Sometime during the early aughts of Jennifer Yee’s professional baking career, a French chef made a passing remark that left a lasting impression. It was during a casual conversation about the growing popularity of plant-based fare, and the chef stated definitively that vegan viennoiserie was an impossibility. Butter is considered to be the backbone of viennoiserie, a line of yeast-leavened, fat-laden pastries that includes croissants, brioche, and kouign amanns, so baking without this essential ingredient seemed nothing short of absurd to him. “That challenge was always in the back of my head. Just trying to crack the code,” Yee says. “I was like, ‘Don’t tell me that, because I’ll do it. Watch me.’” After a decade of honing her pastry skills in some of the most rigorous kitchens on both coasts and musing about butterless croissants along the way, Yee is finally ready to chart her own path. When Bakers Bench opens at Far East Plaza in Chinatown on June 4, its display cases will be filled with golden, flaky vegan viennoiserie.
The bakery, named in honor of the nucleus of the pastry kitchen, operates from a 5-by-10-foot kiosk located in the breezeway of one of Chinatown’s busiest plazas. Though Yee initially envisioned a fully decked out brick-and-mortar complete with espresso machine, blast freezer, and deck oven for her first bakery, she scaled back after considering the hard costs. “I realized as I got closer to this that I didn’t want a business partner, and I didn’t want investors,” she says. Yee was adamant about doing things on her own terms at Bakers Bench after witnessing a number of difficult restaurant closures that resulted from soured business partnerships. “I don’t want to bring anyone down with me, so I’m gonna do this alone,” she says. “It’s a big risk, but this is the most responsible thing I can do to mitigate risk. If I close this and it doesn’t work, then it’s just me, and it’s fine. I can walk away.”
Yee often dreamed of leaving the “boring suburb” of Monterey Park as a teenager. After graduating from Mark Keppel High School, she attended the Culinary Institute of America in the Napa Valley before darting off to New York City for jobs at Gilt and then Jean-Georges. But after three and half years of living on a cook’s wage in the most expensive city in America and enduring punishing winters that tested her morale, Yee returned to the warmer climes of California. Back in her old Bay Area stomping grounds, she worked at San Francisco’s Craftsman and Wolves (a patisserie best known for its savory muffins hiding runny-yolked eggs) before making her way to Thomas Keller’s Bouchon Bakery and the French Laundry.
“Working at Bouchon Bakery as an overnight baker was the hardest job I’ve ever had. I calculated how much dough I moved in one day and it was an insane amount, like 600 pounds,” Yee says. “That job physically broke me, but I absolutely loved it. And maybe this plays into my psychology of being a first-generation Chinese American where I equate hard work with satisfaction, but I absolutely loved that job.”
The decade Yee spent away from Los Angeles fostered a newfound appreciation for her San Gabriel Valley roots, especially the familiarity and comfort of living in a majority Chinese community. She relocated back to her hometown in 2019. Following a brief stint at Downtown’s Bottega Louie, which makes an eye-popping array of Parisian-inspired pastries, Yee landed at Echo Park’s Konbi as the pastry chef. There she produced an impressive line of pastries that included croissants, caneles, and crepe cakes. Konbi garnered the top spot on Bon Appetit’s 2019 Best New Restaurants list during Yee’s tenure.
It was at Konbi while in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic that Yee began to seriously experiment with making vegan croissants using Fora Butter, a plant-based substitute made from coconut oil and aquafaba (a liquid found in chickpeas). “I knew I wanted to do vegan viennoiserie, but I didn’t know how to do vegan viennoiserie in a way that I thought would be good,” Yee says. “And then I got this sample from Fora and read the ingredient label. I was like, ‘This is it. This is the letter I’ve been looking for. Let’s turn this into a bakery.’”
Yee is funding Bakers Bench with a modest SBA loan, personal savings, and money from her parents. The one-woman show operates on Friday and Saturday, from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. “It’s literally just me. On Wednesday I’m going to the farmers market and doing my prep. Thursday I’m there all day, doing all the receiving and prep, and then open Friday, Saturday.” Baking will take place in an off-site kitchen, given the kiosk’s limitations.
In addition to baking 80 to 100 croissants each day, Yee will be serving a line of vegan cookies that includes a classic chocolate chip made with a hint of molasses, an espresso-laced double chocolate chip, and a puckery lemon number. She will eventually expand her offerings to include jam bars, candies, and cakes. Not everything served at Bakers Bench will be vegan, though, as Yee eats omnivorously but acknowledges the environmental and ethical boon of consuming less animal-based food.
Yee’s signature vegan croissants are every bit as glossy and golden as their butter-made counterparts. The croissants’ shatteringly crisp exterior gives way to tender, honeycombed insides — a sign of patient proofing and skillful lamination. “The person who comes to my booth who hasn’t heard about me isn’t going to be like, ‘Oh, vegan croissants. Let me buy one.’ It’s going to be like, ‘Vegan croissants? No. I’m trying to go to Howlin’ Ray’s,’” Yee says. “If I can just get someone to try what I’m doing and if I can change somebody’s mind in that sense, then maybe they’ll give other things a shot. I want people to eat it because they think it’s good.”
In the weeks leading up to the Bakers Bench opening, Yee distributed postcards written in Chinese and English to nearby businesses and longtime residents to introduce herself and to invite them to visit the bakery. Like many neighborhoods throughout the Southland, including in Boyle Heights to the south and in Virgil Village to the northwest, Chinatown is undergoing tremendous social and economic changes, largely driven by commercial development. For the past decade, the neighborhood’s lower-income, working-class residents and older retirees have been increasingly displaced as investors overhaul entire city blocks, attracting a more upwardly mobile class to occupy storefronts and to reside in newly built market-rate apartments. Far East Plaza has been at the center of conversations concerning gentrification since chef Roy Choi opened his rice bowl restaurant, Chego, there in 2013. That led to a slew of high-profile tenants, including the cookbook store Now Serving, the coffee shop Endorffeine, Scoops ice cream, and now-closed restaurants from chefs Andy Ricker and Eddie Huang.
Yee thinks about her place and privilege amid these evolving neighborhood dynamics often. “What was really important to me is that I’m part of the community. I don’t want anyone of any background to come and feel like it’s not accessible. I don’t want anyone to come and feel like they’re out of place, like it’s too fancy,” Yee says. “I recognize how incredibly large and difficult and how sensitive the housing crisis is, gentrification is. These are people’s lives; they’re not just statistics or numbers. I am highly cognizant of it. And it’s a privilege to do what I love to do and to be able to take financial risks, and possibly earn a living doing what I love to do. It’s an absolute privilege to follow your dreams.”
Yee recognizes that fully integrating into the Chinatown community will take some time, but she’s already seeing glimmers of a deeper connection between herself and the veteran businesses in Far East Plaza. When she gave the owners of Ten Ren’s Tea Time one of her informational fliers, the long-serving tea purveyors asked for a few extras to share with acquaintances. “It was a really affirming moment for me,” Yee says. “Ten Ren wants to send this to their friends, they’re excited about this, and they’re welcoming me into their community.” And the other day when she was cleaning her kiosk, Mary Lam, who runs Mary’s Beauty Salon at the western entrance of Far East Plaza, gave her a pair of gloves to save her hands from ruin. The two exchanged greetings each morning and Yee even gifted Lam some baked goods prior to that moment.
“Success is being able to make something that I’m proud of and being able to create an environment where others are happy to work and learn to love baking as much as I do,” Yee says. “All of that can only happen with a certain amount of commercial success.” While it’s unpredictable how Bakers Bench will grow in the years ahead, one thing seems certain — Yee can never resist a challenge.
Update: June 7, 2021, 10:55 a.m.: This article was updated to include the latest hours of operation. Check Bakers Bench’s Instagram for the most up-to-date information.