Maybe you did a double take when you saw that new storefront in Chinatown: Paris Baguette.
But if you went inside, you’d realize that the shop, with its cashiers clad in Breton stripes and gray berets, is quite at home next to the Chinese grocers and hot-pot spots. Paris Baguette is a ubiquitous Korean brand — some liken it to a Korean Starbucks — that stirs nostalgia for those raised in South Korea. It’s why you’ll find them in locations of H-Mart, the Korean grocery chain, in places like Elkins Park and in Edison, N.J., where people go to buy strawberry croissants and kouign amman, as well as sweet rice doughnuts and iced milk bubble tea. (Noteworthy is that Paris Baguette is opening another location in the non-Asian enclave of Center City as part of a play for a wider customer base.)
Paris Baguette’s French Asian connection is nothing new in Philadelphia. Some of the city’s most beloved French bakeries are owned and run by Asian immigrants — from Cambodia, Vietnam, China, and South Korea. For some, like Vietnamese-owned bakery Ba Le, it’s a story of colonialism: Ba Le’s founder, Le Vo, trained under a French chef in Saigon in the 1950s. Vo is part of a history that stretches back to what was known as French Indochina in the 19th century under French colonial rule. It was often Vietnamese and Chinese bakers doing the hard, hot work in French bakeries, said Erica J. Peters, a professor at the University of the Pacific and author of Appetites and Aspirations in Vietnam: Food and Drink in the Long Nineteenth Century.
For others, it’s a story about immigrant entrepreneurship, the cultural cachet of anything French, and the globalization of French cuisine.
Anna Chen, the brains behind two-year-old French Asian dessert shop A La Mousse in Chinatown, studied French baking in Hong Kong before moving to Philadelphia. “It’s the top cuisine,” said Chen, whose shop used to be home to a French macaron store. At A La Mousse, you can get a traditional French Paris-Brest or a matcha mille crepe cake, which layers crepes and cream with a Japanese influence.
At ICI Macarons in Old City, where Michael and Aici Tan sell 26 flavors of macarons, including some Asian-inflected flavors, like rose lychee and matcha, there’s no straightforward tie to France — they even pronounce the name of their store, which draws from self-taught baker Aici Tan’s name but which is also French for “here,” “I-C-I.” The Tans, whose families are from Guangzhou, China, just found that people loved the French treats and that the recipe was endlessly customizable.
It’s not always easy for nonwhite chefs to succeed at cooking “white” food, especially in higher-end restaurants. “The media and customers expect a certain amount of ‘ethnic-ness’ from chefs of color — no matter what kind of food they are cooking,” wrote GQ’s Khushbu Shah in her 2017 article “What Happens When a Brown Chef Cooks White Food?” “But it’s very much a Goldilocks problem. If the food is too white or too brown, it will not sell. It has to be just the right level of ‘ethnic.’ ”
Despite that, some Asian-owned French bakeries in Philly have been able to find staying power. Here’s a look at their stories:
Artisan Boulanger Patissier
The first year was the hardest for husband-and-wife pair Andre Chin and Amanda Eap.
In April 2002, they opened their shop on East Passyunk Avenue, when it was still a largely older, Italian neighborhood, and every day the Paris-trained Chin worked before sunrise to make all the French classics: baguettes, croissants, eclairs, quiches. Every day, they waited.
Hardly anyone came.
The bakery was a gamble for Chin and Eap, who left their native Cambodia in the ’70s and ’80s to escape war. They had sold their coffee shop at 22nd and Cecil B. Moore to try their hand at a business where Chin could put his skills to work. They called it Artisan Boulanger Patissier, like many of the bakeries Chin saw in Paris.
The tide began to turn when Inquirer food writer Rick Nichols wrote about them, gushing about the honesty and authenticity of their bread and pastries. (Chin initially was suspicious of Nichols and his odd habit of asking for receipts, even when he bought just one croissant, but now speaks fondly of the retired columnist.) Today, the bakery, which has since moved a few blocks south, is a neighborhood institution helmed by a baker who’s been nominated for a James Beard Award.
Chin, 62, and Eap, 50, who own a rowhouse in the neighborhood, cite the changing demographics of Passyunk as part of what drove their success.
Loyal customer Fabien Douillard, who grew up near Nantes, France, and who now lives in South Philly, says he loves the bakery because it reminds him of his country.
Does it matter that Chin is not French?
Not at all, Douillard said: “He respects the artisan boulangerie tradition.”
In his white chef’s jacket, apron, and jeans, Sang Phil Han gives a tour of his shop. One side is French: madeleines, chocolate-covered cream puffs, waferlike almond cookies. The other is Korean: milk cream bread, sponge cake, red bean doughnuts.
Which sells better?
“Korean style,” he says, laughing.
Han, 60, is the baker behind Philadelphia’s first Paris Baguette, in East Oak Lane, known to some as Philly’s Koreatown. Yes, it shares a name with the chain, but, no, he’s not affiliated with it and there doesn’t seem to be an issue, he said. Han, who worked in Seoul as a baker for 20 years before emigrating to Philadelphia, opened the bakery in 2001, years before corporate Paris Baguette opened its first U.S. location, in Los Angeles. Now, there’s a Paris Baguette franchise just a mile up Cheltenham Avenue from Han’s bakery, but one patron, carrying a fruit cream cake in a box, says she and her family have been coming here since she was young and they like to support a local business.
Han’s first business was a grocery store at 54th and Race, which he left to open Paris Baguette. The European influence, he says, comes from his training in South Korea and his European coworkers in the hotel kitchen where he worked.
At Han’s Paris Baguette, the French and Korean sides live in harmony. Customers bow and greet Han in Korean as they walk past a light-up Eiffel Tower and a stack of Korean newspapers.