It’s impossible to find a morning parking spot in the steep hills of the city. We zigzag in and out, finally landing a place just off Clay Street and Divisadero. The morning is cool and crisp on our cheeks — it’s summer in San Francisco.
There’s a line that starts from the inside of a quaint European-style cafe. It moves onto the sidewalk and curves around the corner. We watch as eager, pastry-purchasing customers squeeze their way in. The Friday energy is high and people talk with passion on their phones or to each other, waving their arms and their fresh baguettes so fast that we can’t distinguish one from the other.
Candice, the manager, has dewy skin and black-rimmed glasses. She brings us in for a hug and hands us two lattes. The frothy milk is sweet and soft as it touches our lips — the rich dark roast from underneath, calming.
There’s a halo of soft light streaming in from the window that lands on a small bouquet of fresh purple and yellow flowers that sit atop the table Candice has saved for us. There are simple yellow chairs, like those you may envision from a Pinterest board photo on a cobblestone pathway outside a Parisian café.
She waves the owners over. Belinda has a subdued intensity as she walks. She’s wearing an impeccably clean pinstripe apron with short black hair that frames her face. And Michel — cool and sophisticated — in a violet sweater that matches the flowers on the table.
The story of b. patisserie reads somewhat like fiction. Michel Suas is a world-renowned pastry chef from France who at 21, was named head pastry chef at the three-star Michelin award-winning Restaurant Barrier. He moved to the Bay Area and founded the San Francisco Baking Institute in 1996 where he met Belinda Leong, his student. Their meeting, as they say, was one of destiny — the kind which later led to their partnership in b.patisserie after her time spent as pastry chef at Gary Danko and Manresa.
As we chat, their energy is genuine and familiar, and wraps around us like warm milk or honey.
Then the ever-flowing flood of pastries begins.
There’s the vanilla cassis cake with vanilla mascarpone, sablé breton, cassis ganache, and soft chiffon cake — the almond croissant topped with slivered almonds and dusted with powdered sugar and cocoa powder — the elegant verrine, with its layers of raspberry, peach, and custard served a small glass cup.
A dish Belinda learned from her mother.
And then there’s the legendary Kouign-amann, a round crusty cake that contains layers of sugar and butter folded in. There’s a chocolate one and a plain one — somewhat similar to a croissant, but denser as they fill our mouths. They originated in Brittany, France and the name (which actually is Breton, a Celtic language) translates to “butter cake.”
Later on, in the kitchen, we watch as Belinda prepares these cakes, her fingers moving with fierce devotion as she puts them in the oven, takes them out, puts them in, takes them out. We feel the heat permeating off the metal tins as the treats move from one station to the next. Flour clouds the hot air in patches, floating through the tiny space and resting on the backs of the crew’s hands and on top of their heads like fairy dust.
We find there is a lovingly constructed mood inside Belinda Leong’s pastries that closely resembles her personality. Each pastry has an extraordinary sense of story – with layers of sweetness and a subtle complexity of purpose. They are romantically intense, emotionally driven, like a great short story that takes you through the colors of a character's life.
Belinda’s pastries, like the power of only the best food, make the eater take a break from the rest of the world.
And as we hug her goodbye, the line of people moving out the door still, the chattering, the puff pastry on their mouths, the children making the most important decision of their day — what treat to choose — we’re certain, there’s no type of hard work quite like meticulous, detail-oriented, early-morning bakery work.
To learn more about b. patisserie visit their website or check them out on Instagram. Big thanks to Michel, Belinda, Candice, and the entire team for bringing us into your world of legendary pastries (and congrats on your 2018 James Beard Award for Outstanding Baker).
2821 California St, San Francisco, CA 94115
This article is adapted from our book in progress - Culinary Pilgrimage: 100 Day Journey Around America. When published, a percentage of the book will go towards helping end hunger nationwide.