We’re proud to collaborate with some of the best food people in our cities. We produce our own products in small batches in our regions, so it’s only natural for us to support others who are creating some of the best stuff out there. One of those makers: Sharon Wang of Sugarbloom Bakery in Los Angeles.
Sharon Wang isn’t your typical baker, with stories of teenage years spent perfecting her croissant technique or nursing her sourdough starter. Sharon began her journey a bit further down the line, in a second unexpected career path. So how does a trained web designer become a deeply dedicated, highly talented baker?
We had the chance to chat with Sharon the last time we were in town. Today, we’re sharing that conversation:
Tell us how you got to where you are today with Sugarbloom.
That’s a tough one. In the ’90s, everyone pretty much was in the design era. Everyone interacted with the dot coms — and I thought that would build my retirement fund. But a lot of things happened and I ended up at a crossroads. At that point, my old business partner asked me, “Is there anything you do that you’re passionate about?”
So I went to take a one-week class at the Culinary Institute called the Career Discovery class. Next thing you know, I enrolled in the class, and it just so happened that my instructor was Chef Thomas Keller. He mentioned that Bouchon was looking for a few good cooks, so I went in and externed for them for three months. I haven’t looked back since.
And how did you get from working with Keller to starting your own business?
After that initial CIA class, I helped Thomas open three restaurants, and I went from casual dining to fine dining, and back to casual. I eventually helped that group open a bakery in Beverly Hills. At that point, I was thinking, “Ok, I’m kind of reaching the highest point I can go in this group.”
It felt like it was the right time for me to graduate from it, so I took two years off to travel. Around that time, a friend of mine opened a coffee shop here in LA, and he said, “Hey, since you have nothing to do, would you mind just testing some stuff out with us?”
Next thing you know, people started to notice my work, and through that, I started Sugarbloom.
Did you always know you wanted to pursue pastry versus culinary?
Well, I always liked to eat. But pastry, in some ways, relates to my old job in design. There’s a lot of creativity, and everything is subjective. Like with sugar, your sweetness preference is different from my sweetness preference, so there’s a lot of room for interpretation. I liked that about it.
And there’s also that feel-good emotional connection too. I can’t describe to you how amazing it is when people come up to me and say, “Thank you, that was great.” That makes my day. Especially compared to my old job where someone might say, “That’s a great website,” but it didn’t make me feeling anything.
If I can inspire somebody to cook or to enjoy a better type of food, then I have done my job.
I use the example of red velvet cake versus Guinness chocolate cake. One is created out of better ingredients versus something that is food coloring. I’m the one trying to educate people that there are things better than just red velvet. You don’t need to order red velvet. You can move on to something that’s similar — same flavors and sourness and saltiness — but in a combination that’s a whole new level. It’s a balancing act.
One thing my old chef always taught me: You want something that looks so simple, but that has an element of surprise. So you feel a little bit of adventure.
Do you have any food memories from growing up? Where did your passion for food begin?
For pastry, I would say mainly my grandma was an inspiration. I wouldn’t say she was a premier pastry person or anything, but there were always certain items she would make to reward me when I did my homework or something.
She would make a steamed Huat Kueh cake. It was like a molasses cake, light, fluffy — probably totally unhealthy, but when you’re a kid you don’t really care about that. She passed away before she could teach me how to make it.
We also lived above a bakery when I was growing up, so I was always attracted to western pastries, because they looked exotic.
I also always remember strawberry ice cream. I remember my mom would say, “I don’t know why you like ice cream, but don’t like milkshakes.” At the time, I didn’t really get what milkshakes are. I remember eating one at this café in Taiwan and thinking, “This is just melted ice cream.” My mom was like, “What are you doing sitting there — you’re supposed to eat it while it’s still frozen!”
When did you move here from Taiwan?
I moved here for junior high. Part of why I came was because of my hearing. I lost significant hearing ability when I was 11 and my mom thought that maybe if I came here and could get access to more advanced health services, they could figure out what was wrong. Also, most of my family was here for school. I’ve always been a little caught between my two heritages.
What do you make when you’re cooking for loved ones? What do you make when it’s someone’s birthday?
I would tailor it to their personality, so that totally depends on the person. I would say my go-to is probably simpler stuff. Like, my mom’s always asking for a simple chiffon cake — and some of my other family just wants vanilla shortbread, no sugar on top or anything, just shortbread.
What’s your absolute favorite thing that you make?
It changes a lot. In the morning I like the saltier products, and in the evening I like brownies. I think it’s hard when you’re looking at it every single day — you’re not as crazy about pastry anymore.
When I was a baker, I would crave pastries, and when I was just doing bread, I would look to the pastry chef and say, “Hey, can I have some?”
Now, when I’m back on the pastry side, I crave baguettes. I actually started making croissants because I was craving them — so now here I am, fighting for savory croissants.
When we started with the Spam-filled croissant, it was because we had been through every other meat. My friends are like, “Are you kidding, Spam?” But you know what, it’s really just a forced meat, like a pâté. It’s a tough sell, but I think of it as pâté. Is that totally wild? That’s my argument, and I’m sticking to it. They sell like crazy, so I think it’s a legitimate argument.
Tell us a little about the cookie that you guys are going to be making for Cava?
We call it the triple threat. The idea started because, with chocolate chip cookies, everyone always has their own version of the homemade creation. So I wanted to set myself apart but not too far apart.
We still wanted the cookie to feel familiar, but on some level for it to pique peoples’ interest.
So the reason why it’s called the triple threat is because I put three types of chocolates in there. Adults typically like the bitterness of dark chocolate, whereas kids like sweet chocolate — so I contrasted a typical semisweet chocolate chip with chocolate chunks that were 72% dark chocolate — and then I also used cocoa nibs, and a little bit of espresso powder to give it that mocha flavor. And I also used dark brown sugar, which gives it that chew.
For a long time at my old job, everybody would always think about, “What’s the ultimate chocolate chip cookie?” Some people like it crispy, some people like it chewy — there’s never been a majority decision. So I had to find some way to make this cookie crunchy on the outside but chewy inside. And then I added sea salt on top, too, because it brings out the sugar.
So tell us, what do you think about Americanized Chinese food?
It depends on where you go. Believe it or not, I still go to Panda Express and I still buy orange chicken and broccoli and beef — but there is a lot more to traditional Chinese recipes.
I think I actually bring that mindset to the way I approach pastry, too. I bring traditional technique to it, but I want to bridge that with something fresh.