Even after losing her job at the famed Gramercy Tavern in New York when the coronavirus pandemic shut down the industry last spring, pastry cook Lauren Tran was getting buzz for her work. Her Vietnamese-French desserts had been written about by New York media. Formidable restaurants including Madame Vo in the East Village wanted to host her pop-ups.
Life was looking up, until she got word from back home in Federal Way that her father had to be rushed to the hospital after suffering chest pains.
Tran canceled all her cake orders, grabbed some clothes and shoved a bag of pandan leaves into her carry-on before boarding a flight to Seattle in February to care for her dad. (She made sure to bring the pandan leaves because she had promised to bake her signature pandan chiffon cake for family and friends who had read about her baking exploits in the Big Apple.)
She was originally supposed to bake just two cakes. But this has since turned into 60 cakes, along with hundreds of other desserts, as Tran has been baking around the clock, trying to keep up with a flurry of orders after friends egged her to extend her brand around Seattle now that her father’s health has improved.
In early April, Tran ran a bake sale in front of Fast Penny Spirits in Interbay. She thought she made enough cakes and macarons for the sale to last three hours. Her sweets sold out within 45 minutes. Tran stuck around to apologize to the later arrivals.
“This has been the biggest surprise,” said Tran, who, at the time of our interview, had been up since 3 a.m. baking. “I had no idea Seattle would embrace me the way they did … I’m just overwhelmed, and I’m not sure how to handle it or wrap my head around all the attention.”
In the past two months, she has gained a large following through word-of-mouth, with four sold-out pop-ups. The young Asian American crowd, especially, has been among her most ardent supporters, buying sampler boxes of these bright, Lifesaver-colored macarons, cakes and Vietnamese tapioca sweets accentuated with coconut and her signature ingredient, the vanilla-scent pandan.
This was a homecoming she didn’t expect. The 32-year-old Vietnamese American grew up in Federal Way and got her political science degree at the University of Washington before spending the next three years bouncing around different labs doing clinical research, telling herself this would boost her résumé until she felt ready for the grind of medical school.
The truth was that she was stalling, unable to muster the courage to tell her parents she didn’t want to be a doctor, but wanted to train as a pastry chef instead.
“They’re warming up to the idea,” Tran said, laughing.
Tran put in 90-hour workweeks to save money for a move to New York. She’d start her days at 5 a.m. as a barista in downtown Seattle and then rip off her apron at 2 p.m. to rush to her second job at Canlis. She was a server at the fine-dining institution, but she always found an excuse to poke her head into the pastry station to ask a zillion questions. Kyle Johnson, the director of hospitality at Canlis, recalled, “It was clear that she had a deep love for all things sweets.”
In New York, where Tran graduated from the pastry program at the International Culinary Center in 2019, she did stints at David Chang’s Momofuku Ko and then at Danny Meyer’s Gramercy Tavern, where one afternoon, she competed in the Thanksgiving dessert throwdown. Food & Wine magazine chronicled that bake-off under the headline, “Gramercy Tavern’s closed-door pie contest is the most intense show not on TV.”
Tran won for her pandan-coconut custard pie with lemon grass whipped cream.
That laid the foundation for the type of sweets Tran wanted to be her calling card — showcasing Vietnamese desserts and incorporating the tropical flavors of her ancestral homeland to French and American pastries.
All those colorful tapioca-based desserts and sweet sticky rice splayed out on counters at bánh mi delis are so underrated and so foreign to Americans who just bypass them, she said.
Vietnamese desserts, said Tran, are about texture, this chewy, springy bite. She’s particularly fond of pandan, a grassy, vanilla-like Asian plant that’s featured in her macarons, dim sum sesame balls and other sweets that she sells as part of a $40 sampler box.
Like many pastry cooks who got laid off after the pandemic hit, Tran hawks her pastries through her Instagram account Bánh by Lauren. Bánh is Vietnamese for cake.
“The silver lining is that the pandemic has pushed me to put myself out there and allow myself to be vulnerable” and just take risks, she said. “It helped me identify with what I want to do as a pastry chef — highlighting Vietnamese desserts and flavors.”
Her aromatic bánh da lon, a steamed coconut tapioca cake with alternating layers of pandan and mung bean, possesses a bright, pronounced vanilla flavor, not cloyingly sweet or watery-Jello-esque like many versions hawked in Asian supermarkets. Hers is sticky and chewy, bubble-gum-like in flavor.
But it’s her four-layer pandan chiffon cake with coconut mousse and whipped cream frosting that has been the talk around Seattle and in New York: It pulls off the trick of being both rich and light, a spongy-cake texture bursting with milky, almond and tropical flavors.
She might open a bakery in Seattle in the future, but for now New York beckons. She plans to do at least one more pop-up in the Chinatown International District and bake some cakes for charity. Then in May, she will fly back to New York, where she’s committed to running some pop-ups at restaurants.