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Botha Walters: Self-taught baker and former refugee

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Botha Walters shows off a pan of her fresh-baked apple twist croissants, one of the many kinds of “puff pastries” at her Le Croissant Bakery in downtown Manteca.


POSTED February 4, 2012 12:26 a.m.

Botha Walters could be working today as a pharmacist. That’s what she studied and trained for when she was living in Southern California.

She could have been a teacher, too. She went to California State University, Stanislaus to pursue a bachelor’s degree “to become a teacher.” She did work as a junior high substitute teacher for a while, and moonlighted in other types of jobs such as court interpreting (she is fluent in Cambodian, her native tongue) at the same time to augment her family’s finances.

But then she heard the sweet sound of a different drummer. Or perhaps, in her particular case, she discovered the sweet smell of a different kind of success. And like Odysseus being mesmerized by the captivating voice of the Sirens, Walters was hopelessly hooked at her first whiff of croissant baking in an oven.

“I have a passion for baking. I love to bake. It’s not the money. It’s what you love doing,” said the owner of Le Croissant Bakery in the heart of downtown Manteca, located just across the street from the Post Office on Maple Avenue.

“If you love what you’re doing, it’s not frustrating,” said Walters who spends endless hours doing what she loves doing and still comes out of her baking room smiling and laughing as she greets her customers at the front counter, her hair in a bun and with her apron on.

“Customer service – that’s the best thing,” she said, revealing a big part of the success of her small business.

But, she emphasized still smiling, that has to be balanced with product quality. “Your product has to be good and well presented at the same time.”

Just as important, she added, is the consistency of that product quality.

She launched her career as a baker and business owner in 1994 when she bought the Le Croissant Bakery & Café in Modesto. She brought the business to Manteca when the former La Dulce Vita closed its doors.

“So this place went from Italian to French Bakery,” said an amused Walters, her brown eyes twinkling.

“I even brought the Le Croissant logo here,” she added, pointing to the Eiffel Tower silhouette at her front window sign.

Quite amazingly, but not to Walters, she did not have any formal training as a baker. She is entirely self-taught, she said, which required working extra hard and long, long hours to create her specialties to perfection.

“It’s a lot of work but I enjoy it. I enjoy rolling the dough,” she said with her signature hearty laugh.

Everything at her bakery is “fresh-baked every day,” she added with pride.

There’s the almond croissant “filled with almond paste,” for example, and the chocolate croissant. She also has a line of what she calls puff pastries: apricot twist, blueberry twist, apple twist, and raspberry twist, to name a few. She is also particularly proud of her “basket weave apple pie.”

During the three days a week her bakery is open – Monday, Wednesday and Friday – Walters also prepares a fresh offering of vegetarian, open-face croissant sandwiches sprinkled with cheeses on top. The other days of the week finds Walters at different farmer’s markets in Stockton and the Bay Area selling her fresh-baked croissants under a big umbrella. She has been doing that for the last 14 years

While she does all the baking, Walters gets a lot of help from her two sons with husband Tom , a retired salesman, whom she married 25 years ago after only a three-month whirlwind courtship. Their sons are Richard, 23, who attends Modesto Junior College, and Ryan, 18, who goes to Central Valley High in Modesto. Both played basketball in high school. She also gets plenty of help from a Cambodian friend whom she calls by his Americanized name, Jun, who does most of her clean-up.

Customers can either buy her sweet bakery creations to-go, or sit in the bistro-type tables inside and outside her bakery. The inside of La Croissant has a European ambience, thanks to a mural that occupies the entire length of one wall showing a panoramic view of a halcyon Mediterranean Sea.

It’s a far cry from her life in Cambodia from where she escaped during the Khmer Rouge regime, followed by a nightmarish life in refugee camps, first in Thailand and later in the Philippines. She was one of the lucky ones among her many countrymen who escaped the “Killing Fields” of Cambodia under the despotic regime of Pol Pot. In 1981, she started a new life when she came to the United States with the help of the Red Cross and under the sponsorship of Catholic Charities. Her eyes welling with tears but still smiling, she recalled with fondness the kind Catholic woman who let her live in a granny flat in the back of her house in Southern California.

“She taught me to cook, to say prayers, how to make the bed. She was so fussy, but you know what? I learned a lot from her,” Walters said wiping the tears from her eyes.

“She was not my biological mother, but she was my spiritual mother. She’s still in my soul this time. She’d be more than 100 years old now. She was my role model,” she said.

That part of her life and how she escaped the Khmer Rouge is another story all together.

— Rose Albano Risso
city editor

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