From Side Hustle to Global Empire
Belinda Leong’s pastry game shows no sign of slowingRachel Tepper Paley
January 10, 2019
The James Beard Foundation is committed to supporting women in the food and beverage industry, from chefs and restaurateurs to entrepreneurs dreaming up new ways to make our food system more diverse, delicious, and sustainable. Our Women’s Leadership Programs (WLP) presented by Audi, provide training at multiple stages of an individual’s career, from pitching your brand to developing a perspective and policy on human resources. As part of the Foundation’s commitment to advancing women in the industry, we’re sharing stories from female James Beard Award winners, Women’s Leadership Program alumni, and thought leaders pushing for change. Below, Rachel Tepper Paley examines the journey of James Beard Award winner Belinda Leong from culinary school student to queen of the kouign-amann on multiple continents.
It’s difficult to fully describe the popularity of the delicate kouign-amann at b. Patisserie, the San Francisco bakery co-owned by James Beard Award–winning pastry chef Belinda Leong. The pastries are flaky, with layers of buttery dough crisped to sugary perfection, and Leong sells nearly 1,000 of them a day.
“I just discovered it at a bakery and I'd never seen it before,” Leong recalled of her long-ago introduction to her now-signature dessert. At the time, she was halfway through her nine years working at Gary Danko, the pioneering modern American restaurant in San Francisco. She’d entered the kitchen as a generalist, but found herself moonlighting in the pastry department. “I just realized I liked pastry a lot more, so I stayed,” Leong said. During her free time, she starting tinkering with kouign-amann.
“I have been making it for almost 12 years now!” she marveled. One theory for its success? “Ours is very different because I didn't know much about lamination”— it wasn’t required much in the Gary Danko pastry department—”so I didn't have any rules.”
The no-rules approach has come to define much of Leong’s career. As the San Francisco–born daughter of Chinese sausage manufacturing plant owners, food was always a major part of Leong’s life. She pursued it professionally, nabbing a culinary arts degree at City College of San Francisco and putting in nearly a decade at Gary Danko. Wanting to improve her baking skills, she staged at several restaurants and attended classes at the San Francisco Baking Institute, but yearned for more real-world pastry experience.
“I just packed my bags and decided to go to France and Spain,” she said. So began two years of ping-ponging around Europe, including a stint in Copenhagen at the world-famous modernist restaurant Noma. “That was my first time having an experience in a bakery,” she said. “That was my dream.”
But once achieved, Leong soon became fixated on another ambition: “I've always wanted a shop that had my name on it,” she recalled. But the timing wasn’t right—Leong felt she still had more to learn. So she took a job for a year as a pastry chef at Manresa, James Beard Award winner David Kinch's esteemed eatery in Los Gatos, California.
“During the time I was still in Manresa, I was like, ‘I don't want to just open a bakery. I want to get a following and see how people like my pastries,” Leong said. “That's when I started doing pop-ups.”
One job in the restaurant industry is hard enough, but Leong started working two. She’d put in 60 to 70 hours a week at Manresa, and in her meager spare time, would whip up massive batches of her own pastry creations to sell in local cafes. A modest wholesale business soon developed, which she ran out of a corner of her father’s factory.
It wasn’t a particularly restful period of her life. “I would do my shift at Manresa from like 11:00 A.M. to 1:00 A.M. Then from 1:00 A.M., I would drive [to my dad’s factory] and do my wholesale and delivery from 2:00 A.M. to 6:00 A.M. I would get back home at like 7:30 A.M., and then I would sleep for like two hours and go back to Manresa,” she recounted. “It was really exhausting.”
After that, Leong finally felt ready to move forward with her bakery. She teamed up with Michel Suas, her former instructor at the San Francisco Baking Institute, to help her navigate the pitfalls of opening up a commercial bakery. Now was time to put the pastry menu she had long dreamed of into action, crammed with delights like chocolate–caramel mousse, macarons, mascarpone cake, and, of course, those ever-popular kouign-amann.
And with that, b. Patisserie was born. B on the go, Leong and Suas’ sandwiches and snack spinoff, joined two years later. An outpost of b. Patisserie in Hawaii followed in 2016, and another in Seoul, Korea, in 2018. On the horizon? Mochi Mochi, a mochi-focused doughnut shop, and Routier, a French-inspired full-service restaurant with food by former Manresa chef John Paul Carmona, both launching in San Francisco sometime next year. There’s talk, too, about opening more b. Patisseries, perhaps in Chicago and somewhere on the East Coast.
Leong attributes much of her company’s success to the supportive work culture she and Suas have cultivated. There’s hardly any turnover—nearly unheard of in the restaurant industry—and employees are encouraged to move around within the company and learn new skills. Leong and Suas also regularly treat their employees to high-end meals around San Francisco to inspire them.
“I've worked in kitchens where you get screamed at, or where it's very quiet and no one's talking,” Leong said. “But I don't want to be in that environment all day every day for the rest of my life.”
The kitchen culture at b. Patisserie—lots of laughing, music playing, no uniforms—also translates to the pastry, Leong continued. “The vision of the bakery was very approachable, yet refined,” she said.
Having a team she can depend on goes a long way, Leong concluded. Despite having more restaurants to oversee than ever, the days when everything landed squarely on her shoulders—and she was getting by on a mere two hours of sleep—are mercifully over. “The team takes care of the shop, so I go in from 9 to 6 now,” she said.
Is it nice sleeping more now, one wonders? “Oh, for sure,” Leong laughed.
Rachel Tepper Paley is a writer and editor based in New York City. Her work has appeared in food and travel publications including Bon Appétit, Bloomberg Pursuits, Eater, Travel + Leisure, Conde Nast Traveler, and more. Follow her on Instagram at @thepumpernickel.
The JBF Women’s Leadership Programs are presented by Audi.