Jonathan Lam of Pegasus Bakery & Cafe expands cultural boundaries with pastries
Jonathan Lam was 14 when he moved from cosmopolitan Hong Kong to a small town in middle-of-nowhere Illinois. He lived in Benton, which has a notorious history that includes a 1995 KKK rally on the courthouse steps. Lam was a member of the only Chinese family in town. Surely, he must have experienced malice from the townsfolk.
No, he says. “They liked us because we are the only Chinese restaurant there,” Lam says. Locals would bring their catch of the day and trade the fish for orange chicken.
“And we said: ‘Sure!’ Food really brings people together. We are not there to bring competition. If they drive us out of the town, all they have is McDonald’s and KFC. So they kind of like us. We ran a very successful business there because there was no competition.”
Lam, now nearly 40, has applied those early lessons—especially the power of food to unite people—to his Pegasus Bakery & Cafe in South Sacramento. Since opening in 2016, it has served many of the staples of traditional Cantonese bakeries, including milk tea, egg tarts, mooncakes and sweetheart cakes. But it also reflects Lam’s travels and his intellectual curiosity, with its Japanese crepes and red bean buns. After a recent stop in Singapore, he hopes to introduce more durian and other flavors that cater to the Southeast Asian population in Sacramento’s Little Saigon.
Lam has also picked up knowledge across the states. When he lived in Illinois, Lam used to drive a few hours to the nearest Cantonese bakery in St. Louis. The pastries sold for five to six times more than in Hong Kong.
“What we’re buying is the feeling, comfort and the memory—they connect us together,” Lam remembers.
That St. Louis kitchen was never clean, yet the storefront was always packed with customers, he recalls. So he decided to open up his own Cantonese bakery someday, but to make it more affordable, clean and professional.
After his stint in the Midwest, Lam roamed to Albuquerque and Atlanta, living with different friends and relatives. “So he’s very independent,” says his wife, Cynthia Aung-Lam.
In the ’90s, he answered a job posting at the now-shuttered ABC Bakery in San Francisco, and master chef Hung Fat Sum hired him on the spot. “He said, ’You’re a white piece of paper, so I want to use it.’”
Sum had worked at a well-known establishment in Hong Kong called Maria’s Bakery. Lam apprenticed under him for two years and learned everything he could about the craft. Then, Sum wished him away. “He said, ’Everything I know, I taught you already. If you want to learn management, accounting, the boss will not teach you. Go back to school.’”
Then, Lam studied food science at the City College of San Francisco, where he met his future wife. After graduating, he franchised Panda Express restaurants from Oakland to Pinole.
Eventually, he and his wife moved to Sacramento so that she could continue in pharmacy school. Lam wanted to use his food-science savvy to start something more creative. He named his new business Pegasus Bakery in part because he, his son and his master chef were all born in the year of the horse.
His current master chef? The same as his first: Hung Fat Sum. The baker with 48 years of experience can be seen through the window of the kitchen, wearing a tall white chef’s hat while dotting a roughly 4-foot-long cake with spherical scoops of honeydew and cantaloupe. He still keeps an open-door policy with fresh apprentices. “He said he doesn’t want to bring his skills with him in the coffin, so anybody who wants to learn, come here,” Lam says.
Above the cash register, a painted Pegasus shows the faint outline of its heart. The reason: “Most of the people working here are immigrants,” Lam says. “We walk a long way, we fly over the sea and bring back the taste from home to comfort their hearts.”