For years, I have enjoyed the smell and sight of La Boulangerie on the corner of N. 45th and Bagley, known for its assortment of fresh baked French breads decoratively lining the shelves. The cases are filled with fresh croissants and pastries that serve to tempt the public. Xon Loung (pronounced Song Loong) is the master behind it all, and when I say master, I mean it. He is a one-man show, and that is nothing short of amazing.
The life of a baker is one filled with dedication and careful calculations. To produce exquisitely delicious bread on a regular basis requires long hours. To then produce exceptionally delicious pastries and desserts requires dedication and flawless time management. To do all of this with one oven and one set of hands is masterful. Xon Loung is just the man for the job.
Xon started baking when he was ten years old. He grew up in South Vietnam where his parents ran a French bakery (remember, Vietnam used to be a French colony). His training began in 1958 after his father died; his mother did not know how to bake so his cousin put Xon and his brother to work at the bakery. They used a wood burning, brick oven that had been built by his father and required ten hours to burn enough wood to heat it. The French army provided the ingredients, which were dropped off in truckloads each week. Xon’s family would bake the required quota of bread and use whatever was left over to sell at the market.
Xon did all of this while attending school. He often would get home at 1 am and be out the door for another day by 5:30 am. His sleep was minimal, and his tasks were large, but all the while his love of baking grew. And so it went for years.
In 1967, Xon moved to Saigon for college. His campus was a few blocks from a French bakery, and it didn’t take long for Xon to find work there. They were delighted to employ him; he spoke French and baked French, he was a perfect fit. There, Xon spent many years further developing his skills as a French baker.
In February of 1980, Xon moved to Spokane, Washington as a political refugee after the Vietnam War. He stayed in Spokane with a sponsor until August of the same year, when he moved to Seattle. He found work at La Boulangerie, which at the time had different owners. Xon worked for them as a baker and a deliveryman. He worked seven days a week for most of a decade, sometimes sleeping at the bakery. Finally, in 1995, he took over La Boulangerie and began his stint as the master baker.
At different points throughout his time as head of La Boulangerie, Xon has had employees, but for the majority of the past 15 years he has managed to do it all by himself. This is true today. Xon is there six days a week; Monday through Thursday from 7am to 7pm, and Friday and Saturday from 7am to 9pm. He reluctantly decided to close the café one day a week in order to get some rest; he was frequently falling asleep and falling out of his chair during production hours. A close friend was able to talk some sense into him. Xon is glad that he listened; he now falls asleep in his bed at home. (He told me all of this with a chuckle). On his day off, Xon goes down to Kent to visit his cousin and enjoys having someone else cook for him.
Xon Loung is a small man, with the hands of a baker and smiling eyes. He has spent his life baking and he now lives and breathes it. In order to make the best bread, a person needs to be able to listen, and the dough will “tell” them when it is ready. This is why the french bread from La Boulangerie is so delicious. Xon knows this and is able feel what the dough is “telling” him. Because of his careful hands and lifelong skill for baking, he is able to create exceptional loaves of bread over and over again. Xon sells these loaves humbly, he never mentions just how many hours it may have taken him to make it or how much sleep he may have lost perfecting it. Instead he’ll smile and send you on your way.
Xon smiles a lot. As we sat and talked about his life this past Thursday afternoon, he would frequently smile and wave to his regulars as they passed by on the street. The passers-by waved back with a loving loyalty, and it was apparent to me that not only is this Xon’s bakery, but this is his neighborhood. His long road to becoming a master baker guided him from Vietnam, to Spokane, and now to Wallingford. And there he stands in his quaint little bakery- behind cases full of fresh baked croissants and pastries, with loaves of bread lining the shelves- waiting patiently, humbly, for his next customer.