Chef goes from roasting pork to redefining pastry


By Tien-Shun Lee

Chinatown chef Warren Lee doesn’t think the next generation of his family will know how to make tsong — sticky rice treats wrapped in bamboo leafs. But they will be well fed with handmade bakery food, including lemon tarts and mini Oreo-crust cheesecakes.

These days, Lee, 40, no longer roasts pork like he used to when he was a high school kid working at his family’s Mott St. restaurant for $50 a week. Ever since he signed up for a specialty cakes course at the French Culinary Institute, which turned into nine months of schooling, Lee has been focusing primarily on creating beautiful and unique pastries.

At Crust, Lee’s 10-month-old bakery and cafe on Forsyth St., elements of his family’s traditional Chinese bakery-and-restaurant businesses can still be seen: Pastries are bagged in white, waxed paper baggies and the large back kitchen holds steamers for making steam buns and rice flour for making sweet wintermelon cookies.

“I always enjoyed baking. I know all the Chinese methods,” said Lee, whose family still runs Ho Won, a coffee shop at the corner of Hester and Elizabeth Sts. that has one showcase counter for pastries.

“When Ho Won first opened, we used to deliver up to hundreds of people in factories. They worked 12-hour days with lines of sewing machines. Now it’s mostly office businesses and doctor’s offices,” Lee said.

Lee lives above the store and grew up just one block away on Chrystie St. Lee’s family’s restaurant, Wong Kee, was one of the first Chinese restaurants to cross Canal St. back in the 1960s. It closed last year after Lee’s father and partners grew too old to take care of it, and neither Lee nor his sister wanted to take over the family business.

Some of Lee’s specialties at Crust include round, mango mousse and passion fruit mousse mini-cakes, slightly larger mini-cheesecakes, pie-wedge rice krispie treats, apple turnovers and Hazelnut linzer cookies.

For a wedding, Lee once created a 350-cupcake arrangement using butter-cream flower decorations. He used five different types of cupcakes — carrot, pear-spiced ginger, old-fashioned chocolate, chocolate pudding and vanilla — to make an elaborate, three-tiered arrangement.

Lee created his own wedding cake out of lotus bean paste and chocolate.

“He’s not afraid to experiment,” said Lee’s wife, Jennifer. “Most of the time it turns out gorgeous. The night before our wedding, we stayed up well into the night making chocolates.”

Compared to Chinese cakes, French cakes use a lot more butter, said Lee.

“The Chinatown cake is not as sweet and not as rich,” said the baker, who smiled and beamed while sitting in his newly renamed cafe. “The French use more almond flour and more chocolates.”

Lee switched his bakery’s name from “Whisk It All” to “Crust” recently after learning his son, Christopher, 2, had a rare blood disorder, Wiskott-Aldrich disease. The similarity between the names was just too much. Also influencing the decision was the fact that a baker who now caters out of her home uses the store’s original name.

Lee said all of the goodies in his bakery, including the muffins and the croissants, are made on premises.

Though he learned about truffles during his nine-month course at the French Culinary Institute, Lee said he has not yet gotten into making them, but he has cooked up a few specialty chocolate morsels such as lichee bon bons and cappuccino mousse croquets.

Lee also serves all-fruit smoothies, crepes, fresh salads and an assortment of sandwiches, including a hamburger with horseradish sour cream, avocado and tomato.

Though Lee grew up speaking Cantonese and has a thick New York Chinatown accent, he said he has never spent time abroad studying cuisines. For his last vacation, he preferred to go to the Bahamas with his wife and young son.

“I never really had time to travel to Asia,” said Lee. “Other than the Bahamas, I haven’t really taken other vacations.”

Lee said he has piles of cooking magazines and cookbooks in his “so-called office,” but he’s not one to spend time in the office.

Though Lee’s family once sold videotapes and hats along with baked goods, these days the only remaining family business is the one on Hester St. run by Lee’s father and sister, said Lee.

Compared to Ho Won, Crust is slightly more expensive, with coffee costing $1 and café au lait costing $3.

“I was forced to raise the price,” said Lee.

Crust offers a takeout and delivery menu as well as specials of the day, which are handwritten on a whiteboard and chalkboard.

Crust, at 106 Forsyth St., is open Mon.-Fri., 7:30 a.m.-7:30 p.m., and Sat.-Sun., 9 a.m.-5 p.m. 212-966-8782.