While, in recent years, a new wave of Vietnamese-inspired restaurants have opened in New York — among them Đi Ăn Đi, Van Đa, Madame Vo, Saigon Social, and, most recently, High Low Beverage Company — baker Doris Ho-Kane saw little emphasis on the Southeast Asian sweets she grew up with.
Before the pandemic, Ho-Kane had plans to open a Vietnamese-influenced bakery named Bạn Bè — which translates to “pal” or “buddies” in Vietnamese — in Cobble Hill. But a series of challenges with the space and the ongoing COVID-19 crisis, has caused her to temporarily pivot to offering stylish cookie tins for delivery instead — all while she hunts for a new location and rethinks what her business could look like.
“I have not come across any [Vietnamese bakeries] in my 20 years in NYC, and feel that it’s a huge crater that needs to be filled,” says Ho-Kane, who was mentored by pastry chef Caren Tommasone, while the duo worked together at catering company Poppy’s. “Vietnamese restaurants here usually offer only 2–3 desserts, if at all, so I was constantly making my own desserts at home.”
For now, that means focusing on her cookies. Initially, she began offering her desserts alongside chef Phoebe Trần’s Vietnamese meal delivery pop-up that was launched during the pandemic. But after Trần took on another job and slowed down her meal service, Ho-Kane decided to offer pick-ups on her own. To date, Ho-Kane is shipping her desserts nationally with a waitlist of more than 100 cookie tins right now. Orders can be placed by DMing the Bạn Bè Instagram account, and each tin costs $36 for 28 cookies which includes four flavors: coconut pandan, black sesame ube, cà phê crunch, and tamarind cacao nib.
Bạn Bè is Ho-Kane’s first solo food venture, though she’s tapping into her more than decade-long background in the fashion industry to make her bakery stand out. Her thoughtful aesthetic touches are evident in the colorful dessert delivery packages that she sells via her Instagram account.
In 2016, Ho-Kane launched a wildly successful online archive called 17.21 WOMEN highlighting Asian women and their stories — the 17.21 project has since nabbed her a book deal with Penguin Books, out Summer 2021.
The more she thinks about that work, she’s realizing that there may be an interdisciplinary way to combine both 17.21 with her bakery in the same arena as an “archival, community space with food-in-tandem—as nourishment, as education, as resistance,” she says. “Imagine flipping through a zine compiled by Berkeley students at the height of the Asian American Movement in the ‘70s... Being activated and radicalized while eating bánh bò (honeycomb cake) and drinking hot jasmine soybean milk.”
Ho-Kane hopes that Bạn Bè will introduce New Yorkers to a host of Vietnamese sweets.
When the bakery opens in-full, Ho-Kane says that she plans to include items such as cà rem, a type of ice cream, chè, a soup-like dessert, the sticky rice dish xôi, the soft tofu pudding with ginger palm syrup called đậu hũ nước đường, and fried doughnut-y items like bánh cam and bánh tiêu. In addition, there will be drinks such as a pandan sesame milk and banana peanut milk, served hot or with crushed ice.
“My first-gen, immigrant childhood—growing up straddling two cultures, dealing with racism and assimilation—is the inspiration behind this bakery,” says Ho-Kane. “I know how heavy that sounds, but Việt desserts were the bright spots during that time. It has been deeply healing and achingly beautiful for me to cook the same foods that my family—my ancestors—have been making for so long,” she says.
Emma Orlow is a writer for Eater, Grub Street, T: The New York Times Style Magazine, and Bon Appétit (among others), where she covers the intersection of the food and design worlds. You can find her on Instagram and Twitter.