ARTIST INTERVIEW: Kei Okumura of Sugarbird Sweets and Teas
Kei Okumura is the genius baker behind Sugarbird Sweets. Kei can’t remember ever not baking. Growing up in Kamakura, Japan, Kei’s earliest memories are of melting butter and sugar to not only create an epic mess, but also the most delicious thing she had ever tasted. The aroma of baking bread or the crunch of the perfect macaron was always in her peripheral thoughts even as she guided high end computer graphics to living rooms as a post-production producer in her previous life.
She eventually left the world of pixels and followed her calling to Paris to study at the prestigious Ecole de Cuisine Francaise, Ferrandi where she studied baking and catering techniques, graduating at the top of her class. This was followed by an internship with Alain Ducasse at The Plaza Athenee and a successful run at the Hotel Bristol.
Kei returned to LA and after working at several high end, fine dining restaurants and bakeries, established Sugarbird Sweets + Teas to provide blended teas and scones that are unparalled in taste and quality.
We spoke to Kei about the challenging that rewarding road of hard work and inspiration that let her to Sugarbird.
Describe the path that led you to your work.
After a career in film production, I found cravings to spend my evenings baking cakes and perfecting French Macarons at home. This led to enrolling in one of the top culinary schools in Paris, France to experience the full boulangerie and pastry world to hone in on my craft.
Once I returned to the US, I gained experience working in fine dining kitchens and as a private chef cooking and baking for chef friends I’ve made along the way.
My attempts at getting my own company started at my favorite farmer’s markets didn’t come easy. The competition was fierce and I needed a fresh product that differentiated me from everyone else.
This led me to start Sugarbird to create the first batch of uniquely flavored organic tea blends. These were blends based on my pastry background and dessert-oriented flavors to satisfy my sweet tooth cravings while pregnant with my first child. After numerous false starts, I finally landed my own stand selling teas. However, I learned very quickly that I needed to come up with a product other than just teas. Something that people would come back for every week. Something people would crave for.
The answer, it turned out, were scones. But not just everyday, normal scones, but incredibly, tasty addictively delicious scones.
Growing up in Japan, tea and sweets are a traditional afternoon tea combination. I eventually came across a versatile scone recipe that paired incredibly well with my teas. This opened up the concept of the modern afternoon tea and eventually into an afternoon tea catering company. Sugarbird now offers a wide range of teas and scones (both freshly baked and frozen) to restaurants, hotels, studios, cafes and cruise ships.
What would you say is the driving force behind your creative work?
My family, friends and my community. I feel fortunate to be surrounded by fierce entrepreneurs, artists and chefs, who constantly push their limits. By osmosis and the need to keep up, am inspired by their work ethic, stamina, grit, grace and creative energy.
Do you have any objects you like to keep around you as inspiration? What are they?
I have a cast iron bird made by a Japanese artist that my husband, James gave me for my birthday before starting Sugarbird. To me, this bird resembles timelessness, grace, friendliness, balance, prosperity and resilience. I think it keeps me grounded.
Do you have a daily working routine? Can you describe it?
Getting up by 5:30am
(need to add here some exercise but haven’t gotten that in lately)
Making kids lunch + breakfast by 7am
Send off kids by 8am
At the bakery by 8:30am
Come home by 4:30p
In bed by 10:30pm
What is a new idea you have been working with recently?
Sugarbird Scone Bar – A make-your-own scone parfait with an elaborate topping bar filled with selections of custards, clotted creams, sprinkles, mochi, fresh fruits, caramels, chocolates, savory items like an arugula salad and a fried egg as a chive and feta slider. This launch is in the works at Smorgasbord-LA sometime in June.
Sugarbird Afternoon Tea in the Woods – An immersive afternoon tea experience set in a projected forest, where guests interact with projected animals, sensory introductions while you enjoy selections of Franco-Japonaise inspired tea sandwiches, mini desserts, salads, scones, and various selections of Sugarbird teas.