Esther Son walked briskly through the crowded kitchen of Estelle Bakery & Patisserie in Arden Arcade, navigating tall sheet-pan racks of fragrant croissants and a rainbow of fragile macarons, cruising past busy bakers and sandwich-makers at their many stations.
She paused to point out a ceramic tile deck oven, where hand-made artisan breads get their characteristic color and texture from high heat.
"The flavor comes out when the crust gets dark," she said. "A lot of Americans think it's burnt, but it's really not."
Son opened her much-heralded patisserie Jan. 26 in a former warehouse, followed by a much smaller Estelle on March 29, an outpost across from the Golden 1 Center in the Downtown Commons District (DoCo).
Her original Estelle, on the K Street pedestrian mall, opened in 2011 and closed in 2016. Estelle 2.0 may look like a comeback, but it's really the continuation of Son's "dream-come-true," as she puts it.
Estelle invites customers to "satisfy your Parisian wanderlust" with its "sweet and savory treats in the French tradition." Both bakeries share the same menu of breakfast pastries, desserts, artisan breads, cookies, sandwiches (a croquet monsieur is offered, naturally), salads and soup, but only the Arden store features afternoon tea. Next up will be full-size cakes.
"I could eat desserts all day," Son said. "At a young age, I would swap my lunch for somebody's dessert at school. There was never a doubt in my mind I was going to set up a French bakery one day, but I didn't think my childhood dream would become a career. Now this is my passion. My blood and sweat go into it."
Nearly all the baking for both stores is done at the Arden site. The quality is evident, the output is prodigious - 5,000 to 6,000 pieces come out of the ovens daily. They include goods for Estelle's wholesale clients, among them Whole Foods, Nordstrom and Echo & Rig steakhouse.
The wide demographic divide between the clienteles at the two Estelles means "what sells at one bakery is very different from what sells at the other," said pastry chef Shelby Hallmark. "The Arden area is a retirement community, people come in all day long for pastry and dessert. DoCo gets a lot of businesspeople dropping by before work for pastry and coffee to go, and coming in for sandwiches and salads at lunch."
The sprawling, well-lit dining room of Estelle-Arden is painted white, an ideal backdrop for displaying the gem-like gallery of pink and yellow and chocolate-brown confections, from madeleines and tarts to shortbread and scones. Everything is baked fresh daily, with end-of-day leftovers distributed to three charitable organizations.
While the classic almond croissant is the best-seller at both bakeries, perhaps the signature pastry is the macron rose. It looks like a glazed ceramic art piece, a pinkish "sandwich" of rose-infused pastry cream, raspberry compote and fresh raspberries nestled between two almond macarons. Topped with a rose petal, of course.
It doesn't take long to figure out that Esther Son is a focused achiever and risk-taker whose dedicated, high-energy style is a model for her 40-plus staff of mostly women.
"I don’t work more than others, but when I'm here it's intense and I don't waste a single minute," she said. "When I get home, I'm depleted."
Son was born in Seoul, Korea, leaving at age 7 with her parents and younger brother to live in Los Angeles, then Toronto, then San Francisco. Her father was an executive for Korea Air, her mother a "very gifted" painter whose art has been exhibited (they now live in Sacramento).
"I had to relocate all my life because of my dad's job," Son said. "My dream was to stay in one home in one city for 10 years, and it came true. Our (two) kids haven't had to change their school."
Son has been in Sacramento for 17 years and married for 15 years to her physician husband, Carl Shin, a pain-management and rehabilitation specialist.
Her father is "a connoisseur" who regularly took her to the same restaurants where he entertained his clients. "I had my first sushi when I was 5," she said. "He would say, 'Where do you want to eat tonight?' I would pick the restaurant depending on the desserts. I knew which restaurants had what desserts, even when I was young."
Though her mother wanted her to be an artist ("I grew up drawing and painting every day"), Son moved from San Francisco to attend UC Davis to study managerial economics and international relations.
After graduating, she was undecided whether to pursue an MBA or become a diplomat or an attorney. "Practically, I knew I would have a career in one of those, and a bakery would be an afterthought later in life. But the things that happened to me weren't according to my plan."
Son eventually took a marketing-research job at Samsung, but after 14 months left to get married. It wasn't long before her husband's fast-growing medical practice (and other businesses) "required my help and I jumped right in. The years passed and we had our two babies."
Son originally intended to open a bakery when her children were older. "Then it hit me," she said. "I wouldn’t be going back to the work force for 10 years, and by then I wouldn’t have much value. I thought, 'I don’t know how, but I'm going to get my feet and hands wet.' The thought was daunting."
Cupcakes were trending at the time, so in 2009 she took a first step with a three-year lease on a 700-square-foot space in Fair Oaks. Ether's Cupcakes was a hit, so she added a kiosk in the Roseville Galleria in 2010. Both closed in 2012.
"They were definitely designed to prepare me for Estelle," she said. "I wanted to learn about hiring and managing a staff, food costs, how to find a chef – all the necessities."
Then serendipity stepped in. Months earlier, she and her husband happened to be walking along the K Street pedestrian mall when they spotted a "pretty decent location with potential, even though the area was dirty and run-down," she said.
Son decided to start there while she planned a larger Estelle in Arden, where she already had an undeveloped warehouse. "The area was a ghost town, with no sign of DoCo or Golden 1 Center, and I didn't know how people would respond to traditional French goods," she said. "It was a huge risk, but I'm crazy like that."
First, what was needed was a name. "My French teacher in Toronto called me 'Estelle,' the French equivalent of 'Esther.' I said, 'That's it!' We opened in 2011 and were immediately flooded with attention and love. We had lines out the door during lunchtime. I felt like a pioneer."
One refrain from customers was something like, "We were in Paris last month and your croissant is the closest thing we've found in Sacramento."
"I would have tears," Son said.
Soon, Estelle was on everybody's lists of the area's best bakeries, joining the venerable Ettore's, Freeport and Karen's. Meanwhile, Son was working on another strategy. "But timing-wise, nothing happened the way I planned," she said. "You can't get anywhere easily."
As Estelle on K Street approached closure in August 2016 (landlord issues), the idea was to segue first to an Estelle in nearby DoCo by October, followed by Estelle-Arden. However, the DoCo store was put on hold because Golden 1 Center was mired in construction delays. The Arden warehouse wasn't ready to move in, so "there was a year-and-a-half gap with no Estelle," Son said. "But we were still serving our wholesale clients out of a rented facility."
Ultimately, everything came together earlier this year when both Estelles opened at last.
Son didn't attend a formal culinary school, but she may as well have. The epiphany that "transformed my life" shortly after university was a month at the Institute of Korean Royal Cuisine in Seoul. The exclusive cooking academy attracts chefs, restaurateurs and dedicated foodies from around the world.
"Every day felt like a first love. I woke up early each morning, anxious to go to school," she said. "There was so much wisdom and science behind how they sourced and made the food, things that must be observed if you're going to be in the food industry. I learned to appreciate the hard work and the tender loving care that quality food requires."
Over the past decade, Son further aggregated her culinary skills by learning from the French chefs she hired to give lessons at Estelle, and by taking weekend cooking classes in various cities, studying cookbooks and French culinary school textbooks, experimenting and developing recipes, and dining and tasting in culinary-centric cities including Paris, New York and San Francisco. Yes, she can bake everything on Estelle's menu, just not as fast as her pastry chefs.
"My palate is incredibly sensitive and sophisticated," she said. "Some of our recipes are 100 percent mine, some are inspired by other chefs, and a lot I developed with other chefs. Everything goes through a very rigorous process with me."
Asked if she has a favorite pastry, she said, "That's like asking, 'Which is your favorite child?' I've had so much involvement in every creation. I love eating pastries and developing them, but the funny thing is I don't like making them. I go to my competitors' bakeries, but not to examine what they're doing. I'm really there to enjoy somebody else's pastry, because my pastries are my work."
At the workplace, Son knows what she wants and is clearly in charge, yet her business model is democratic.
"It’s a collective effort, not a one-person show," she said. "If someone has an idea, the team gets together and develops it. My staff is here because they all share my value, which is: I’ll never compromise."
One rule of business is to surround yourself with skilled people. Estelle pastry chef Shelby Hallmark and food and beverage manager Andrea DeBruyn both are graduates of the Culinary Institute of America in Napa. Alison Clevenger, former executive pastry chef at Ginger Elizabeth Chocolates, joined the team June 11.
"Esther hires people and then listens to what they say, and reaches out to our clients so much for feedback," said Hallmark. "Every week we sit down and ask, 'What can we do to make our products better?' She's very direct and knows exactly what she wants. I've never asked her a question where she's said, 'I don’t know.'"
"Esther is very empowering, always pushing you to rise to the next level," DeBruyn said. "What’s nice is the staff is encouraged to speak freely and bounce ideas off each other."
The business part aside, what motivates Son? "When I'm standing in the dining room, reading my customers and watching them enjoy what we've made, that's so satisfying. That's what keeps me going."
When asked about a wider vision, Son paused for a moment, uncharacteristically quiet.
"If there's any skill or wisdom I've gained, I want to pass them on to my younger colleagues and the next generation," she replied. "(Late celebrity chef) Anthony Bourdain influenced millions of people. I may be able to influence only a few hundred in my life, but that's all I need to do."