After losing her family, teen baker creates a new life at the Shanghai Roastery

By Linda Dahlstrom / Starbucks Newsroom

SHANGHAI, China – A pastry represents far more than meets the eye to baker Viviane Liu. As she mixes the flour, butter and other ingredients, she thinks about how she’s creating something new and whole out of disparate parts.

“It’s like I am giving new life to them,” she said through an interpreter, on a recent morning at the new Starbucks Reserve Roastery in Shanghai. “And here, I am also getting a new life.”

Since August, Liu has worked as a baker for Princi, which has renowned bakeries in Milan and London, and now in Starbucks Roasteries in Seattle and the just-opened Shanghai location.

Though only 18, she’s has been through more transition and loss than many twice her age. For the first five years of her life, she was raised by her great-grandmother. Her grandfather took over caring for her when she was 5, after her great-grandmother died. His health began to fail when she was 10. With the little girl’s parents out of the picture and out of other options, the quiet farmer was forced to put her in an orphanage where she lived with 50 other children. He died shortly after.

Her grandfather didn’t want to send her to the orphanage, Liu remembers, and he tried everything he could to keep her, but she knows there was nothing else he could do. When asked about her other memories of him, Liu suddenly grows quiet and looks at the ground. It’s still too difficult for her to talk about his life or loss.

But spend a little time with the teen and it’s clear that the foundation of love created in her early years has proven strong enough to support her through all the years since. It’s given her a core of strength and self-worth that she passes on to others, say those who know her.

She has an easy laugh and “always projects such a cheerful demeanor,” said Ruohwei Lam, director of operations for Princi, who hired Liu.

‘Lucky star’

When Liu was at the orphanage in Zhengzhou, in China’s central Henan Province, she had a teacher who took an interest in her and asked her what she hoped to do when she grew up. It was then that Liu shared her dream – to create food for others as a chef or baker.

With the teacher’s help, she enrolled in the Shanghai Young Bakers program, which provides job training to marginalized Chinese young people between the ages of 17 and 23. It was through that program that Lam met her. During the interview, she was struck by Liu’s positive outlook and passion for baking.

“Her personality just shone through,” said Lam.

For the past few months, Liu has trained at the side of seasoned bakers, including the founder of the Princi bakeries, Rocco Princi himself, in town from his native Italy.

A few weeks before the opening, Rocco Princi was busy working with the new bakers next to his four cast-iron ovens, teaching them the techniques he’s learned over the past 30-plus years. On the walls above him, written in both English and Chinese, are the words, “Rocco Princi started making bread in 1985 – artisanally, by hand, with high quality ingredients. Today, he does it exactly the same way. Because for him, there is no other way …”

In Shanghai, the Princi bakers make more than 80 different menu items a day, including bread, pastries, focaccia sandwiches, tiramisu, pizza and more. The menu shifts through the day to reflect breakfast, lunch and dinner.

Liu said among her personal favorites – to bake and to eat – are the flaky cornettis (similar to croissants) and baguettes. She bakes with purpose. All the care and effort she puts into her baking, she said, is with one goal: helping customers feel joy, even just for a little while.

She knows that sometimes, even something as simple as a bite of great tasting food can make you forget your cares.

“Watching people eat and feel happy makes me happy,” she explained.

Today she calls herself “a lucky star,” despite all she’s been through. She knows what it means to be alone. And she knows that she no longer is.

“Since I joined Starbucks, I truly feel like I have a new family. … It’s an amazing place to learn about coffee and compassion,” she said. “I’m building a new life and my dreams are coming true. And I can feel the love from others.”

Starbucks’ Lisa Tang and Marianne Duong contributed to this report. Talk about this story on our Starbucks Newsroom Facebook Page.