The first bite tastes like a blooming flower, and April mornings when every breath is heavy with the scent of new blossoms. If you would ask me for other words, descriptions, flavors, I have nothing. How else to explain the delicate layering of flavors and textures? A bite of crunch, a swell of cream, an aftertaste of springtime.
Perhaps, that’s why Whang Suh, the man behind the cherry blossom cream puff, was named a semifinalist for a James Beard Award as best pastry chef in the United States in 2019.
Suh owns Hen & Heifer, a little blue shop tucked behind the town green in Guilford. His shop is filled with exquisitely crafted pastries, crème puffs, macarons, tarts, cakes, cookies and confections I have never seen elsewhere.
“When I walked in and I saw what he had in his case, I felt transported to Paris,” said Dorie Greenspan, a five-time James Beard Award winner, of Whang Suh’s shop Hen & Heifer in Guilford. “Each of his pastries are a complete creation, it’s very much a reflection of who he is, how he works and what he loves. He is extraordinarily gifted.”
Although Suh did not take home the title this year, most winners have been nominees first, it is potentially a step toward later win.
“Being a James Beard Award semifinalist was gratifying and motivating, of course, both for myself and my team,” Suh said. “Awards, however, do not dictate or guide my philosophy about food and pastry. My goal is to challenge myself and my team constantly and to enjoy the process… that’s critically important. Receiving awards are simply icing on the cake.”
Suh, who said his love of baking began with a love of eating, attended the French Culinary Institute before opening Hen & Heifer seven years ago.
“The older I got, the more enchanted I became with food and pastry,” Suh said. “It simply made sense to make a career out of what has always comforted me the most: sharing and eating.”
Unlike many bakeries, Hen & Heifer is not catering to typical tastes and textures. Suh’s work isn’t flashy, brightly colored or overly sweet. Even his best-selling item, a salted caramel toffee cookie, had me slowing down, wanting to savor every bite, to understand how the crunch gave way to a soft, chewy interior.
“Some customers are looking for bright colors and sparkles and whiz-bang. I’m not that guy and Hen & Heifer isn’t that place. Our approach is more quiet. The primary focus is on flavor and texture,” Suh said. “The aim is to make sweets that look like food, that look like they should be eaten, that make sense, and that represent a caring and educated hand.”
As Greenspan put it, “you can taste the joy that he takes in the work.”
Suh is constantly experimenting, creating and producing new items that fit the season. The latest is a Pistachio Delice which contains a light pistachio sponge cake, caramelized pistachio, raspberry jam, olive oil ganache, pistachio mousse, white chocolate glaze and fresh raspberries.
“My prime directive has shifted from focusing on what items customers may want, to focusing on what items I want to make. The shop and its food are a very personal expression of me,” Suh said. “I’ve made not a few daring business choices, and I don’t regret them.”
“I have no idea where my tastes will take Hen & Heifer next, but I’m looking forward to the future for sure,” Suh said. “I often surprise myself at the decisions I make about what’s happening next.”