Why are you a baker?
There is an old Chinese saying, everybody works to get the food in the house. Food is the number one thing people care about, and you realize that when you don’t have anything to eat. We might not get paid like other businesses, but baking is rewarding.
Back in Hong Kong, the cheapest thing to fill your tummy was a piece of soft bread. Any good piece of bread will do. That’s still ingrained in me, that I’m doing something that most people will appreciate. Also, it’s like a science to me. I majored in electrical engineering in college; I think of and approach formulas in a scientific way.
My family moved to the U.S. from Hong Kong in 1981. My father was hired as a head baker at a local Chicago Chinese bakery. We often traveled back to Hong Kong, and I learned baking as a hobby. Hanging around my dad’s old friends’ bakeries, I learned from master bakers. In my late 20’s I got interested in pastry making; that’s when I went to the French Pastry School and learned classic techniques.
What sets your style apart from other bakers?
I have that Asian technique. Most Asian pastry chefs and bakers are pretty proud of our handskill, and I am the same. We can do really wonderful things with our hands.
What drove you to try out for the baking team, and how do you balance practice time and running a retail bakery?
Back in 1996, I started to think of leaving the family baking business and doing something on my own. I read in Modern Baking that Craig Ponsford won the Coupe du Monde de la Boulangerie baguette category in 1996 and that woke me up. Then in 1999, the American team won the whole cup. My dad always asked me, “can you be the best?” Now here’s a way to prove you’re the best. If I want to be doing this as a career, I might as well be the best at it.
But I also realized there are pastry chefs that want to be famous who devote all their time to practice. That doesn’t seem practical to me. People appreciate a good piece of bread, that’s what we should be practicing instead of spending time producing very little.
It’s like a scale, I have to balance it really gingerly on either end.
What are America’s chances in the Coupe du Monde de la Boulangerie?
We have a good chance to finish in the top five; I’d like to say top three. I talked to Solvieg [Tofte, teammate] just yesterday. We don’t have a theme yet, and it isn’t announced until the competition starts, so it’s hardest for the showpiece person [Dara Reimers, teammate].
If you had to be doing something other than baking, what would it be?
I would be an architect. I love drawing, I love creating, I love the math part of it and I love the shapes of buildings. I would put my creativity in that kind of area. I think practically, and besides food, people need a roof over their head.
What was the last movie you saw at a theater?
Bourne Ultimatum, it’s an action flick. I like those spy movies with all the action. I saw the whole trilogy, and I already own it. I got it on the first day a few weeks ago, and I’ve watched it three times. I just leave it running while I am working. The noise and music are kind of fun and keep you going.
What are your plans for you and your bakery after the Coupe?
I’d like to do a little consulting and share what I know about the Asian baker. Hopefully, people know that the Asian baker has a good technique. My target client would be coffee shops and coffee roasters that want to add the pastry element to their shop. I think they have an unbeatable combination, and have a big advantage on the true bakery. I’m trying to get them to see that we could mutually benefit.