Argyle: Upscale Uptown Bakery Works Through Recession
The French sign and front facade of La Patisserie P contrast
with the heavy concentration of Asian-themed grocery stores,
restaurants and shops on this busy section of Argyle.
(Photo by James Mazurek)
By James Mazurek
The Red Line Project
Posted: Monday, March 7, 2011
Experts often say cooking is an art and baking is a science. But in one Uptown bakery, an award-winning pastry chef says his continued success while working through one of the worst economic downturns in recent history is a bit of both.
La Patisserie P — owned and operated by Peter Yuen and his wife Susan — is an upscale, contemporary ethnic bakery in the northern area of the Uptown neighborhood on Argyle Street.
Formerly the New Hong Kong Bakery and a business that has been a part of the family for more than 30 years, Yuen bought the bakery to take the tradition in a new direction.
“My wife wanted it. So I just kind of had to follow her,” he said.
With a complete overhaul of the shop’s interior design and a revamped, updated selection of pastries and breads, Yuen relaunched the new bakery as La Patisserie P in 2004.
The name patisserie is a French term for a specific type of bakery that specializes in pastries and sweets, and despite what most people think, the “P” doesn’t stand for Peter. It stands for passion.
Working Through the Recession
Yuen, 40, has an extensive baking resume that spans several decades. After attending Chicago’s French Pastry School and receiving the Certification of the L’Art de la Patisserie Program, he worked as a pastry chef at the French Mills, the lead pastry chef at the Four Seasons and also as the head baker at the Sofitel Water Tower; all in Chicago.
But lately—even though some economic indicators point to a possible turnaround in the recession — business has been rough for Yuen.
“In the economy that we have, all the sweet items become classified as luxury goods ... It’s just a generational type of disaster that we have for the economy,” he said.
Podcast: Yuen discusses economic development:
Small Bakery, Large Variety
Enter La Patisserie P and it’s hard to ignore the visuals and aromas. Front and center are the three glass presentation cases packed with pastries, breads, cookies and other specialty items. According to Yuen, one case is dry, for Asian pastries; the second is heated, for freshly baked bread products and the last is reserved for refrigerated European pastries.
Known for flaky, buttery, airy yet not greasy croissants — for which Yuen has developed his own recipe and baking method — the bakery has over 60 unique items baked fresh, daily.
Just as coffee shops must rotate brewed coffee after a certain amount of time, the City of Chicago has its own specific rule about bakery items. The proprietor either needs to sell the items within a certain amount of time or discard them.
“We cycle our items every four hours,” Yuen said. “It keeps things fresh.”
Jennifer Taylor, a student and self-proclaimed bread lover, stops in often to get her fix.
“Everything is fresh. Sometimes savory ... sometimes sweet ... It’s totally within my budget,” she said.
Owner Peter Yuen’s accreditations and awards line the walls of La Patisserie P’s
comfortable interior. (Photo by James Mazurek)
The Specifics: Ethnic Bakery Items
What you won’t find at La Patisserie P are the more traditional American bakery items.
“We aren’t an American bakery, so to speak. We don’t serve brownies. We don’t serve muffins,” Yuen said.
What you will find are many different types of Asian, Spanish and French specialties. Some of Yuen’s more popular items include:
- Parisian croissant
The French classic, but with a twist. Yuen’s croissants include his proprietary recipe and baking method—all of which he is willing to teach you if you take one of his special baking classes. In addition to plain, there are also chocolate and almond-chocolate croissants.
- Red bean bun
These soft, sweet, fried buns are of a medium consistency, similar in size to a donut hole, filled with red bean paste and then rolled in sesame seeds. According to Yuen, they are a traditional Chinese bakery item. “The donuts of Asian bakery. The flavor [of the filling] is very hard to describe. It’s similar to a candied chestnut,” he said.
- Pad de sal (bread of salt)
This savory Filipino sandwich bread has its origin in Spain. It is traditionally used as a sandwich roll or for dipping with soups, and Yuen says the staples like pad de sal are what keep the bakery operating during economic downturns.
Yuen has seen quite a bit in his 30 years at this location, but he considers the current economic downturn the worst yet—by a longshot.
He does think that he and his staff of nine have what it takes to make it through, however.
“I just love the fact that Chicago is such a big city that allows a lot of different ethnic groups to make a living,” he said. “We can differentiate our cultural differences when presenting our product. We will make it through this.”
Although Yuen will continue to operate the bakery, teach his refined methods to others and innovate in the kitchen, he said he thinks the future belongs to pastry chefs willing to truly push the boundaries of both baking science and art.
Podcast: Yuen talks about his croissant technique: