Bakers from Capitol Jill Baking, Chiboo Bakery and Sunday Morning Bakehouse on adding their personal flair to baking in D.C.
Whether you’re a sucker for sourdough, a doughnut diehard or a macaron maniac, these three bakers and their sweet spots have got you covered.
Capitol Jill Baking
Like so many others, Jill Nguyen went down the bread making rabbit hole during the lockdown, looking for a way to soothe herself while staying connected with her friends. It didn’t start well. The first sourdough starter she made — Scarlett Doughansson — promptly died. Thankfully, the second, bearing the same name, not only survived, it thrived. So did her love of baking. By summer, she was dropping off loaves at friends’ homes. But by fall she started getting pushback.
“People would say, ‘Please stop giving us bread. We’re also stress baking,’” she remembers.
She decided to start selling excess sourdough loaves to her neighbors in Columbia Heights, donating the income to local nonprofits (she still donates a portion of what she earns to area causes). Soon, people were posting about it on the local listserv and social media.
“Suddenly, I became this bread person,” she says.
As the burgeoning baker was trying to think of a name for her new hustle, she was also in the process of buying a home with her partner on Capitol Hill, where she moved at the end of 2020. Texting friends about her new neighborhood, the phone autocorrected it to Capitol Jill. She thought it was cute and the name stuck.
After settling into her rowhouse and organizing the kitchen, Nguyen formalized her ordering process and started experimenting with other recipes to expand her repertoire. For her, the creative process is an almost Zen exercise.
“It’s really hard to get the perfect bite when you make something, because you have been simmering in the process,” she says. “My happiness comes from having other people have the perfect bite moment eating something I made. I’ll be forever chasing that perfect bite moment for myself.”
Now her ever-shifting menu includes toasted oat loaf, cranberry walnut sourdough and stout sourdough made with beer from Atlas Brew Works. There are babka buns laced with Nutella, bestselling Swedish cardamom buns and oversized brown-butter s’mores cookies. Other desserts — like tamarind caramel cream-filled doughnuts — take their cue from Vietnam, where she was born and raised.
Since opening her cottage bakery, her mailing list has swelled to 2,500 die-hard bread heads and pastry devotees, who snap up everything she offers when her weekly email goes out Sundays at noon. Before they arrive for pick-ups on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Fridays, she makes sure her kitchen is spotless so she can enjoy a glass of wine while talking to customers, saying hello to their kids and petting their dogs.
“This was always about community,” she says. “Yes, this my way of making a living. But it’s never been about money. The thing I get the most from this work is knowing my neighbors.”
Chelsea Tan didn’t plan on becoming a professional baker. Born in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, she moved to the States in 2013 to pursue a degree in finance at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst. Upon graduating, she returned home and traveled around Asia for a couple of years, where she fell hard for the flavors that would one day shine in her pastries. Throughout it all, she was enraptured with the art of making French macarons, watching countless YouTube videos and using family and friends as her taste testers.
In March of 2020, Tan moved to the D.C. area, hunting for a job. The Covid-19 pandemic quashed that dream, but the lockdown gave her lots of time to bake in her Reston apartment kitchen.
“It was a way for me to seek comfort,” she says.
That November, she began selling on social media under the moniker Chiboo Bakery, riffing on her parents’ endearment for her based on her middle name, Chi. Though she sold several types of baked goods, she quickly became renowned for her charming macarons. Sometimes they celebrated Asian ingredients: pandan (an aromatic leaf with grassy-vanilla-coconut notes), hōjicha (Japanese green tea) and salted egg yolk with pork floss. Other times, she slipped in more Western flavors: Fruity Pebbles, strawberry lemonade and salted caramel buttercream with apple butter.
Her treats weren’t always simple circles. Tan conjured macarons in darling shapes that popped on Instagram, such as tigers, gingerbread men, bumblebees, turkeys, mushrooms, bunnies and koi.
“The characters are a way to push my creative and artistic boundaries, as well as my technical capabilities,” she says. “They’re difficult to make, but they’re a lot of fun.”
In 2021, Tan decided to stop hunting for a white-collar job and became a full-time baker, selling her pastries online and at pop-ups, as well as catering bespoke orders. During warmer months, Tan runs a stall at the Bethesda Central Farm Market, where she likes to highlight seasonal fruit in her creations, such as persimmon jelly parfait and strawberry shortcake.
This spring, she is taking her efforts to the next level, opening a small brick-and-mortar shop in Herndon, where she will also host baking classes. Expect the pastry case to be brimming with macarons, tartlets, cookies, parfaits, entremets (dainty, mousse-rich cakes) and kuih (bite-size, just-a-touch-sweet Malaysian desserts).
Sunday Morning Bakehouse
Caroline Yi always loved to bake but thought of it more as a passion than a profession. But after attending the University of Maryland and dipping her toes in the white-collar waters, the Rockville native decided she might find more happiness in a kitchen than an office. As she considered the job jump, she would go to A Baked Joint to grab a biscuit sandwich and soak up the vibes.
“I loved the environment, the hustle bustle, the smell of coffee and baked goods,” she says. “It just looked like the kind of place where I wanted to spend my time.”
Wanting to be closer to the action, she got a job working the counter in 2016. In some ways, the front of the house seemed a mile away from the kitchen, but she still peeked in when
“I was really intimidated by the bakers because they’re usually lost in their own thing and not really engaging with other stuff,” she says. “I would just watch them hand laminating croissants and making sourdough by hand.”
After a while, she worked up the nerve to bake croissants at home for the head baker to get his feedback. He had comments but was impressed. When a baker left a few weeks later, she was offered a position in the kitchen. Over the coming months, she applied herself diligently, worked hard and absorbed every lesson. She came up against one unexpected challenge: the innate warmth of her hands, which would melt the butter in the dough she was making. To overcome the issue, she soaked her hands in ice water until she couldn’t feel them anymore. Only then could she begin her work.
Once she felt confident in her commercial-level baking abilities, she went solo in the spring of 2017, setting up a stall at a Gaithersburg farmers market where she sold chocolate croissants, kouign-amann, cruffins rolled in cinnamon sugar and dog treats. The first week, she went home with half of what she baked. But after only a month, she started selling out. A long line became the norm. A year later, she upgraded to the farmers market at Pike & Rose and started looking for a home for a bakery. As luck would have it, a space opened at the Rockville development.
Sunday Morning Bakehouse debuted in October 2020. Though the pandemic shut it down only five months later, Yi’s determination and legions of devoted customers helped ensure the business didn’t fold. These days, it’s busier than ever.
Unless they’re sold out, you’ll always find brioche doughnuts in the case, including some glistening with cinnamon sugar and others plumped up with jelly, which now command a die-hard following.
“People would come after me with pitchforks if I ever got rid of it,” she jokes.
Other favorites include slender, sea-salted chocolate chunk cookies with crispy edges and chewy centers, almond croissants that flake into buttery confetti when you take a bite and artful loaves.
Though matcha makes regular appearances in Yi’s creations, and she has worked red bean and black sesame into limited edition pastries, Asian flavors don’t define her work.
“I’m a little protective of making sure we’re not misconstrued as an Asian bakery, because when you walk into an Asian bakery, there are certain pastries and breads people have come to expect,” Yi says. “I’m Korean, but I fell in love with French pastry and rustic California sourdough, so that’s what I’m trying to put out.”
The Sunday Morning Bakehouse story is still unfolding. Yi would like to open a couple more locations in the next two years. She is looking at spots in Northern Virginia around McLean and Tysons.
Want to discover more of D.C.’s diverse and delicious baking scene? Join the District Fray community for exclusive access to culinary experiences citywide. Become a member and support local journalism today.