Atwater fave Proof Bakery’s Na Young Ma is ready for the next step

September 4, 2015
Proof Bakery's Na Young Ma (Tae Hong/Korea Times)

Proof Bakery’s Na Young Ma (Tae Hong/Korea Times)

By Tae Hong

A little less than two decades ago, a fresh-out-of-college grad landed a job as a night baker for a New York wholesale bakery desperate for any job, even if this one meant 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. work hours.

(Tae Hong/Korea Times)

(Tae Hong/Korea Times)

That same grad — Na Young Ma, owner and pastry chef of Atwater Village hotspot Proof Bakery in Glendale, California — would spend a good chunk of a decade working behind an array of office desks before realizing her heart was with the oven, not a computer screen.

Ma, who opened the space five years ago, has since seen high praise, from seeing her name on best pastry chefs lists to Proof being heralded as “the heart of the Atwater Village neighborhood.”

For all the attention her fast-growing business is getting, Ma’s still set her sights and goals on her regulars, those who don’t so much count the bakery as another name to check off a Yelp list as much as they like to come by daily to pick up her cult-favorite croissants or the insanely popular lunch baguette sandwiches.

“My emphasis is on people who come here every single day and on making sure that if they order a croissant, they get the same croissant every single day,” Ma says. “That’s my goal — consistent quality.”

It’s a neighborhood joint, and it’s always been a neighborhood joint — if the stream of unending “Hello”s and waves and “How’s your kid doing, by the way?”s exchanged between Ma and her customers doesn’t prove it, the history of the space she inherited does.

3156 Glendale Boulevard has a long history of bakeries, Proof being its fifth reincarnation.

In the 1960s, it was the Rollin’ Pin Bake Shop, a customer favorite with its 45-cent coffees and cents-more doughnuts. From the 1980s, it was the Dutch American Bakery, in its heyday the locals’ — and out-of-towners who’d heard of the finger-licking excellence of a particular dutch crunch bread — favorite stop for baked goods. Toni’s Rollin’ Pin took over in 2002; seven years after that, Viktor Benes.

By the time Ma signed the papers to take the space in 2010, the built-in, old-school oven inside the shop had not been used for years.

While the oven and the existing kitchen meant, for a first-time business owner looking to bake, lower costs and an easier initial launch, it also seemed to her that what the 50-year-old oven needed was a little love.

Ma and her team of bakers were quick to heat it up. As Proof started to gain traction, so did its goods — its glass display cases brim today with croissants, galettes, brioches, scones, jams, cookies, caneles and cakes.

(Tae Hong/Korea Times)

(Tae Hong/Korea Times)

Its varying lunch sandwiches, thin baguettes that fill the oven to capacity despite its recent upgrade to a more modern model, sell out nearly daily, Ma says.

Being a part of a community means constant feedback. Ma, who used to field weekly calls asking about past bakeries’ goods, opened shop nervous but has since continued on with faith in her product.

“Now, I know that if you just focus on your product tasting good, and doing the best you can to make it taste good, and use the best ingredients, then other people will think that, too,” she says.

“I’m really into whole grains right now,” she says. “I’m constantly telling my staff to experiment, and I do, too. Some things are always the same, like the croissants, but I think it’s more interesting to evolve. For our customers.”

Life wasn’t always about pastries, though she certainly thought about them constantly — Ma, who was born in South Korea and who grew up in the Los Angeles area after moving to America with her family just shy of her second birthday, studied art history at Cornell and worked for years as a freelance photo and video editor at companies like AMC.

Ma’s decision to go to culinary school had peculiar precedent. She’d get the baking worm in her brain following the fun she’d had with the night baking gig. The physicality of it, coupled with the discovery of the bread baking process, had a much larger impact on her than she would have guessed.

For years, she’d spend the short breaks between jobs working at bakeries, from Park Slope to Santa Monica. It was while working at a muffin shop opened by graphic designers that she learned what it was to own a small business, and while cooking alongside a pastry chef in Santa Monica for a few months that she realized it was time to fully commit.

Fruit tart, bottom right, savory brioche with feta and tomato, top left, at Proof Bakery in Atwater Village. (Tae Hong/Korea Times)

Fruit tart, bottom right, savory brioche with feta and tomato, top left, at Proof Bakery in Atwater Village. (Tae Hong/Korea Times)

These days, Ma, noted for her take on classic French pastries and traditional European technique, has begun collecting Korean cookbooks.

“I’m discovering as I get older that I really want to eat Korean food,” she says, crediting her love of the cuisine to her mother, who raised Ma on Korean food until shipping her off to college.

Her sights are on finding a way to bring Korean elements to her display, whether it be rice flour, barley or red bean paste.

“[Korean food] is a whole other way of baking. But I would love to gravitate toward having different flavor components,” Ma says. “I’m trying to find a good way to incorporate those elements so they match Proof.”

But for now, business is growing as it is, and she’s ready to take the next step. Proof, once comfortably introduced as a small-batch bakery, is hitting its limit as more and more people stream in for a taste. It may be time for an expansion.

“It’s going to be five years this year, and we are so at capacity here, we need to make this next jump,” Ma says.

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  9. Resident

    September 11, 2015 at 11:05 AM

    If Proof expands, I hope they stay in the neighborhood! It’s my favorite place to walk to and grab coffee and a pastry.

    One note: Atwater Village is in the city of Los Angeles, CA, not Glendale.

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