
It’s obvious she enjoys making these treats so she can watch people scarf them down with glee, like a painter reveling at a patron’s genuine joy and appreciation. She was happy to feed me and I happily obliged, because who says “no” to fresh-baked pastries right out of the oven—would you?
And here’s some of what we discussed:
Interview with Pastry Chef Belinda Leong of b. patisserie
EPJ: What was food like in your home growing up?
BL: I ate pretty much Chinese food all the time. I went to school in Chinatown and my parents have a manufacturing company that produces Chinese products (sausage/wontons, dim sum…). We had traditional Chinese dishes at the dinner table: steamed fish, sautéed vegetables, rice, steamed/sautéed meats with vegetables…
Some of the best almond croissants you’ll have in life.
EPJ: Opening up a restaurant is tough, but rumor has it bakeries are even harder and a lot of Chefs have a mentor (either in the culinary world or not) who they call for advice or just to commiserate with; who’s that person in your life and what do you typically talk about?
BL: I have 2 mentors- Gary Danko, chef of Restaurant Gary Danko and Michel Suas, President and Founder of the San Francisco Baking Institute (SFBI), who is also my business partner. I learned so much from Gary Danko in the nine years of working at the restaurant. Observing him in the BOH (back of the house) and FOH (front of the house) when the restaurant first opened, helps me every single day at the bakery. I will always think back to what he did and how he solved certain situations. I’ve learned from him how important service, discipline, and a strong work ethic are in running a restaurant. I learned the importance of knowing your customers needs and accommodating them. Gary Danko is also an encyclopedia of knowledge. My other mentor is Michel Suas. Before we became business partners, I would occasionally show up at SFBI with my pastries to hear his opinion, whether good or bad. Michel being French and in the bakery world, and my desire to create French pastries, are what brought us together in the business. I really respected his opinion and advice. I would call him about equipment and just to talk about pastries. Now that we are business partners, I call him all the time to talk about equipment, pastries and the business side of things. Michel is another encyclopedia of knowledge, but the French version.
The chocolate banana almond-croissants at b. patisserie are amazing! Moist and perfectly proportioned with almond paste to buttery flaky dough to chocolate. Could eat these all day!
EPJ: What’s something you don’t tolerate in your kitchen? (IE: what would get someone fired from b. patisserie)
BL: Besides stealing, being drunk or high, I don’t tolerate negative energy. I hate it. I love my career sooooo much, that if someone is negative and bringing negative energy to work—I’m not happy about that at all. b. patisserie is a happy and fun place, because I’m happy and hopefully everyone on my staff is happy. If someone is negative, it spreads to everyone else, like a wildfire, and that will show in the product and service, which are the 2 key things in running a successful business. So if the negativity goes on for a period of time, you’re out. Because that is something I cannot train, I can train technique and detail, but I can’t train your will.
Triple Chocolate pastry: Devil’s Food, Milk Chocolate Mousse, Chocolate Cheesecake, Almond Jaconde, Chocolate Ganache
EPJ: We haven’t had everything you make, but of what we’ve tried, your passion fruit bostocks are at the top of our list. What’s your favorite thing you make and why?
BL: Funny to say, but I like to make scones. I know, you’re probably thinking “a scone!?” Yep, the scones! We make all the scones by hand, and that’s because I’m so picky about my scones. They need to be fluffy and moist, yet crusty and not dry like your typical scone. I make them everyday and I still love to see them come out of the oven. There is a certain shape to them also, natural looking, yet with some height just to get the right amount of crust and fluffiness on the inside. We sell a lot of scones surprisingly! Until, Michel can come up with a machine that mimics my hands, we will always make them by hand. (note: Michel builds bakery equipment)
I believe that sometimes the simplest things are the hardest to make. All the fancy pastries that we make can be intimidating to the average person who may not know them. So, I believe that when they come into the shop and they see a scone, which is familiar, they will order it and enjoy it. If they like the scone, then they will hopefully trust our capabilities to make other things well too. So, the scones end up being a great introduction to b. patisserie and our pastries.
The blueberry lemon scones!
EPJ: What’s your second favorite thing you make?
BL: I like to make our granola because it is sooooooo good! I am really proud of it, because it is different. It is crunchy, yet airy, crispy and oaty. The purple wheat makes it special, but because I toss my hands in it while making it….there’s so much love in there.
A closeup of the infamous granola with purple wheat she has flown in to create the perfect texture. The granola at b. patisserie is light and crunchy. I’ve purchased a bag before, and pretty much pop it my mouth without the need for milk, or yogurt, or ice cream….though it would go perfectly well with any of those. We talked about this for quite a bit and it’s a recipe she’s been tweaking for years, until now….because it’s perfection!
EPJ: If you could meet anyone in the food world, dead or alive, who would that be and why?
EPJ: They—whoever they are—say baking is for people with a little OCD because baking is an exact science. Do you agree, and is that what draws you to it?
BL: Yes, I agree. I’m quite meticulous, for sure. When I first started at Aqua as the garde manger (pantry chef), Michael Mina would scream saying I needed more salt in my salad greens, and I thought in my head “exactly how much salt?” I do like to be exact, but now I do season with my own taste. I like to see something come out the same, if possible, all the time.
Basket of rustic baguettes
EPJ: You’ve worked at some fantastic restaurants in the Bay Area (Manresa and Gary Danko)….what’s one valuable lesson learned from working in someone else’s kitchen that you teach in your own, and who did you learn it from?
BL: I learned many valuable lessons on how to run my kitchen/patisserie from all the great chefs I worked with. Gary Danko taught me humility. You are never too good to do any job, whether it’s washing dishes, cleaning the bathrooms or steam cleaning the kitchen. I’ve learned to work very hard from watching Chef Danko. David Kinch (of Manresa fame) taught me discipline in the kitchen. Lessons like: no metal on the stainless tables without a towel, how to think outside the box when creating a dessert, and the importance of tweezers. René Redzepi—details on every dish, and on a whole other level.
Chocolate chip cookies have giant chocolate chunks and lots of butter so they’re soft and chewy on the inside with just the right amount of crunch at the edges. And to further tease out the flavors of the ingredients they’re sprinkled with a little sea salt.
EPJ: What’s your favorite movie of all time?
BL: Notebook…but please, don’t write this one, it’s just for yourself. I love chick flicks and sappy love story movies…and yes, of course I cry! (NOTE: she ended up approving our use of this answer when she realized it was honest and adorable)
EPJ: Paris seems to be teaming with fantastic pastries and baked goods. Even the most pedestrian of patisseries hidden on narrow cobblestone streets can turnout the most delicious products. Which is your favorite pastry shop in Paris and why?
BL: I love Pierre Herme and everything about it. I know people may say it is overrated, but I don’t care. He is the one who really started modernizing French pastry and I really respect that. I really respect those who do something different, because that’s really difficult, opposed to just making a copy of something great.
This is the chocolate kouign amann, which is to die for! The natural, or plain, kouign amann, are fantastic as well, but I have a soft spot for chocolate so I prefer these. These are similar to a croissant in the sense that the dough is supper flaky and layered with tons of butter, but it’s baked in a way that the sugars sort of pool in the center and develop a syrup of sorts so when you bite into them you experience a variety of sensations (crunchy, chewy, soft, gooey, wet, doughy, etc.) all at the same time. Depending on the season, they make these with fruit fillings as well.
EPJ: What languages do you speak and which is your favorite?
BL: I speak English and that is my favorite. Okay, I speak a little—very little—French, but I love French because it just sounds so romantic.
10 Hour Apple Tart: Which is a 10 hour apple confit covered with an almond streusel
EPJ: b. patisserie is in it’s second year of operation and has really solidified itself as a staple in the neighborhood. So what’s next? Where do you see yourself in 2019?
BL: I can’t tell you yet, because it’s in motion. Sorry!
Apricot and pistachio tart!
EPJ: You had a solid career in pastry from San Francisco, to New York, to Paris, to Barcelona and Copenhagen….why enroll in a class at the San Francisco Baking Institute upon your return to SF in 2005?
BL: I enrolled in a weeklong class in 2005, but that was actually before all the other work/stages I’ve done. But it doesn’t matter if I’ve done it before or after, baking is still the same to me, and SFBI is a great place to learn bread and pastry. It’s a beautiful school and you learn so much in just one week. I am not saying this because Michel Suas is my business partner either, I highly respect the program and I think if you want to learn about baking, bread especially, you go to SFBI.
Let’s not forget the savory treats they make too. This is the ham and cheese scone, with nice smokey pieces of thinly sliced ham (sort of like a bacon, but not that smoky) and cheese, with the same moist, and yet breakable with your hands, consistency as the sweet scones Chef Leong is so proud of.
EPJ: I think a lot of foodies think chefs cook savory and pastry chefs handle the desserts, do you like to cook? If so, what’s your go-to dish?
BL: I like to cook, but only at home. Cooking in a restaurant is too much pressure. I love to braise meat or barbeque ribs or a simple steak, but that’s all really.
Millefeuille (French for “thousand flowers”) and commonly called a Napoleon by New Jersey Jews, is a pastry of puff pastry layers with sweetened mascarpone inside.
EPJ: What’s your favorite restaurant experience of all time? It can be anywhere in the world.
BL: Noma, in Copenhagen was my favorite experience because it was in Copenhagen, Denmark…why? Because how many times are you actually going to be in Copenhagen, Denmark, at Noma?!
EPJ: Do you have brothers and sisters? If so, do any of them cook or bake? Or do they just enjoy your culinary creations like the rest of us?
BL: 1 Brother, 1 Sister, and yes, they just eat well. Opinionated with a great palate.
And for those of you missing a sweet tooth, there’s a selection of tartines available. These sandwiches are served open-faced with combinations like tomato, burrata, basil, red onion, balsamic and olive oil….
EPJ: When you were thinking of branching out on your own, you went the pop-up route, which is a great way to really connect with your fans and iron out the kinks in your recipes, and overall operations, etc. Do you still think pop-ups are a valuable way for aspiring chefs and restaurants to test the waters, or was it just a fad that (excuse the pun) popped-up and is now fading away?
BL: When I did my first pop up at Flour & Water, I don’t believe anyone had really done a pastry pop up, so it was a headliner. But now, I think a pop up is a great way to showcase your food when you don’t have a place of your own, but it’s almost sad to say that the word ‘pop up’ is like a fading trend…. Because there are so many pop ups now, that people are just thinking ‘oh, another pop up by this/that person’ and it gets muddled, because there are so many of them now. I think someone needs to change the name and do it differently in order to make a difference.
The grand macaron with rose mousseline and fresh raspberries
EPJ: Excuse us if we make you blush, but you’re in great shape for spending so much time with simple carbohydrates, butter and sugar all day…..what’s your secret to eating carbs and staying thin?
BL: I just taste, I never eat a whole pastry or dessert. I’m actually a savory girl when I want to eat. I love my meat, rice and a sprinkle of veggies.
The vanilla cassis cake with vanilla mascarpone, sablé breton, cassis ganache, chiffon cake and vanilla glacage.
EPJ: When you hear “gluten free” does it make you cringe, or do you welcome it as a challenge?
BL: Oh…this question….I’m sorry to say, but I have probably only 2-3 items that are gluten free. I’m really sorry to those who are gluten free, but I want to stick with making pastries with flour and dairy. I don’t want to spend my efforts in creating a product that is gluten free, when that isn’t my specialty. I would rather concentrate on expanding my product line for my customers. I believe that ‘gluten free people’ should just go to places that specialize in gluten-free products because it will probably be so much better than mine. I don’t want to compete with those who already make it well.