Final nominees for the 28th annual awards were announced in March. The Outstanding Baker category is represented by six finalists, while the Outstanding Pastry Chef category is represented by five finalists. Bake has profiled five of the six top bakeries over the past two years.
Each category’s winner, along with all the other James Beard Award category winners, will be announced at the 2018 James Beard Awards Gala on May 7 at the Lyric Opera of Chicago.
Past winners of the James Beard Outstanding Baker Award are Mark Furstenberg (2017) of Bread Furst in Washington, D.C., Joanne Chang (2016) of Flour Bakery + Cafe in Boston, and Jim Lahey (2015) of Sullivan Street Bakery in New York City. This year marks the fourth year of the Outstanding Baker award.
Outstanding Baker finalists
(Qualifications: A chef or baker who prepares breads, pastries, or desserts in a retail bakery, and who serves as a national standard-bearer of excellence. Must have been a baker or pastry chef for at least five years.)
- Dianna Daoheung, Black Seed Bagels, New York City
- Zachary Golper, Bien Cuit, Brooklyn, New York
- Maura Kilpatrick, Sofra Bakery and Café, Cambridge, Massachusetts
- Belinda Leong and Michel Suas, b. patisserie, San Francisco
- Alison Pray, Standard Baking Co., Portland, Maine
- Greg Wade, Publican Quality Bread, Chicago
Outstanding Pastry Chef finalists
(Qualifications: A chef or baker who prepares desserts, pastries, or breads in a restaurant, and who serves as a national standard bearer of excellence. Must have been a pastry chef or baker for the past five years.)
- Kelly Fields, Willa Jean, New Orleans
- Meg Galus, Boka, Chicago
- Margarita Manzke, République, Los Angeles
- Dolester Miles, Highlands Bar & Grill, Birmingham, Alabama
- Diane Yang, Spoon and Stable, Minneapolis
Belinda Leong of b. patisserie offers an inspirational example of a finalist who is raising the bar of excellence for the retail bakery and pastry world.When Leong was just 20 years old, this talented pastry chef began her illustrious career in San Francisco, only to discover a yearning to learn all that she possibly could about the craft of pastry and baking.
Then she was off to Paris, Barcelona and Copenhagen. Two years in Europe proved to be a groundbreaking experience. She longed to start her own place someday and returned to the San Francisco Bay area to realize this dream.
Now as executive pastry chef and co-owner of b. patisserie in San Francisco, she brings the same magic that she experienced in Paris to every product she makes, from the delicate and flaky kouign amann to the savory Gougère Feuilletée. “I love ingredients that give texture,” she says.
Born in 1977 in San Francisco, Leong grew up in a family of five, with one older sister and one older brother. Her parents own a manufacturing plant that produces Chinese products for various Asian markets; her father creates the entire product line. She remembers baking in middle school when they had extracurricular classes and at summer camp.
Leong studied at the Hospitality and Restaurant program at City College of San Francisco. She considers her mentors to be Gary Danko and Michel Suas. One of her inspirations is Pierre Herme. Her first pastry job was at Aqua Restaurant in 1997.
The menu at b. patisserie features a wide variety of creative pastries, ranging from her Vanilla Cassis Cake (vanilla mascarpone, sable breton, cassis ganache, chiffon cake and vanilla glacage) to the Yuzu Lemon Tart (yuzu custard, lemon cream and lemon confit).
Leong draws her inspirations from everything around her. “I like classic flavors. I can be at a coffee shop, supermarket, ice cream shop, juice shop and restaurant. I can also eat a really good fruit and create around that. My philosophy is just to have fun with what I am doing, work hard at it and put my love and passion into all the pastries.”
She began her career as a pastry chef at Restaurant Gary Danko in San Francisco in 1999. After eight successful years, she left the restaurant for Europe to stage at some of the most esteemed restaurants and patisseries in Paris, Barcelona and Copenhagen. After two years in Europe, she returned to the Bay Area and became pastry chef at Manresa Restaurant, a two-star Michelin Restaurant, in Los Gatos, California, before opening b. patisserie.
Suas, a native of France, started baking when he was 14. At the age of 21, he was named the head pastry chef at Restaurant Barrier in Paris. Barrier was one of 12 French restaurants honored with the coveted three-star Michelin award. Suas later moved to the Bay Area and established the San Francisco Baking Institute in 1996. The SFBI has become a renowned leader in artisan bread and pastry education. TMB Baking Company and Thorough Bread Bakery followed shortly thereafter. In 2009 Suas wrote and published his critically acclaimed book, “Advanced Bread and Pastry: A Professional Approach,” which has since guided many professionals in the industry.
The partnership between Leong and Suas was a long time in the making. In 2005, Leong’s constant quest for knowledge led her to the San Francisco Baking Institute, where she took a class and met Suas. Years later they would meet again when Leong came back from Europe with the idea of opening b. patisserie. She sought advice and direction from Suas. In 2011, with hopes for b. patisserie lingering, Leong became the head pastry chef at Manresa. While at Manresa, she decided to introduce her pastries to the public through pop-ups and partnerships with select coffee shops.
At an early planning discussion, Suas quickly composed a preliminary layout for the space and Leong brought out a sketch of her “dream” shop drawn two years earlier while staging in Paris. They were happy to discover their designs were an exact match. Leong and Suas realized their ideas were a shared vision.