Steven Cheung takes the exit at Kettleman City, a dusty town with an In-N-Out Burger and the proverbial halfway point between Los Angeles and San Francisco on Interstate 5. He pulls over to rest here on his weekly drive between the two California cities — each serves as a base for his burgeoning home pastry business. Cheung makes his regular commute armed with podcasts and scheduled phone calls, like the one he had with Eater, to help keep him occupied during the often dreary six-hour drive. This trip, while seeming routine, is notable: Cheung might be the only chef commuting weekly between Los Angeles and San Francisco for his popular bakery, Spoons Patisserie, which focuses on Asian-inspired egg tarts, cookies, and pastries all baked in apartments in Westwood and the Bay Area’s Visitacion Valley.
The fine dining veteran has had to adapt to this reality in the past year after leaving his position as an executive pastry chef. Instead of commercial ovens and a team of pastry cooks, it’s just him, manning a single oven at each apartment. But prospective dessert sellers will find it easy to place an order once they take a look at his Instagram account, where they will see photos Cheung takes himself of his colorful, fastidiously shaped pastries. As Cheung has found, beautiful photos can be one key to unlocking a successful online food business. “I like taking orders on Instagram because it helps me create a bond with my customers,” says Cheung, who will often extend order placement to long chats about work, family, life, and anything else as a way of connecting with other pastry lovers.
Cheung hails from the Bay Area and trained at the Hong Kong Culinary Academy before working at high-end resorts and even creating the pastry department at Stanford University. His father was a 15-year kitchen veteran of San Francisco’s iconic Yank Sing dim sum restaurant, and he often brought home egg tarts to share with the family. The younger Cheung named Spoons Patisserie as an homage to the spoons he’s collected from across the world during his travels, opening it as a home-based, cottage-industry business in May 2020 after he was furloughed from his job at a catering company.
His experience is visible in the detailed, intricate desserts depicted on Instagram. White paper boxes reveal symmetrical egg tarts in deep purple, faint yellow, earthen green, and porcelain white. The product of the Portuguese colonization of Macau and British occupancy of Hong Kong, egg tarts almost always come in a traditional custard flavor, thanks to their origins in French pastry. But the delectable treats became the spiritual and gustatory property of southern China in the 20th century, showing up in Hong Kong windows and following the Cantonese diaspora of the Pacific Rim to cities like Vancouver, San Francisco, and Los Angeles.
Cheung grew up loving these tarts, also called dan tat, but wondered why no one had tried experimenting with their flavor. He makes the classic custard, but he also uses ube for the gorgeous royal purple, Japanese matcha for the brilliant green, and, surprisingly, almond jello for the ivory white. “It was a way to use all of the extra egg whites I had,” Cheung says of the familiar Cantonese almond jello dessert. In recent weeks, he’s even been making durian egg tarts at his San Francisco bakery, using the fragrant Southeast Asian fruit that garners a strong reaction of either passion or extreme aversion due to its heady aroma.
It seems miraculous that Cheung can consistently make tender tarts with crumbly, buttery crusts in a home oven, but he says all he needs is a careful eye and an oven thermometer. Down in Westwood, where he travels in order to spend the weekdays with his partner (a graduate school student at UCLA), the oven is even less sophisticated: a vintage gas stove that has just one knob that doesn’t even show the correct temperature. The size of the oven limits his production to just six dozen egg tarts a day, and he spends the remainder of the week baking caneles, matcha chocolate cookies, ube alfajores, and hojicha financiers.
The operation culminates each week with scheduled pickups in Westwood, something his neighbors have certainly noticed. “Sometimes my neighbors will wonder why there are so many cars pulling up in the middle of the afternoon. Then they’ll knock on my door to see if there are any pastries left that they can buy,” Cheung says. All the preorders happen on Instagram, with dozens of boxes sold out for weeks in advance. “I have people driving many hours — sometimes all the way from Orange County — to get the desserts,” he says. He thinks his customers are willing to make the drive and pay not insubstantial prices ($50 for a dozen egg tarts and up to $55 for the gold leaf-laced almond jello tarts) because he’s focused on using Asian ingredients and flavors. The desserts also have a not-too-sweet taste that Asian palates tend to prefer Those who miss out on the chance to preorder can check Instagram for last-minute sales on sampler boxes, which go for $40 and include a bit of everything he’s baked during the week.
Cheung credits his Instagram account, with just over 9,000 followers, as well as an early report in SF Gate for his early success. His business is stronger in the Bay Area, probably due to the city’s longstanding love of egg tarts, but sales are still substantial here in Los Angeles, which is why he volleys between the two. The money is enough that he’s not thinking about taking a corporate job again, especially with his most recent position as a catering chef not likely to return anytime soon.
Cheung’s goal, however, is to fund true dessert destinations in Los Angeles and San Francisco. That would involve a lot of investment and physical locations, but if he sustains his success, it’s hard not to see the enthusiastic following for his pastries making actual stores possible. In his wildest dreams, the open-to-the-public patisseries would serve baked goods and drinks in the mornings, then convert to something much more ambitious in the evenings. “I would love to have a tasting menu where people could come after their dinner and experience a whole parade of desserts,” Cheung says.
Until then, the best bet for sugar lovers is to reserve a box of Cheung’s colorful egg tarts and boast about nabbing them on social media.
At the moment, all preorders have been filled, which means the best chance to get a sampler box is to look at Cheung’s Instagram for flash sales. Otherwise, Spoons Patisserie’s website has a running waitlist.