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At a quick glance, the dimly lit entrance of Chinatown’s Far East Plaza shows a handful of humble restaurants selling familiar rice noodle dishes, banh mi sandwiches, and pho. Once inside, rays of light guide you to a busy open-air plaza that hosts a thriving, out-of-sight destination for curious eaters where vendors have long lines, sell-out early, or prefer reservations. Among the many businesses celebrated here, open only Friday through Sunday and selling out within a few hours, is Baker’s Bench by Jennifer Yee.

Peering into a small glass case as if they were gazing at precious gems, customers visiting Baker’s Bench are privy to rows of flaky chocolate croissants, moist blueberry muffins, rich black sesame cookies and buttery Danish pastries. With limited runs of weekly specials, Baker’s Bench serves mostly vegan pastries of many types with seasonal ingredients including cherries topped with white sesame, sweet corn and garlic, moon fruit, and daikon. There are holiday treats, too: you can find mooncakes in autumn plus pumpkin and apple pies for Thanksgiving. Available for Christmas is a specialty French puff pastry pie called a pithivier that is filled with pistachio frangipane then topped with Italian Luxardo cherries and candied citrus. With all the variety and specialties, there are still plenty of recurring customer favorites each day, including the salty and sweet furikake croissant, classic cinnamon knot, and double espresso cookie.

Every weekend, Jen can be found on the other side of this banquet of pastries. She grew up nearby in the San Gabriel Valley, and gained years of experience working across the nation in Michelin-starred restaurants including The French Laundry, Jean-Georges, Gilt, and the now-closed L.A. favorite Konbi before starting a business of her own, opening Baker’s Bench in summer of 2021.

She didn’t intentionally make Far East Plaza her second home. It was a combination of timing, availability, and the work of property manager George Yu, who is known for bringing big names to the plaza. Jen recalls looking for a commercial space, saying, “I’ve looked at leases from other places, and the leases were horrible. They’re very predatory and I didn’t want to do business with those people.” George was different. “He worked with me a lot and gave me really good advice,” she says.

Jen realized her bakery was becoming a staple in the plaza when she noticed her customers and their families growing and getting older. She’s made birthday cakes year after year for some families, witnessing newborn babies grow into toddlers who are now walking and talking. Customers come from near and far, but their experiences culminate at Far East Plaza as if everyone lived and grew up in the same local community. Jen says, “[Baker’s Bench] is like your neighborhood corner bakery that people are coming into and becoming a part of, like they are just down the street, and they just happen to be here and grow up with you. And I just feel like it’s nice to have consistency and rapport with people.”

Depending on the time of day, Jen can be found at her kiosk taking quick bites of breakfast in between the steady morning foot traffic as she catches up with habitual customers or shares pastries with one of the neighboring business owners with whom she has built strong relationships with over her first two years at the plaza. “I’m friends with everybody in the plaza, upstairs and downstairs. It’s like a tight-knit community that comes and visits you and eats with you,” she says. All the vendors in the plaza open at 9 a.m., so employees and owners will often run into each other during prep time and breaks.

The staff at Ten Ren’s Tea Time welcome Jen to fill up her water bottle with ice water or hot water for tea – small favors that make the busy workday that much more enjoyable. As Jen says, “Other vendors are very kind to me, and in turn, I’m very kind to them.” Sharing extends beyond food, especially since Baker’s Bench is open only three days a week. It’s about the community and the relationships with neighbors and customers she has cultivated at her kiosk. Jen maintains a strong connection with her community week after week through the ritual of reciprocity in different forms. Baker’s Benches limited hours give Jen time to personally see to other aspects of the business – when she’s not at her kiosk you can find her at the Santa Monica farmers market buying locally sourced fresh fruits and vegetables or in the kitchen she leases, prepping her laminated croissants over several days – the secret to a noticeably thin, flaky, and buttery texture.

The business owners of Far East Plaza and the Baker’s Bench customers have given Jen an appreciation for the surrounding community. “I really believe in Chinatown,” she says. “I think I’m being more aware and cognizant and putting more effort into that now.” The community often works together to advocate for rent control initiatives, neighborhood preservation, and maintaining cultural heritage, and Jen has been known to raise money for several causes over the years.

Jen brings a unique perspective to the delicious pastries at Baker’s Bench: as a first-generation Chinese baker, she incorporates Asian methods such as tangzhong (a water roux used to improve bread’s texture), and serves specialties such as sesame cookies, Taiwanese pineapple cakes, and mooncakes during festival season. But as Jen says, “this is not a Chinese or Asian bakery.” Even though this bakery is mostly vegan, “This is not a vegan bakery either.”

And although Jen has experience and acclaim working in Michelin-starred restaurants, this is something different – something her own.

This is distinctly Baker’s Bench, a place where you can enjoy one of the city’s best croissants and Danishes enjoyed on a blue plastic tray, hidden in the middle of the most popular and dynamic outdoor plazas in Los Angeles, in line with regulars, industry chefs, bakers, and locals.

Ulysses SalcidoUlysses Salcido

Published on September 14, 2023

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