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Müller Luo had worked in finance for over ten years when she decided to take a year off. "It was time," she says simply. "I always knew I wasn't going to do finance forever."
So Luo quit her job and, wanting to travel, found herself in Austria in February. "It was the dead of winter. When my sister mentioned a pastry course at the French Culinary Institute for professional amateurs, I decided to come back to New York and enroll."
Luo, who often baked at home for fun, was hooked by the second class. The course particularly spoke to her love of traditional French pastry, and halfway through she asked her professors if they thought it would be worth it to spend the (considerable) money on going to full-fledged culinary school.
"They asked me if I wanted to be a star pastry chef or open my own store. I knew I wanted to have my own shop." So they advised her to skip the degree and instead go intern at a restaurant and figure out how to run a small business. Luckily finance is something Luo is versed in, so she focused on finding an internship and eventually started at La Bedaine, a French bakery in Oakland.
Luo spent three months there doing everything from making the laminated dough for croissants to turning out buttery sable cookies. At the end of her internship, she was offered a position, but she declined in order to travel to Asia.
"Before I started I knew I wanted to do Asian flavored pastries," she says. "It was more important for me to go to Asia to see what they were doing." The desire was deep-seated. Luo was born in Taiwan and moved to the Bay Area when she was nine. "I wanted to make the flavors I grew up with, like red bean, mango, taro, and green tea."
When it came time to open her shop in the Mission, Luo not only turned to those flavors but made them the focus of her menu. She picked 6 flavors to start with: black sesame, green tea, azuki, ginger, taro, and jasmine tea. Luo takes those flavors and incorporates them into traditional French pastries such as mille-feuille napoleons, financiers, and sables. She jokingly calls green tea the gateway drug. "If I can get people to try the green tea flavor, then they'll move on to taro and red bean."
The shop may be small, but Luo has plans for expansion—of the menu at least. She hopes to take on croissants soon, giving them her own twist like a red bean or black sesame filling. There are also exceptions to the list of flavors she works with. For example, she tried out a recipe for Banana Nut Bread with salted caramel fudge and candied walnuts. It was a huge hit, and one that she can't take off the menu.
To see more details of the baked goods at Sweetmue, including the cream puffs, financiers, and savory tarts, click through the slideshow above.
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