The Fresh New Faces Of New York’s Bakery Scene
On the ground level of Chelsea Market in New York City, chef Amadou Ly is poised behind a glass window overseeing the daily breads at ALF Bakery, his French-inspired boulangerie. The open kitchen is bit of a spectacle, but that’s kind of the point. People have come from around the world to see Ly, who was raised between Senegal and Togo, at what has become the city’s top destination for crusty baguettes and buttery laminated pastries.
For all its diversity, New York’s most celebrated French bakeries have historically been the domain of classically trained white men. Ten years ago, French pastry chefs such as François Payard and Dominque Ansel reigned over the city with their immaculate petits gâteaux and flaky croissant-like creations. But today, many of the city’s best French bakeries are run by an unprecedentedly diverse group of culinary talent, including Ly – chefs who are elevating the art of pastry with flavours from West and North Africa to South Korea, the Middle East and beyond.
Ly moved to New York in 1998 and like so many immigrants, he headed straight for work in the kitchen. He discovered an affinity for pastry arts as an aesthetic endeavour and the most disciplined, and thus impressive, kind of cooking. It was the start of an illustrious career, much of which was spent in fine dining kitchens. At the time, there were not many Black chefs, let alone Black pastry chefs, in high-end restaurants. His burden was not just to do well, but to exceed expectations. “That makes you want to push forward,” says Ly.
However, plating intricate desserts for an elite sliver of society eventually lost its charm. Bread, on the other hand, was democratic, essential, yet far from easy. “This is one of the simplest things and the hardest to make,” Ly explains. After five years training under Roger Gural at Arcade Bakery in Tribeca, he set out on his own at ALF Bakery. There, he’s known for his signature laminated baguettes and glossy viennoiseries, which veer more savoury than sweet.
A few avenues east of Chelsea Market, Eunji Lee runs what is easily New York’s finest patisserie, Lysée. The two-level space is a serene backdrop for her artistic creations: think precise tarts filled with the season’s lushest fruit, signature corn-shaped gateaux and the most delicate butter cakes you’ll ever have.
Lee came up through rigorous pastry kitchens in France. Her resume includes a degree from the prestigious culinary school École Grégoire-Ferrandi, followed by a stint working for Cédric Grolet, one of the most revered names in French pastry.
Lee acknowledges that working in France, often as the only Asian woman on a team, was difficult. But her talent and determination earned her the respect of her peers. “If you prove yourself, respect comes naturally,” Lee said.
After a decade in France, Lee felt the gravitational pull of New York, where she became executive pastry chef at Jungsik, a fine dining restaurant that fuses Korean cuisine with European techniques – formative grounds for Lee’s culinary vision at Lysée.
Dona Murad-Gerschel also knows a thing or two about culinary fusions. She owns Librae in Manhattan, a self-defined “third culture” bakery that serves otherworldly French pastries with a globe-trotting twist. The cardamom rose croissant is a best-seller, while the sweetly sour ‘loomi’ babka, which combines pungent black lime – a popular Middle Eastern ingredient – with the beloved New York babka, is “both my worlds coming together”, she says.
Murad-Gerschel was raised in Bahrain and her business was inspired by a childhood in the Arabian Peninsula and travels beyond. Though she did not come up through traditional French kitchens, she comes from a lineage of incredible home bakers. “If you have the passion to do something, then it’s easy to learn,” she said. Murad-Gerschel is also a pioneering entrepreneur – she opened the first woman-owned micro coffee roastery in Bahrain.
Like Lee, Murad-Gerschel couldn’t resist the cultural gravity of New York. And at Librae, she is clear about her ambitions to perfect the craft of baking. Her culinary team (which includes her own mother) have, through exacting trial and error, perfected their recipe for laminated pastry. Their golden, buttery creations speak for themselves.
This is just the beginning of a new, more inclusive look for French bakeries in New York. And, to be clear, these are not the best female-owned bakeries, nor are they the best Black-owned ones. These are just the best, period.
5 More Bakers And Bakeries Redefining French Pastry In NYC:
- Camari Mick – The executive pastry chef and co-owner of French-Italian restaurant Raf’s, which by day operates as a bakery with an enticing spread of spiral croissants, classic Bordeaux canelés and stunning cakes.
- Ghaya Oliveira – The former executive pastry chef at French fine-dining restaurant Daniel now runs her eponymous bakery in Queens. There, Oliveira makes excellent croissants, sandwiches and her mind-blowing take on a Ferrero Rocher.
- JM Bakery – This under-the-radar kiosk within a food hall is owned by chef Jiho Kim, formerly of The Modern at MoMA and one of the city’s most talented pastry chefs. Kim makes traditional French pastries with Asian flavours.
- Lady Wong – This French patisserie by way of Singapore and Malaysia is run by husband-and-wife chef duo Seleste Tan and Mogan Anthony. They use ingredients such as pandan, ube and palm sugar in a variety of cakes alongside traditional Southeast Asian desserts.
- Mah-ze-dahr – Umber Ahmad is the self-taught baker behind this growing East Coast chainlette of French-inspired bakeries. Ahmad is Pakistani-American, but her bakes skew French with an American accent. Her brioche donut is legendary.
Mahira Rivers is a freelance food writer and restaurant critic based in New York City. She has written for The New York Times, New York Magazine and Food & Wine Magazine