Rachelle Liu and Kathleen Chen
Sugarbloom Bakery: Where Creativity Blossoms
What’s in a croissant? That depends on who’s answering. For Chef Sharon Wang, each of her creations evokes a memory, tells a story, or relates to who she is and where she comes from. From founding her own interactive design firm to working in restaurants with the likes of Per Se and Bouchon, Chef Sharon Wang has experienced it all. Her culinary journey is unique, and this week we are excited to share her story and path to opening Sugarbloom Bakery and making some of the best croissants, pastries, and viennoiseries that Los Angeles has to offer.
Chef Sharon Wang grew up in Taiwan but immigrated to the U.S. at around 11 years old. Her family moved to Arcadia and she lived in the San Gabriel Valley ever since. As a child, Sharon didn’t have food on her mind. She actually wanted to do graphic design. Sharon’s dad worked in the garment industry and inspired her love for creation. But because she also saw how difficult the fashion industry was, she shied away from it and decided to pursue graphic arts. Sharon went on to study design at UCLA and later started her own interactive design firm with three other design graduates in the 90s. For a decade this was Sharon’s career, but as she began to feel burned out she decided to pursue something new. In a seemingly drastic change, Sharon Wang decided to pursue culinary school, something she always wanted to do. While interactive design and food do not seem to have much in common, there are more similarities than you might think. Sharon says, “Coincidentally both careers in some ways are sort of subjective and involve craftsmanship. Even though there’s a product that comes out, it’s through that person’s take on certain things. A poster can use certain typography, colors, or photos, while for food something like pasta can be your own interpretation of tomato, garlic, etc. So to me it was a very easy transition.”
Sharon embarked on her new career and decided to go to culinary school in Napa. It just so happened that one of her instructors was one of the first pastry chefs at The French Laundry, and mentioned that they were opening a bakery in Napa to see if anyone was interested in an internship. Sharon accepted and there she met the person would become her mentor chef. It was a mix of timing and luck, and Sharon says, “When you find a master and apprentice kind of relationship, you kind of pursue that.” And that pursuit brought Sharon from the West to East Coast as she worked in famed restaurants like Per Se, Ad Hoc, and Bouchon. She rose through the ranks with the Thomas Keller Restaurant Group and even became head pastry chef of Bouchon, but says, “At some point I was like how many bakeries can I open for a company, because practically other than Vegas there was no place I had not worked at. Essentially I worked through every position for that company, which I’m very grateful for, but it was time to move on.”
In 2011, Sharon decided to leave the group and take a year off to evaluate her life. She shares, “I’m sure that entrepreneurs and people in the service industry can relate, it takes a lot out of you because service is subjective. There’s really no right or wrong and you can always be, in the eyes of the customers, always wrong. So it’s really hard and you just need to decompress a little and figure out the next step.” At the time, her friend decided to open a cafe in Arcadia. Only problem was, he had no pastries to sell and said to Sharon, “Why don’t you create something, whatever you want, and just sell it here. Just let it sort of be your test kitchen.” Sharon agreed, and it was through this serendipitous agreement that she found a new calling and created some of her most famous pastries. “It wasn’t really for the money,” she says, “It was more like I’m going to make apple pie today and see how it sells. It was interesting because I got to see how people react to the food I make. From my previous career people came to the bakery or the restaurant because it’s Chef Keller’s restaurant. I had no idea whether or not the food I produce is appreciated by random people on the street.”
For a year Sharon fed cafe goers and did her own research and development through weekly weekend creations. She started to reflect on her own immigrant perspective and Los Angeles upbringing and began to view ingredients in a different light. “You look at something and you’re like ‘Huh, what if I do this and just start creating things.’ Like the Miso Butterscotch Cookies were because of my defiance over chocolate chip cookies. I was like, ‘I don’t want chocolate chip cookies and I don’t want macadamia white chocolate cookies. I want something white chocolate chip, but what? And then the whole miso thing came about. Miso was meant for savory items but at that point it was sort of pivotal because people started noticing ingredients outside of the French influence.” Chef Sharon started to draw inspiration from the cultures she was surrounded by and started to create food that people with similar backgrounds could relate to. “We live in LA where every other block is another ethnic food that’s amazing. That translates to who we are.”
Chef Sharon’s iconic SPAM musubi is yet another creation borne from her time experimenting at the cafe. She recounts, “I was going through phases of what kind of meat I can put in for ham and cheese, I went through every meat that I could produce. And one day we’re at Koreatown and we’re like, ‘Hey, what about SPAM? And Kimchi?’ It’s essentially sort of an Asian way of justifying the pate and sauerkraut of the European world.” Because of Sharon’s history in fine dining, she knew that traditionally it would be frowned upon to marry processed food with French croissants, but because of her upbringing, she knew this kind of fusion already existed. In every Asian bakery, you can probably find some rendition of a hot dog bread, so “why not take something that is strictly European and bring it back to something that is more familiar?” Sharon says, “If you look at a pate or a terrine, like all these French fancy names you’re like what is that? I don’t want to order that. But when it comes to something that you’ve seen you’re like ‘Oh SPAM! I know what SPAM is. Oh I know kimchi, I know musubi.’ It’s a hybrid already, so why don’t we bring that hybrid into something we identify with and understand.” And that’s how it started.
Chef Sharon started Sugarbloom Bakery and made sure that every product that Sugarbloom produced drew from things that she loved or things that she can identify with. She explains, “I think food ultimately is memory, it’s nostalgia that you kind of grew up with or have some sort of attachment to. So for me all the food I create has to in some way evoke that.” For a long time, Sugarbloom operated as a wholesaler, but has transitioned to retail to meet the demand for people to buy directly or have pastries delivered to their homes. Sharon shares, “I was actually afraid at one point when the pandemic hit because I was like, ‘Who am I? I’m not an essential worker, I’m just creating food.’ But it’s interesting to hear from people when they say that I bring normalcy back into their lives, and that our food creates something that kind of evokes good times.” Even though Chef Sharon started off her culinary career with French training and fine dining, she feels that what she is finally doing is rewarding and true to her identity and journey. She says, “I did that for a decade, that type of fancy fine dining food, and I realized at the end of the day that it’s much more enjoyable when there’s a random person down the street who sees my food and enjoys it. Especially now, why create fancy food when all you need is something comforting that just makes sense.”
So take a bite of Sugarbloom and experience Chef Sharon’s story for yourself! Whether you are looking for something comforting, a croissant you can relate to, or the best sweet savory cookie in town, we are sure you will find something you love.
Try Sugarbloom Bakery!
Order online for pickup in Glassell Park or delivery here
See a list of where you can find Sugarbloom here
Follow Sugarbloom Bakery @sugarbloombakery
Follow us @jiafoodblog and make sure to subscribe to our blog below so you never miss a post!