Still here, Still alive: Bakers Bench
Nikon F2 - Portra 800
Starting a restaurant business and maintaining it is not for the faint heart. There’s a lot that’s asked of you mentally and physically, especially when you’re running the ship alone. The long hours, anxiety, and immense pressure on the owner’s shoulders often lead to massive burnout. The pandemic we’ve left behind (hopefully) has doubled all that. But despite everything that has been thrown around, it’s amazing to see those who have weathered the chaos and even got started in the middle of it, finding success during an unstable time. It takes a strong mind to be able to operate on your own, and to keep up the pace when you find success. I want to introduce you to a place that was created in the eye of the storm: Bakers Bench.
Baker’s Bench is a primarily vegan bakery in Chinatown. It is located in a kiosk at Far East Plaza and specializes in breakfast pastries like croissants, danishes and muffins. Almost everything is seasonal and most produce comes from the LA River and Santa Monica Farmers Markets. Although their pastries are vegan, most people can’t even tell! They are open Friday-Sunday from 9-1 and coming early is recommended! Sometimes she sells out quickly.
Baker’s Bench is owned and operated by Jennifer Yee. She is a SGV native and grew up taking the bus with her grandma to Chinatown. After graduating from the Culinary Institute of America in St. Helena, she moved to NYC to work at Gilt and Jean-Georges. Tired of the winter weather, she moved back to California and worked at Craftsman and Wolves, Bouchon Bakery and The French Laundry in the Bay Area. After 8 years of working in Michelin starred kitchens, Jennifer was burnt out on the fast-paced rigor of fine dining restaurants. However, she still loved their precision, respect of pastries and technique of fine dining kitchen culture. In 2019 she moved back to LA and bounced around a few restaurants and bakeries before settling in and becoming the pastry chef of Konbi. With the support and well wishes of Nick and Akira of Konbi, she opened Baker’s Bench in May 2021.
Since I’ve discovered your stand in Chinatown during the pandemic, I’ve noticed you’ve finished each weekend strong, and most, if not all, of your pastries have sold out in a flash, which is incredible. I can imagine how much has gone into your bakery, and I can only imagine a fraction of what goes on behind the scenes. Since you started Baker’s Bench, what kind of burnout have you experienced? How do you coped with the immense pressure of starting the business and maintaining it? Are forms of self care that helped you these past few years while you are running your business?
Please don’t take this as advice, but just as an account of how I cope: I feel like my years in fine dining really taught me how to compartmentalize as a coping mechanism. My colleagues and I used to joke, “You don’t have to be good at cooking to work here, you just have to be good at getting yelled at” and well, I learned how to be good at getting yelled at! I think I’ve called out once during my adult career in cooking (as was the culture), which meant that we work if we’re sick, if we got in a car accident while driving to work, if a loved one is seriously ill or if our apartment floods. This also means I learned how to work after getting berated incessantly for a minor (or major) mistake. You just kind of learn how to live in the moment (good thing!) and push down all your emotions (bad thing!) to just get through the day (necessary thing!).
So with all of that, when I started Baker’s Bench, it didn’t feel that stressful. Don’t get me wrong, it was hard and I was learning how to read electrical specs, Googling financial and legal jargon (LOI, DBA, P and L, Articles of Incorporation) and running around LA to get a deal on used equipment, but none of it felt as stressful as working in a fine dining kitchen. I don’t know how to describe it, but it’s like I have this constant low-level stress now of a running to do list versus the immediate, yelling, panicked stress of working a Saturday at The French Laundry. I prefer this stress in part because it’s easier for me to cope with and it’s all necessary stress.
I’ve been a runner since high school—it’s the cheapest sport you can do and I was very poor as a cook. I’m thankful I have a long history of running and I’m almost coming up on two decades of this sport. My running practice waxes and wanes, some weeks I don’t run at all, some weeks I run 30 miles. Sometimes I run with headphones and get obsessed with my time, sometimes I just run to clear my head. It helps me sleep, it clears my head, it keeps me from being on my phone for awhile, it gives me more energy, it helps me learn a neighborhood and gets me out on the trails.
I also know my faith has grounded me throughout the years. I’m a Christian and I’ve found that my belief in God always helps me distill my problems or struggles to something very simple: I’m loved and cared for by God so that I can love and care for others. Whenever I stray from this very simple fact I get overwhelmed, distressed, lost. Secondary benefit is being able to make friends at church no matter what city I moved to. A crucial bonus as I’ve moved to 4 cities without much social safety net.