This is part two of “Baking Connections,” a series on three local bakers and the incredibly popular baked goods with Asian flavors they are bringing to the D.C. region.
Three local bakers have been feeding the D.C. area’s appetite for pastries with an Asian flair, mirroring a nationwide hunger for innovative baked goods that range from strawberry lychee rose doughnuts to black sesame croissants.
Despite drawing similar culinary inspirations from Far East flavors mixed with classic French pastry techniques, these successful pastry chefs have crafted unique paths to each perfect their signature baking style. And in the past year they have also expanded beyond their small, shared kitchens or home stoves.
Fake it ’til you make it
Rosie Nguyen, a former nurse, opened her own stand-alone cafe, Rose Ave Bakery, in Woodley Park in June, after operating out of a food hall called The Block in D.C. since March 2020.
For several years, while still pursuing her nursing career, she worked part-time at Maketto, a Pan-Asian restaurant and cafe on H Street. When Maketto’s chef, Erik Bruner-Yang, asked Nguyen to help lead his pastry department, she was overwhelmed by the sudden promotion and “had to fill in the gaps of knowledge” needed to create a brand-new pastry program, she said.
“Inside I was like, ‘How am I going to do this? I have no experience. I don’t know how. I’m not a chef,'” she remembers.
She learned how to “fake it ’til you make it,” Nguyen said.
Arturo Mei, The Block’s creator, encouraged the new chef to do a pop-up at his food hall in Annandale, Virginia, and to create her own brand.
“He kind of forced me to come up with a concept because I wasn’t really thinking of anything at the moment. And I was like, ‘Alright, I’ll do it,'” she said. “And then he was like, ‘Alright, well, I’m opening a food hall in D.C. Do you want your own stall?'”
Nguyen said her motto is to “never say no to an opportunity,” so she accepted Mei’s offer and opened her own food stall in The Block with a three-person team.
After putting in a lot of hard work and setting up safe, scheduled pastry pickups during the pandemic, Nguyen had a cult following at her location in The Block.
“It kept me going because the people that came almost every single week, they would email and message and say, ‘This is the highlight of this pandemic, of being alone,'” she recalled. “They would walk, and pick up, and have this moment of happiness during a very bleak time.”
Nguyen was proud of the “mental health impact” of her pastries, but also upset with how often she was selling out.
“It makes people frustrated, and I don’t like customers being frustrated,” Nguyen explained. “I just can’t keep up, it was me at first and then a few other people. … But it grew; it went from zero to 100.”
Transitioning from The Block to her own space was no cake walk, especially when she encountered operational issues that delayed a health inspection and the grand opening until two months after she had closed her food hall location.
“It was extreme. We were desperate and we’re like, ‘Oh my God. It’s been two months,'” she said. “We finally pass inspection on a Monday. I got everything in on Tuesday. And we open for drinks Wednesday.”
That frenzy to open and produce new, inventive pastries each week has not slowed down for Nguyen, who — even months after opening her brick-and-mortar cafe — said she’s always striving to do better.
“It’s always been one step at a time, and I think that this place could be better,” Nguyen said. “And I’m working as hard as I can to make sure it is. … At the end of the day, that bite should heighten your senses. It should take you somewhere. … and that’s what drives me.”
Commitment to the craft
Yuri and Jason Oberbillig also built up a fan base after they first opened SakuSaku Flakerie in a tiny storefront in Cleveland Park in 2020.
Yuri became famous in the neighborhood for her perfectly crunchy Kouign-amanns (muffin-shaped pastries with a buttery-soft center), miso chocolate chip cookies and kurimpan custard puffs.
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Jason remembers seeing firsthand how committed his wife was to her craft at the couple’s first location. Yuri only had access to one small, shared oven at the restaurant, so she was usually switching out her pastries in the oven for five hours a day.
“She’s very modest. I really didn’t understand how difficult her job was with the oven,” Jason recounted. “I mean, they made basic breads in it but at the scale she was making, the quality consistent with what she was making … how tough that was.”
Yuri recalls feeling pressure to expand from the Cleveland Park neighborhood but not wanting to leave behind the devoted fans that lined up outside her small storefront every day.
“I think we really appreciate how neighborhood people like us,” Yuri gushed. “Almost every day, like ‘Don’t leave. Don’t leave. You have to stay here.’ We hear these words every day. So that really motivates us to become a better bakery.”
That led the Oberbilligs to open a location with a full commercial kitchen in nearby Tenleytown in February of this year so they could continue to sell pastries at their storefront in Cleveland Park and a small cafe in the National Building Museum.
But keeping up with two new storefronts and a growing clientele can be demanding. The couple still struggles to hire dedicated staff that can support their rapid expansion. Yuri said she’s currently baking all day and running the couple’s main shop, while Jason shuttles pastries and checks in on each of their locations.
Finding community at farmers markets
Instead of relying on brick-and-mortar locations, Shurou Pu took a completely different approach when she created Toimoi bakery more than three years ago.
At first, Pu was producing croissants and cakes in her own kitchen at home and only selling at one farmers market in Fairfax County, Virginia.
“I’m a one-person operation. My business all depended on me for everything: the baking process and selling,” she said. “So everything, I’ve been doing that by myself, with some help from my husband for over two years.”
And because everything had to be fresh at the market, Pu was baking it all within a “labor-intense” period of three days. She’d start prepping her pastries on Friday and work at farmers markets while also baking fresh pastries early in the morning through the weekend.
At some point, it became evident that she had to scale up her operation, especially with lines starting to form outside her stands in Arlington and Mosaic District before the farmers market opened at 9 a.m. and selling out of her most popular products within a few hours.
By the end of 2022, Pu finally moved into a commercial kitchen space in Chantilly and announced just last month that she’s opening up the space on weekends as a permanent bakery location.
She was finally able to hire more people part-time this past year to help produce pastries during her intense three-day workweek. Her stands are now a fixture at three weekend markets in Virginia during the height of summer, and can also be found at pop-up events throughout the D.C. region.
She has found a real niche at the farmers markets in Northern Virginia, she said, allowing her to be a part of the community and seamlessly fit into customers’ weekend shopping errands.
“People underestimated how much you can do with a farmers market, especially if I do one that has consistent customers coming,” Pu explained. “That is why we think we should stay at the farmers market, even though we have a location.”
These entrepreneurs, Rosie Nguyen, Yuri and Jason Oberbillig and Shurou Pu, are still experiencing some growing pains. They have hired on more help and are investing in larger spaces, but they are also all excited for what comes next.
Check back for part three of “Baking Connections,” where Nguyen, the Oberbilligs and Pu reveal what’s next for their growing businesses and fans.