Bellecour Pastry Chef Diane Moua Is More Than Sugar and Spice

Most mornings, Diane Moua stands shadowed by a colonnade of baker’s racks deep within the Bellecour production bakery in Minneapolis’s North Loop. Croissants mass in an organized march over each shoulder as the sun rises above the nearby Mississippi to the windowless east. Pearl-pale, her black ponytail a calligrapher’s swoop down her white jacket, she stands at a wooden pastry counter, hands so swift before her they are hard to track as she fills macarons or twists kouign-amann strips. Swift as a bird’s wings. Faster than a speeding bullet?

“One time, the person who runs the sheeter called in sick,” recalls Gavin Kaysen, referring to the machine that folds sheets of dough for croissants. “Diane took it over. At the end of the day she said, ‘Chef, we could get two and a half times more product out of that station.’ I said, ‘Diane, no. No one is like you. It’s like comparing Superman to some guy who needs to get to the other side of a tall building.’” 

Gavin Kaysen is the chef and owner of Spoon and Stable and Demi, a multiple James Beard Award winner, and the current reigning king of Minneapolis fine dining. His first action upon returning to Minneapolis from New York City in 2014 to build his current empire was to hire Diane Moua away from La Belle Vie, fine dining standard bearer at the time. The two went on to local fame together, most notably for present-day eaters, by opening Bellecour, which began life as a bakery and restaurant in Wayzata, then closed in the pandemic, and then last summer spun off into a bakery partnered with and embedded within Cooks of Crocus Hill.

There are now two Bellecour/Cooks locations, one in Minneapolis’s North Loop, directly across from Spoon and Stable, the other in St. Paul’s Crocus Hill. More are coming. As of this writing, Diane Moua is working full time for Cooks, which has licensed Bellecour, not for Kaysen, and she is learning about the numbers side of the business from Karl Benson and Marie Dwyer, the kitchen store’s owners, as they lay the groundwork for the future. The business model seems sound: a jeweler’s spread of the finest pastries imaginable surrounded by cookbooks, specialty foods, and other food and cookware delights. Come for breakfast, leave with a jar of special cocktail cherries for your sweetheart’s birthday.

Step into the North Loop Cooks, and the glamour of what Moua is capable of sparkles, jewel-like, from a prominent table: glass pedestals crowned with a Danish filled with the sugared rubies of fresh cranberries, French macarons glossy as porcelain in Tiffany blue, a pain au chocolate to rip you out of the present moment and make you see your soul, as great art must.

These treasures are derived from the skill and instinct of Diane Moua. You will often see her back there, a light among tall movable pillars of baking racks, magnetic, radiant, a Vermeer in action—not Girl with a Pearl Earring but Girl with Pearl Sugar. If she knows you, if she sees you, she’ll smile her signature Diane smile. Warm, challenging, it’s the smile of a girl from a family full of siblings, perky, meeting whatever level of mischief or smack talk or trouble or joy you are bringing with an equal and opposite spirit.

Diane Moua’s work has been synonymous with the best of pastry in the Twin Cities for a generation, and she feels known to so many of us: a teenage prodigy trained at La Belle Vie and Aquavit, the Cities’ reigning plated-dessert champion, an artist with multiple nominations for James Beard Awards. She’s our hometown hero, queen of doing that magical thing with sugar and cream and flour that we somehow can’t do but that makes us so happy. But there’s so much more happening behind the magic, if you ask.

“What do I see when I look at her?” asks Tou Ger Xiong, a local Hmong comedian and longtime family friend. “She’s so Hmong back there. She is just the Jenny from the Block of Hmong. If you look at her, you just say, ‘That’s a Hmong sister.’ She looks so Hmong to a Hmong person that if a white person doesn’t see how Hmong she is? That’s crazy.” Additionally, says Xiong, “All that work she does? Pure Hmong. She don’t care: Hmong don’t scare.”

“What I think about with Diane is how caring she is, and nurturing,” says Kaysen. “And her confidence in her desserts. Doing a thing that no one else can or would do, that’s what makes a great pastry chef. It’s hard to put into words, but the ability to have a unique vision expressed in pastry—it’s rare. And she’s a machine. When we opened Bellecour, she’d come in at 2 o’clock in the morning. Eighteen hours later, it was like, ‘We have a pact: You tell me when I’m here too long, and I’ll tell you. And so I’m telling you, you have to go home. I’m begging you.’”

“The level at which Diane learns, takes in new information, creates a new high standard with the information she just took in, and then executes it—it’s truly amazing to watch,” says chef Tim McKee, who took teenage Diane in for an externship at the Stillwater La Belle Vie. He later elevated her to run pastry at the Spanish restaurant Solera and then at the Minneapolis La Belle Vie.

“I go to Bellecour at Cooks every Friday with my partner,” explains Gia Vang, a KARE 11 morning anchor and distant cousin of Moua’s who met her as an adult. “Tell everyone to get the ham and cheese croissant. Or the kouign-amann. But what I really love is: Oh my gosh, there she is, another Hmong sister. When we talk about representation mattering, Diane is what we mean. Young kids of color can see her and be less afraid to reach for their dreams. We’re both first-generation Hmong. There’s a lot of traditional Hmong culture that says women work in the background and support the patriarchy. For those of us who say, That doesn’t work for me; I need to negotiate a new way, Diane shows you don’t have to sacrifice your dreams to be a good Hmong woman. And if that’s what she means to me, an adult, can you imagine how much she means to a little Hmong girl?”

So, who is this woman behind the sweet perfection?

Was Diane Moua named after Princess Diana? Her family thinks it’s plausible. The Princess Di fairy-tale wedding was the big news of 1981, and then 1982 rolled in, bringing with it a young Hmong family with a pregnant mom to Providence, Rhode Island, sponsored by the Catholic church. It was the familiar Hmong story: Anyone who helped the U.S. during the Vietnam War was targeted for extermination once the Americans left, so most everyone fled through the jungles to Thailand, often under gunfire. Of course, the family, so grateful to finally find safety in the U.S., let a woman wearing a veil, the priest’s helper, name their daughter: Diane. A priest, a veiled woman, a princess, a baby!

This new family became farmers. All Diane’s parents ever wanted was land and the chance to farm. By 1993, her parents, each working two jobs, had saved enough to buy a small farm in Junction City, Wisconsin, not far from Stevens Point. 

“The first time I saw it, I was like, ‘Look at this utopian family,’” recalls Xiong. “Hmong farmers, when you see them at the farmers’ market, almost never own a farm; they rent some land. Diane’s family has all these chickens and pigs, flowers, vegetables. I was like, ‘It’s the Little Hmong on the Prairie story!’”

For young Diane, it was farm labor. “It was nonstop work,” she recalls. “The whole family picking cucumbers, 15 or 25 cents a pound. You work all day so the family can get $300 or $400. I mainly remember telling my mom, ‘I’m going to die of heat stroke. I need to go inside.’ My mom would say, ‘Oh my God, we do this every day. You’re fine.’ We weren’t allowed to go anywhere. No sleepovers, no friends over. It was nonstop work. Help with the animals, the ducks, cows, pigs, chickens, rabbits. Help with the garden. Now it’s 11 o’clock at night; wash your hands and go to bed.” There was so much work, and so little time or money, that often the family wouldn’t even have time to make dinner, pairing deli fried chicken with rice and pepper. There was no time or money for dessert for this young pastry chef, except occasionally on a Sunday.

“My father’s way of bribing us to go to church was to say, ‘I’ll buy you a candy later,’” she explains. “He felt like the Catholic church had done so much for us, we should go. When my grandpa came [to America], he put an end to that. Grandpa was a shaman. He said, ‘You need to convert back to shaman stuff.’” But church was the road to sugar. “I was the only kid who would ever go with my father to church. On the way home, we’d stop at the gas station for Skittles or Laffy Taffy, or the Asian market for these layered tapioca cakes. They were my favorite—pink and green; the pandan was green and coconut was pink. I’d get home and all my brothers and sisters”—there were three girls and three boys eventually—“they’d all want some. But I’d say, ‘Nuh-uh, you didn’t go to church!’ But I’d peel them off a piece. If you peeled the layers off, you felt like you got more.”

Is it any wonder that 16-year-old Diane wasted no time getting married?

“When I started dating, I was like, ‘This is freedom! Let’s get married. I’m out of here.’ There was no thought process.” There was, however, a move to the Twin Cities with her young husband, Pretty Woman on TV, and ads on television about cooking school. “I remember this scene in Pretty Woman where Julia Roberts is sitting at a table with a tablecloth; there are all of these glasses, forks, spoons. I just thought, Fancy. I want to be that fancy.” Her husband’s family ran some of the sushi kiosks at Byerlys, and when Moua went in to work at the sushi counter, the cake displays changed her life. “Byerlys was so glamorous. When you grow up with a County Market in small-town Wisconsin and you first see a Byerlys, you are amazed. The cake dummies, the tartlets, the carpets. I was like, Byerlys is where it’s at. I want to go to school and make cakes.”

Her husband’s family called a meeting. Many voices were opposed to her going to school. “A lot of Hmong families, they want to shelter the wife and let her be less educated,” she explains. “As a female in a Hmong family, you are born and raised to take care of someone else’s family.” In the end, one cousin prevailed, Moua recalls. “He said, ‘If she wants to go, let her, and support her.’”   

This was the first step from dutiful daughter to national star.

The meritocracy worked the way all Americans hope it will: Her teachers recognized her gifts and tapped her for an externship—that is, a sort of apprenticeship/working internship—at the best restaurant in the state at the time, La Belle Vie. The team at LBV instantly recognized her gifts. A pastry chef from LBV offered her a job at Aquavit at $7.25 an hour, and when her family wondered why she didn’t take a $16-an-hour job at a chain restaurant or something, she believed enough in herself to fight to keep the lower pay that would lead her to be able to express herself the way she wanted. “I remember saying, ‘Um, I think you work your way to the top,’” remembers Moua, who reveled in her new world. “My dad was an orphan. His philosophy is, You have an apple, you eat it to the core. The idea that you could make a spun sugar decoration [to garnish a dessert] and the ones that don’t work out you throw in the garbage, that’s crazy to him. But I loved it.”

“Diane started amazing and got more amazing,” says McKee. “Being able to cook something from a recipe, to do it technically well is one thing. But to take that and have your own style, to build on what’s already been done and invent your own thing, that’s incredibly rare. If I had to describe her style, I’d say it’s never sugar-bombs. Everything’s so well balanced it almost tends toward savory, and she just has her own Diane aesthetic.”

What’s the Diane aesthetic?  I’ve had Moua’s desserts at La Belle Vie, Spoon and Stable, and Bellecour. For one thing, it goes without saying that a pastry chef at Moua’s level—and there are not that many in America—is a technically precise perfectionist. Like people who invent new mirrors for space telescopes, all the top pastry chefs first master everything everyone before them has known, then put that in their back pocket and begin. A Diane Moua plated dessert is typically something classically French—a tart, a cake—paired with her own ice cream that strikes a complementary chord, paired with a tuile or other cookie, paired with a crumb, a meringue, a fresh fruit, maybe an anglaise, maybe a whipped cream. None of it too sweet, all of it subtle, all of it leading with gentle cream flavors shadowed with vanilla. A Moua dessert is a bit like a thousand fairy touches and glimmers suddenly descending to dance around your head with charm and delight, like animated cartoon birds chirping.

“It’s hard for chefs to have a style that’s unique to them,” says Kaysen. “When you taste any of her desserts, individually or collectively, you just know they’re hers. They tend not to be sweet; there’s almost always ice cream and a textured tuile. She likes cake that’s moist and plays with seasonal fruit. That’s Diane.”

Kaysen guesses that Moua’s most famous dessert to date is the honey and cream cake on the menu at Spoon and Stable. “She wanted to take it off the menu, and I said, ‘No. Sometimes when you hit it right, you have to keep it right.’ We have guests who come in and it’s the one thing, no matter what, that they have to get. She’s just really different from a lot of pastry chefs. Most pastry chefs are really shy; they want to do their five desserts and stay in their corner. She’s the opposite. She loves making guests happy; she loves going to tables and talking to guests. She’s very hospitality oriented. She likes the speed and rush that service gives you, but don’t let her pretend it’s not also about control. If it’s her night off and someone posts on Instagram, ‘What a great dessert,’ she’ll take a screenshot and send it to the team: The quenelle is backwards. It’s a sense of quality control, but also passion that every little thing has to be done right, and it’s very important to her that it is done right.”

Years of doing things right, in her mind’s eye, and being rewarded by society convinced her that she needed to make her own life right. So, in 2018, Moua divorced the man she married at 16. “I don’t want to talk about it,” says Moua. But it seems impossible to look at her life and not see how much her unhappy marriage fueled her glorious career as she took refuge day and night in a family of work people who appreciated her.

“Some of the standards you are supposed to live by as a Hmong woman, the perceived responsibilities people put on you, it’s tough,” says Vang. “Divorce can be like, You brought shame to the family. Diane’s traditional, but for our generation—the children of refugees—we’re the ones who are sort of hand-holding the old ways in one hand, the new ways in the other hand, and saying, ‘I can’t actually do what was right for you.’ Sometimes we have to do things that are hard on our parents and family, and that’s just what it is to be a Hmong woman right now.”

Diane Moua and Gia Vang may simply be the more public faces of a community-wide shift in present-day Minnesota Hmong culture. “You know that St. Paul is the world capital of Hmong culture, right?” asks Xiong. I did know that—with a community, depending on who is counting, numbering from 60,000 souls to double that. “When we started coming here, there was some senator who was like, ‘I don’t think they’re going to make it. They’re a mountain people from an agrarian society; it’s just not going to work,’” says Xiong. “We didn’t just survive, we thrived. Put us in the middle of a tundra, we’ll find a way. All our parents want us to be doctors and lawyers, but now we have people who are like, I’m Suni Lee. I’m going to get world famous flipping in the air! I’m Diane Moua. I’m going to bake a $100 cake! I’m a comedian. There’s no word in Hmong for comedian; the closest word is like ‘some clown.’ Hey Dad, good news, I’m going to be some clown. And your dad is like, ‘I crawled through the jungle eating berries off the trees and seeing dead bodies so you could tell jokes for a living?’ There’s also no word for pastry chef. Our generation, you have to be it, not talk about it, and Diane proved it to them. She’s kind of famous now because in the Hmong community you’re not really famous until white people make you famous, and she’s famous with you.”

Diane Moua’s two worlds came together, and she got to show her parents just how famous she is the night of the James Beard Restaurant and Chef Awards in Chicago in 2018. “We bought them a ticket and got them a room, and they were speechless. They were in complete awe: ‘Do you make breads and cakes and things, and this is a job?’” Moua recalls her parents saying. “Walking into the ballroom, they were like, ‘This is life you only see on TV.’ My mom was sitting next to me: ‘Do you have a speech ready?’ All of a sudden, I was sweating. I was so focused on getting to this point it hadn’t even occurred to me what to do if I won. The woman who won, Dolester Miles, started cooking the year I was born, 1982. I started crying because I just knew how hard she worked, how hard I worked. Like, it all just came to me, so much hard work, and someone recognized it.

“I got embarrassed because all I could think was: Oh no, they’re going to think I’m crying because I didn’t win,” she says. “But that wasn’t it at all. My parents never realized fine dining was a thing, that I lived in this different world. My mom would always say, ‘My daughter works in a bakery. She makes things that are really expensive.’ Like, No one knows why she does that when anyone could go to Sam’s Club and get six croissants for six dollars. It was the first time they saw what I do in my context. It was the best night of my life.”

In pictures from the night, Moua is radiant in an off-the-shoulder black gown with a modest cut that is still distinctly similar to Princess Di’s famous “revenge dress,” the gown the princess wore in 1994 the day Charles revealed, on television, his longtime affair. It was a dress that said, “I claim my own power,” and it’s hard not to see pictures of Moua from that night without issuing a similar cheer of “Get ’em, girl!”

“Later, my dad said, ‘There’s a reason we pushed you so hard. When you’re out in life and something comes at you, it’s easier to handle what comes at you,’” reflects Diane, who is grateful for her childhood that made her the hardest-working woman in sugar and flour. “I appreciate everything they taught me and everything I went through.”

For her next act, however, Pastry Diane, as her legion of Instagram followers know her, is taking things to a next level, focusing on, of all things, work-life balance. She’s transitioned her baking team to a schedule of four 10-hour days so everyone gets three days off each week, plus every other weekend. “Some of my team are like, ‘What long days! Wow. No.’” She’s also looking for the first house she’ll own, hopefully one with enough land for what she calls a ‘chicken herb’ garden—that is, a garden of the score of old-country herbs, from crimson-stalk lemongrass to rare mints, that go in a traditional Hmong chicken soup. She’s also readying herself for a few new creative possibilities. She sometimes thinks about some of her new ideas when she’s at Hmong Village, the giant Hmong shopping center on Johnson Parkway in St. Paul, Stall 21, which is one of her favorites. “I can make a savory dish of Hmong mustard greens and fill a Danish. There’s so much I can do with lemongrass and coconut that I haven’t begun to explore. I have lots of tricks up my sleeve.”

One trick Moua won’t be exploring is using a robot to make her famous Bellecour crêpe cakes, the ones with layers of tender crêpe and fresh-as-dew pastry cream. When we spoke, she had just returned from New Jersey, where she’d checked out a crêpe-making machine only to find out that she can make crepes by hand much faster than the time-saving robot.

So that’s what she’ll do at Bellecour, hands moving too fast to track and with utter confidence—faster than a robot, more powerful than either Eastern traditions or Western recipes, able to dazzle two cultures in a single bound.

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