In June 2015, self-taught baker Sammie Le started a dessert stand at the Street Food Union market in London’s Soho, hoping to make some extra money to put towards her three children. Yolkin sold a unique creation of Le’s own: macaron ice cream sandwiches. The hybrid desserts came in an array of pastel colours and intriguing flavour combinations like blueberry cheesecake, pandan coconut, and matcha Oreo.
They were an Instagram hit and Le’s side hustle soon became her full-time job. This month, she opens a Yolkin shop in Chinatown.
“Never in a million years did I think I could do this and it just goes to show how hard work really does pay off,” Le says. “It’s important for my three young girls to show them that you don’t need to depend on a man and you can do anything if you put your mind to it.”
Despite Le’s success, it hasn’t been an easy ride. Her parents are Chinese but were born in Vietnam. During the 1970s, the Communist regime imprisoned Chinese people, so many fled Vietnam to neighbouring countries for safety. Le's parents settled in a refugee camp in Hong Kong, which is where she was born. When she was a child, the family moved to London in search of a better life, with Le’s father finding work in Chinatown as a pot-washer.
“When we started a new life, I finally went to primary school and my love of desserts developed through school dinners because we never really had sweet treats at home,” Le tells me. “Those retro desserts such as sticky toffee puddings, Arctic rolls, and anything custard-based is where my sweet tooth kicked in and my palate started to change.”
With a love of sweet foods, it was only natural that Le learned how to bake.
“It started off as a hobby making cakes for family and friends, but when I came across a macaron recipe, I became obsessed,” she says. “Macarons are on another level because even though there’s not that many ingredients they’re so hard to nail and if you can master them you can do anything in life.”
When she finally cracked it, the obsession didn’t stop.
“To make macarons you typically only need egg whites and I had all these leftover yolks. So I made crème brûlées until everyone I knew grew sick of them, but I didn’t know that you could add yolks in to make custard-based ice cream,” she explains. “I bought a cheap ice cream maker and started experimenting with ice cream. But it was actually one of my daughters’ idea to merge the two components together and that’s where the name Yolkin comes from.”
Despite the initial “eureka” moment, Le didn’t start selling macaron ice cream sandwiches until a few years later, as she was unsure of how customers would react. When she finally took the plunge and began producing the desserts on a large scale, she did everything herself, from developing new flavours to preparing and trading on market days, and updating Yolkin’s social media accounts.
Today, Yolkin has over 40,000 followers on Instagram and Le experiments with ever-more exciting new flavours, including Eton Mess, rose pistachio, and Hong Kong milk tea. She insists, however, that she never set out to start a “trend” and attributes some of her success to luck.
“I’ve never been one to jump on bandwagons or brushing shoulders with all the cool kids, I’ve always just done what I liked. Social media has definitely helped get the word out and it just so happens that they’re so photogenic.”
At the start, Le was worried that her lack of education or validation from a culinary school would hold her back. But it turns out, being self-taught and learning through copious trial and error is a good way to run a food business.
“I kept my head down, felt like I had a lot prove and gave myself away. I want to convey some sort of hope to others, as I was in such a shitty place with my life and coming from a low-class family with very little money, I never want anyone else to feel that way,” Le explains. “Running a business, putting yourself out there, and having customers turn into friends—it’s all a great learning curve. I don’t know what the protocol to be a business woman or restauranteur is, but if my drive and ambition can help in some way or inspire, that’d be amazing.”
Le’s new shop is an extension of her original market stand, and will sell cones and milkshakes alongside the original macaron ice cream sandwiches. On my visit in its first week of opening, a steady stream of customers arrive to admire the bright, light-filled space and choose from the rows of macarons.
“I can’t believe it’s all come from an environment where I was in dark, desperate times, which has only gone onto radiate positivity and I want to give that back to customers,” Le smiles. “I think all chefs and bakers are people pleasers, they just want customers to be happy—it’s not just about giving them diabetes.”
If diabetes tastes like Yolkin, then it’s a risk that might be worth taking.