Restaurant and bakery owner Tarit Tanjasiri ’82 is a passionate advocate for food prepared well
As a teenager at Williston, Tarit Tanjasiri ’82 looked forward to the days when he could walk into Easthampton for a hot slice at Village Pizza. Now, as the owner of the popular Crema Café in Seal Beach, California, and a new wholesale business, Crema Artisan Bakers, he looks forward to his trips to Europe to learn the finer points of making exceptional breads and pastries.
Circumstances may have changed for Tarit, but his appreciation for good food has not. “In one way, I’m super picky. In other ways, I’m certainly not,” he explains. “I’m a street-vendor person. I could eat anything. But it needs to be made well. A street-food person could be the one who really respects the food they are making, and the fancy restaurant could be just throwing food together and not caring.”
In his own baking and restaurant offerings, care and respect for the food are paramount. It’s an approach that resonates with his appreciative customers. They line up for innovations such as the confection he dreamed up after a recent trip to Germany to study pretzel making—the pretzel croissant.
“It’s brown and has the texture of a pretzel, but when you bite into it, it’s layered and soft and buttery and crunchy,” Tarit explains. “We also make chocolate pretzel croissants, with sea salt and sesame seeds. I think it’s the best thing coming out of our bakery.” High praise, indeed, considering that his recently opened wholesale bakery in Irvine, California, puts out an impressive lineup of artisan and sourdough breads, bagels, tarts, pastries, muffins, and more.
“I find there are not that many people who are that committed to doing something really well,” he says. “Everybody wants to just cut corners where they can. That’s not my thing.”
This quality-first approach has been a hallmark of Crema Café, the breakfast and lunch restaurant he opened in 2006. Soon after, unsatisfied with the commercial bread available, he learned artisan bread baking from a master baker friend and, six years later, opened an attached bakery so he could expand Crema’s offerings. Still, Tarit doesn’t think of himself as a chef. “I never went through appropriate training or school for it,” he explains. “I’m more of an entrepreneur who loves to cook and bake.”
Raised in Thailand (his father was a banker and farmer who also loved to cook), he attended school in Singapore before Williston, then earned his degree in economics from the University of Southern California. After a few years in Hawaii, where he windsurfed and developed real estate by day and worked in a Thai restaurant by night, he returned to California and eventually made the leap to the restaurant business full time. He bought his first place, Emerson’s in Studio City, in 1993, from a couple who had run it as a coffee house.
“The learning curve was huge,” he remembers. “All my friends were established chefs—they are French and had paid their dues already—and I really envied their lifestyle. Getting into it, I was hit with the reality that it’s the hardest industry to survive in. There’s constant work, and the more successful you are, the more work you have. It’s not the other way around.”
Three other breakfast and lunch restaurants would come and go before he opened Crema, and then, last fall, the wholesale bakery in Irvine. Tarit couldn’t be more pleased with how the new business is going. “It turned out to be a company I’d been waiting for all my life. I love what I’m doing now more than ever. We make beautiful things. People are much more appreciative of a bite into a good croissant than a good burger.” Especially, we should note, if it’s a croissant that looks like a pretzel and is filled with chocolate.
To stay at the top of his game, Tarit travels regularly to learn from other chefs. For his bread and pastries, he visits France every two years or so, a trip that he notes is also “an excuse to travel.” Accompanying him is his wife, Sora, the chair of the Department of Health Science at Cal State Fullerton.
“Baking is like learning a foreign language,” Tarit says. “There’s no shortcut to learning it. You can’t just wake up one day and know how to speak the language. That’s how baking is. More than 15 years into baking now, and I’m still learning all the time.”