[Photographs: Andrew Coe]
Koreatown, the block of 32nd Street between 5th and 6th Avenues, is a densely packed smorgasbord of Korean food. With restaurants lined up side by side and stacked on top of each other, the competition for your stomach and your wallet is intense. You can choose from Korean cafeterias, tiny kimbap joints, Korean-Chinese restaurants, multi-level eateries with elaborate waterfalls, and on and on. And among that glorious hodgepodge, you find Korean bakeries stuffed with over-the-top sweet and savory specialties. If you want to understand what makes a living, morphing fusion cuisine, Paris Baguette is a good place to start.
For most New Yorkers, Paris Baguette's sign probably doesn't ring any bells, but in Korea its logo is as familiar as McDonald's. It operates 2,900 stores in Korea, with more scattered around the world. The bakery was founded in 1950 as a small family business. The company grew modestly over the next decades, specializing in Korean and Japanese-style breads. Then in 1986, the company decided to re-brand itself as Paris Baguette. According to the company's Jesse Sou: "All good breads come from Europe. So why not?" The bakeries began offering baguettes, croissants, and French pastries, and the response was overwhelming.
"Paris Baguette changed Korean's living style," says Jesse Sou. "The traditional breakfast was rice and soup. Now we have bread for breakfast, usually toast, jam, and eggs."
If you sample Paris Baguette's offerings, however, you find that only a few breads, like the croissants, are exact copies of the French originals. In fact, the company has succeeded by catering to Korean tastes. European artisan bakers excel at making bread with the fewest ingredients, but Koreans like rich, soft breads with delicate flavors, and for that you need more than flour, yeast, and, salt. Paris Baguette's plain baguette, made with egg in addition to flour and water, is fairly undistinguished, with a thin, crinkly crust and a fluffy bland crumb. The store's store's soft and chewy walnut raisin baguette is a distinct improvement. This loaf achieves its apotheosis as fusion cuisine when split and smeared with a thick layer of sweetened condensed milk, kind of like a not-too-sweet cupcake turned inside out.
Far more popular than the baguettes are the thick-sliced Pullman loaves. These bear a distinct resemblance to the pan sold at Japanese bakeries. The Japanese loaves are a variation on American white bread, making the 32nd Street product American-Japanese-Korean. Here, once again, richer is better. The most popular is the milk bread, made from flour, butter, sugar, salt, water, milk, egg, and yeast. And if that's not rich enough for you, try the "quick toast," which has so much butter already added that you don't need to spread any on top. But I prefer the pumpkin sesame, which is colored a mellow orange and flecked with little pumpkin chunks and black sesame seeds.
Like any big food chain, Paris Baguette keeps strict control over its products. One way they make sure that a baguette baked in Seoul tastes the same as a baguette made here is by producing half of its dough in a Korean facility. From there, it's shipped frozen to stores all over the world. Today, Paris Baguette has over 300 items in its assembly line. Almost all of them are baked fresh in the individual bakeries by teams of bakers behind glass walls. The products also include an eye-popping variety of pastries both sweet and savory and gorgeous cakes iced with cream (as opposed to buttercream) frosting. On the sweet line, my favorites are the various donuts made from rice flour, giving them a lovely chewy texture.
In addition to the 32nd Street store, Paris Baguette has two bakeries in Flushing and is thinking of opening more in Manhattan.