The French colonization of Vietnam has impacted the country in many ways. The Vietnamese resisted westernization enforced by the French in order to retain their cultural identity. However, one baked good positively influenced Vietnamese cuisine--the French baguette. The crispy, fluffy, buttery loaf made its way through the country, and the Vietnamese found different ways to incorporate their cuisine inside the bread itself. Certain regions dipped it in beef stew or Vietnamese curry, while others preferred to stuff the bread with an assortment of savory fillings for a quick, but complete meal.
Le Vo, the founder of Ba Le, was in his 20’s and living in Saigon when he decided to sell banh mi sandwiches at his drink stand in the 1950’s. When he first arrived in the city from the southern countryside, he found wood and simply built a stand that served as a place of business. Vo’s curiosity and passion about food led him to pursue more than just sell drinks; he began to make his own pasta noodles in hopes of discovering a distinct craft and skill he could specialize in, but came to find he understood and loved baking bread, marinating meat, and pickling vegetables more than he ever would noodles. He learned how to bake bread from the French themselves, and experimented with different flavor profiles by preparing his own meat and vegetables. The timing, proportion, and chemistry of banh mi’s individual elements made sense to him. After years of recipe, business, and production development, Vo closed up shop in 1972 to come to the America.
It has been nearly 40 years since Vo’s arrival in the United States and there are now 40 Ba Le bakeries in the U.S. Each individual Ba Le owner has directly worked with Vo and continues to carry on his trademark and name. Vo carried his experience with him to the United States. Many other Vietnamese immigrants from around the country turned to Vo for food and business management advice. At this point, he was already fluent in his passion and shared it with those around him. He taught people how to utilize their resources to recreate a piece of Vietnamese culture in a foreign land. He helped people recognize their own capabilities when it came to skills they grew up with and relied on to get them through adaption to a new culture. He facilitated the growth of Vietnamese businesses and communities throughout the country. In 1982, he opened a Ba Le bakery in San Jose, California, but found the rapid growing Vietnamese community housed a lot of competitors, which drove Vo to the opening of Ba Le in Chicago in 1988 and now serves as the headquarters of Ba Le products.
Today, Vo’s daughter has taken it upon herself to honor the traditional methods of preparing Vietnamese food by supplying her guests with fresh, authentic, handmade food that her father taught her how to make at Ba Le Bakery in Chicago, Illinois. In April of 2010, she remodeled and moved into what used to be a Thai grocery store. With a larger kitchen and more counter space, she has been able to incorporate her education at the French Pastry School in downtown Chicago by offering mousse cakes, gourmet chocolates, financiers, and handcrafted desserts in exotic flavors. Ba Le Bakery is now a delicate mix of old and new, sweet and savory, and Vietnamese and French.