If you want to know how to turn a lifelong bread obsession into a career, ask Pam Yung. The New York-based pastry chef and baker has become famous for her sourdough loaves that she puts her heart and soul into. She pays meticulous attention to detail, looking for recipe inspiration in everything from the aromas she smells in the air, to observing her talented peers. She co-owns Semilla, a veggie-forward restaurant in Brooklyn, that contributes to the movement towards healthier and more sustainable dining. For Pam, it’s more than just about the product, it’s about the impact that baking can have when you take a creative and mindful approach. To read more about her entrepreneurship and passion for baking, check out her interview below.
You’re a self-taught baker, how did your interest in baking come about? How do you keep yourself motivated and focused?
I've had a lifelong obsession with bread, long before I started baking. When I started training in pastry, although there was a baking component, it was fairly limited in the types of restaurants that I worked in. I always dallied with the idea of working in a bakery but was attracted to the creativity of making desserts in a more fine-dining atmosphere for a long time. It was during my tenure as pastry chef at ISA in 2011/2012 that I first began baking with a wood-burning oven, and I was hooked.
I'm motivated primarily by my peers who are endlessly inspiring, and we challenge each other constantly. I'm lucky enough to have peers that are interested in sharing and collaborating to better understand our craft.
You run Semilla with your partner José Ramírez-Ruiz, how did that partnership start? What are the benefits of working with a partner?
Jose and I had worked together previously, both at our pop-up and at ISA. Our cooking styles and ideas about sustainable practices are very much aligned. It seemed natural to create a project together. In your first big venture, it's always helpful to have another person to lean on. We each have differing strengths and weaknesses, and understanding what those are and dividing and conquering can be helpful when it all seems so overwhelming. In a place as difficult as NYC, I think it's best to have a good partnership rather than be a lone operator.
You and José originally opened up a pop-up called Chez José, has your baking style or inspiration changed since making the move to Semilla?
Sure! Baking is a lifelong pursuit, and one is always learning, even if it's something you do every day and it becomes so familiar. During the pop-up, we were often working in challenging kitchen spaces, so the ability to fine-tune something and adapt to different environments/ovens, etc. was difficult. At Semilla, I've found what works best with our current setup, and also had the great opportunity to work with some incredible (and local) grain growers. I'm using a greater diversity of grains (milling is done in-house for all whole grains), and constantly rethinking my process. I've also taken a little bit of a creative approach to the bread, incorporating dehydrated sunchokes, cooked potatoes, or nettles into my breads.
Semilla offers mostly veggie-focused dishes. In California the health food movement has become huge in recent years, do you think healthy food is gaining the same ground in New York?
New Yorkers are finally having a conscience about what they consume - which, in my opinion, is a great change. Sadly, New York is a very trend-based city, and these trends are constantly changing. Although it's "the thing" now, I can only hope that it has long-lasting appeal as people realize the great benefits of eating in a way that is beneficial not only to their bodies, but to the Earth.
What is the creative process behind coming up with a new recipe?
Most of the time, my inspiration comes directly from a product that totally seduces me. Whether it's an aromatic and seductive quince, or the heady aroma of fig leaves on a walk along the Tiber in Rome, there are certain ingredients that I find irresistible. After that, I usually let it marinate in my head for a few days, for a combination that seems to provoke something in me. It doesn't always work out how I'd imagine, but that's part of the process - of failing and starting over again.
What’s your favorite thing to bake and why?
Sourdough bread! It never gets old. It's magic every single time.
What makes your bread and pastries unique?
You can give 5 bakers the same recipe and end up with 5 very different breads. I know my heart and spirit is in everything I make, so I do think you can taste that. But also, my past experiences working with amazingly inspiring chefs and bakers have all contributed to my approach. I always look for a purity of flavor in everything I make. And definitely, I would say it's taste and texture above all else.
“I'm motivated primarily by my peers who are endlessly inspiring, and we challenge each other constantly. I'm lucky enough to have peers that are interested in sharing and collaborating to better understand our craft."
Word on the street is that your bread is some of the best in NYC. How does it feel to not only have successful recipes, but to have had an overall impact on the New York dining scene as well?
It feels great that people can find something as commonplace as bread to be revelatory, and to recognize how elemental a simple food can be. I'm happy to be a part of a movement that's changing the role of bread in the restaurant/dining scene, but also bringing to light the importance of good grain as an agricultural product. It's just as important as good vegetables. Many of us grew up on packaged supermarket bread, so to bring back something from the past and make it a part of people's everyday lives, is a true pleasure.
You’ve mentioned that it’s challenging, financially, coming up as a baker in New York. Was there ever a point when you wanted to give up? What was the hardest thing you had to overcome and what did you learn from it?
The financial difficulties never ever brought to mind the idea of giving up. They did, however, give me pause on the way in which to engage in the craft. Baking at Semilla is part of an overall dining experience, so it's easier to figure out the metrics for that, as opposed to a bakery-only operation where you're relying on sheer volume to make rent. With large volume, you inevitably enter the question of keeping/maintaining skilled staff, transport, and scaling an artisanal production while not sacrificing quality. Often, this is where everything can just crumble. I learned that if I want to bake on my own terms in this city, that I may have to be a bit creative about it - and I can't say I've found the answer just yet. I'm still trying to figure out how to make that ideal space happen not only for myself, but for so many of my amazing peers that are without a true home for their craft.
Was there ever a point when you were considering taking a different career path?
Well, being a chef/baker for a long time, was never really a conscious decision for me. I have so many interests, in so many different fields, that in my 20s it was very confusing to have to choose. I just wanted to do it all! Still, I find the opportunity for intersection the most enticing, but it's difficult when your day-to-day is so demanding in the restaurant environment. Who knows what will come next! I do know that food will always be a part of what I do.
What’s next for Semilla and your baking career?
My dream is to use my love of baking in a restaurant or cafe setting where it has the opportunity to be a vehicle for something interesting. I have no desire to be involved in a super large-scale production. I'm planning on spending some time traveling this year, baking with some of my idols and seeing their approach, and conversely sharing our cumulative experiences. That exchange, to me, is invaluable.
What are 3 hidden gems in NYC?
1. Te Company. This place isn't exactly "hidden", but it's still a bit under the radar, and an absolute gem. This jewel box-sized tea house is an oasis where everything is exquisite. It's owned and operated by husband-wife power duo, Frederico Ribeiro (responsible for small plates) and Elena Liao (tea service), who have an incredible eye for detail.
2. Achilles Heel. A charming bar, resurrected from another era, that happens to have incredible food prepared primarily over a fire by Lee Desrosiers.
3. Cafe Lalo. It's the highly anticipated project of my dear friend, Gerardo Gonzalez, whose playful "hippy chicano" food and insatiable personality will no doubt make it one of my favorite spots in the city. And, it's in an old karaoke bar in Chinatown, just steps away from where my mother grew up.
What does MISSBISH mean to you?
I first heard about MISSBISH via one of its founders, Lindsay Jang. We met 10 years ago, when I had just started cooking. She's been incredibly inspiring in her entrepreneurship and strength as a woman, mother, and all around fitness maven and jetsetter, and so when I had the opportunity to be a part of it, I was so thrilled. I think a space where women can share and empower one another is so necessary. It's easy for women-focused publications to play into the conventional ideologies of beauty and femininity, but I feel MISSBISH doesn't fall victim to that.
Photos by: Jacob Pritchard