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Euro Pane Bakery may be the center of civilized life in Pasadena: a place to buy excellent-to-superb scones and baguettes and pains au chocolat, of course, but also the heart of a certain sort of society, the chemistry professors, theology students and writers who may worship at the twin altars of caffeine and conversation, but really just crave a corner of their own. Starbucks may be where screenplays get written, and other local restaurants feature more ambitious cuisine, but Euro Pane is a perfect example of what sociologists sometimes call the Third Place: a gathering point neither home nor work where the pleasurable business of community happens. If it weren’t for Euro Pane, half the people I know would go days without talking to anybody at all.
Euro Pane is an extension of its proprietor, Sumi Chang, a superb baker who spends weird amounts of time chasing delicious cakes and slow-rise bread around the world, but who also may be the most gracious person in the city of Pasadena. Sumi is the woman with whom you want to share the groggiest hour of your day and the warm glow of the morning’s first cup of coffee, a woman who is completely, totally beloved by the tiny children to whom she is always sneaking bits of roll and farmers-market strawberries. Breakfast, as your mother always told you, is the most important meal of the day.
“I remember my first American breakfast,” says Sumi, who moved from Seoul to live with an aunt in Missouri when she was 14. “Two strips of bacon and one stupid egg staring up at me. In Korea, breakfast included so many dishes. Great breakfasts were our culture. I went back to my room and cried.”
The paths to cooking take many curious twists, but it is safe to say that not many of them start in the intensive-care units of hospitals, where Sumi found herself working as a nurse. The nurses organized potluck meals, and Sumi studied food magazines in an effort to satisfy her colleagues. (She also met her life partner, Janice Corsino, whom she has been with for more than 18 years.)
She took night cooking classes and studied with pastry master Jim Dodge in San Francisco and at Lenôtre in Paris. She bounced from restaurant to restaurant until she ended up at Campanile in its first year, where Nancy Silverton soon put her in charge of the restaurant’s legendary breakfasts. (Copied rather faithfully by the Corner Bakery chain among others, the Nancy/Sumi style of breakfast — seasonal, rustic, not really sweet, more European than the Europeans — can be found everywhere in the country now.) And in 1995 she opened Euro Pane in a tiny Pasadena storefront, mostly because it was close to her house.
And her croissants! A good croissant is a joy forever, crisp, airy and saturated with butter, just large enough to take the sting off a double cappuccino. Croissants are tricky to make: The stretch-wrap technique of the classic croissant and the time-consuming dough manipulation that gives the roll the crispness and layered structure that separate it from, say, a crescent-shaped lump of white bread, can take months to master. But master it Sumi did.
As I was slipping into anesthetized sleep before a minor operation last year, the surgeon, hoping the drugs would act as a truth serum, asked me to name the restaurants in Pasadena that I really, really liked.
“Euro Pane,” the surgeon said disgustedly as I came to. “I had you drugged, and all you could come up with was Euro Pane.”