Of Arcs and Artistry at L’Arc Patisserie

Last Updated: July 5, 2024By

Li Xiaoli doesn’t use her given name when she meets new customers at L’Arc Patisserie in Casady Square. The Chinese-born and trained pastry chef and chocolatier introduces herself as Isabella Li. (The family name comes first in Chinese.) We’re sitting in her shop, where I’ve just sliced into a Russian tale, a mousse cake with layers of chocolate cake, raspberry coulis and mango puree, and as with everything Li does, it’s delicious and stunning.

“The HR department at my first hotel job gave me the name Isabella,” Li said. “It was easier for foreigners to pronounce.” 

Yes, Li was in her early 20s when an HR clerk decided to rename her Isabella, and because she wanted the job, Li went along with it. Chinese languages are difficult for most Westerners to learn because it’s a tonal language – meaning is dependent on the “direction” of the intonation – and quite frankly, transliteration isn’t all that helpful. Li spoke Mandarin in her native Anhui Province in western China. “Isabella” would later be easier for Westerners when she moved to Macao, which, with its proximity to Hong Kong, is known for Cantonese. 

The “Las Vegas of Asia,” Macao is a former Portuguese colony in south China famous for its hotels and casinos, and while the Vegas moniker has stuck, the Monte Carlo of Asia is closer to the truth. Li was a year out of culinary school when she took a job in a bakery that serviced multiple hotels and casinos, including Chef Joël Robuchon’s namesake and 3-Michelin-star restaurant Robuchon au Dôme, located inside the Grand Lisboa Hotel, one of nearly 20 hotels in the region owned by SJM Holdings, the company founded by billionaire businessman and first hotelier in Macao, Stanley Ho Hung-Sun. 

“After culinary school in my hometown of Hefei, I helped open the Hilton Hefei before going to Macao,” she said. 

Li grew up in Hefei, the capital city of Anhui. Her father owned a taxi business with his brother. Li’s family would be one of many Chinese families who paid “administrative fees” (fines, really) for having multiple children. Her brother, Li Yangchun, also a restaurateur, is five years younger. 

Much like American schools, Chinese high schools have an option for vocational training, and Li chose culinary arts. It was a boarding school, so she rarely saw her family. She went on to culinary school, where she decided on pastry. 

“We had to learn many techniques, including wok cooking, but I hated it, so I chose pastry,” she said. 

Culinary school was three years, and then one year at the Hilton Hefei, where she learned chocolates, before Macao, which is where she met French pastry chefs for the first time. She learned pastry from French mentors while working on English and Cantonese at night.

“I got a tutor and studied every night,” she said. “It took me months to acclimate. The people around me in kitchens spoke French, English, Mandarin and Cantonese.”

Li is proficient in three of four. She said she has a smattering of French. Her English tutor in Macao was an American teacher, and she took another English class concurrently from American missionaries. She never converted, but retains a soft spot for Christianity because of the help she received from the missionaries. 

Li met her husband John Zhang at the Hilton Hefei. He is a Hefei native, too, and he was good friends with her cousin, who introduced the couple. Zhang immigrated to the U.S. to work in restaurants — Li joined him in 2012 — but soon moved on to other fields. The couple have one daughter, age 11, who has begun making gelatos at home. Li isn’t sure she’ll be in hospitality, and mainly jokes about her daughter using expensive products to practice.

“I only use premium ingredients here,” she said, as she pointed to Valrhona chocolate. I can attest that her matcha is one of the best I have had in the metro, as well, and her coffee beans come from Zero Tolerance, a mile east on Britton. Li and ZT owner Maura Baker have become friends. “She helps me so much,” Li said. “Starting out I had so many questions, and she was always happy to answer them for me.” 

After arriving in the U.S., Li stayed home with their daughter until 2015, when she got her first job stateside, sales clerk in the Coach store at Penn Square Mall. “I was so excited,” Li said, and you can still hear the excitement in her voice. “

It was my first American job!” She stayed for about three years, before moving over to the Apple Store, and during COVID, she was online/phone support for Apple customers.

During this time, she was taking orders from private customers, and the word started to get out about a pastry chef who made gorgeous desserts. Friends helped her make connections and expand the business, and according to Li, provided enough encouragement to help her take the leap to open a brick-and-mortar patisserie.

L’Arc Patisserie opened in mid-May this year, and business is growing quickly. So much so that Li is looking to add a sous chef, and she wants to train a baker to do laminated dough once she has the equipment. Her pastry case is relatively small, but she refreshes it throughout the day. She also does custom cakes, which she enjoys. She likes the size of the operation now, but she does want to add another case when possible. 

Li is also likely to benefit from the growth of Casady Square as a food destination. Her neighbors at Symmetry are about to open a wine bar, and 1492 remains a popular spot for Latin American cuisine. Being in the area of Nichols Hills and The Village has helped, too, as professional women are starting to use Li’s pastries as gifts for clients and as stunning conversation pieces at parties and showers. At the core of her success, though, is a pursuit of perfection, a tenacious work ethic, easy likability, and damn good food and coffee. 

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