Joyce Tang describes her first bakery concept as “a contemporary approach to French-style patisserie lovingly infused with a dose of Asian Americana.” Opened in 2016, La Chinoiserie was a solo project. “It was primarily a wholesale business, with weddings and birthdays mixed in,” Tang says.
After quitting her job in tech, she started the bakery from scratch, implementing techniques she had learned in cooking school. It became a full-time job and a one-woman show. “I would bake everything on my own and deliver to a handful of coffee shops each weekend,” she says.
Bake Sum is her new venture in baking, with a major difference. The mashup of French patisserie and Asian American flavors remains. In this incarnation though, she has four partners. They not only get to express themselves in pastry creations; they’re also standing by to help sweep up all those particles of wayward flour dust. The business model has also shifted to retail sales. Customers pre-order a box of pastries, a tart, cookies or mochi bites and then pick up the items on the weekend.
A bakery’s interior decor might not indicate precisely how a croissant will taste, but it does provide hungry customers with a sense of the owner’s culinary aesthetic. The parking lot where customers line up to collect their Bake Sum goods is an unglamorous plot of worn-out asphalt. Once I had the box in my hands, I easily imagined the brick-and-mortar shop Tang says she’s scouting around town for. The price of Bay Area real estate is a prohibitively expensive obstacle. “We would have to sell a lot more pastries to make it happen,” she says. Tang doesn’t think it’s an impossible goal, but she believes the business model will need to change in order to make a storefront work.
There has been an upside to opening Bake Sum during the pandemic. “Folks have been really accommodating and pretty okay with the fact that they’re not getting all the bells and whistles,” Tang says. “It’s making it easier for people like me to start up with fewer resources than you normally might need to start a bakery.”
Bake Sum might have opened with fewer financial resources, but the imaginative ones are unlimited. The pastry menu often changes from one week to the next. My sweet tooth was especially delighted with the flawless texture of an almond cake, the tender center of which was encased in a slight veil of crunch. I’m also partial to lemon desserts. Before Tang confirmed the ingredient for me, I guessed correctly that the curd inside of a croissant was flavored with yuzu. Later, when I read the menu, the croissant was described as being akin to a “lemon meringue pie but even more fragrant.” That croissant was a clever and compact way to update and elevate a familiar dessert.
One box is enough to feed someone who hasn’t eaten in a day, or a family of four. Two savory pastries were inspired by a Japanese pancake (okonomiyaki) and Spam Musubi, a Hawaiian street snack. A purple milk-bun containing an ube coconut custard tasted both sweet and starchy, just as a jewel-colored yam should. And to punctuate the meal, which felt like a morning picnic, I received four different-flavored mochi bites that resembled miniature muffins.
Tang says these variations come from the team’s approach. Explaining their “not terribly scientific” process, she says that, “We’ll try a new flavor, give it a couple of iterations to pass the test.” If it isn’t working, they ditch it. But if everyone thinks it tastes amazing, those items make it to the marketplace. “We do a lot of experimentation,” she says. There was a chocolate babka on the menu that took a few tries before they got the shape and filling right. “But when the team tastes something and everyone can’t stop eating it, that’s when we know it’s ready to go.”
Check out the Bake Sum website this week for the red bean bun, the combined Lunar New Year and Valentine’s Day special. Red beans, according to the site, symbolize love and fidelity.
Bake Sum, open for pickup Friday and Saturday 11am–1pm at the Bread Project parking lot at 1615 University Ave., Berkeley. 415.506.9298. bakesum.com.