The Princess & The Punk
Two women. Two bakeries. And the bittersweet path that ties them together.
La Patisserie Chouquette and Pint Size Bakery & Coffee were this close to being one bakery. Well, sort of. On their way to a zumba class one day, Simone Faure and Christy Augustin had an idea: They should open a bakery together. It made sense. They both had worked in pastry for years. Faure had climbed the ranks of The Ritz-Carlton, first in New Orleans and then in St. Louis, to become the company’s first black female executive pastry chef. Augustin had nabbed the pastry chef title in such prominent kitchens as King Louie’s and Sidney Street Cafe after cutting her teeth at Bayona in New Orleans. They each had yet to break out on their own, so why not do it together? They elicited the advice of Ben Poremba, the tough-talking co-owner of South City’s Salume Beddu whom Faure had met and befriended while working at the luxe Clayton hotel. He listened to their idea and nodded, telling them that, should they have any questions, he’s their guy. Moments later, Faure’s phone rang. “‘You know you and Christy is not gonna work, right?’” Faure recalled Poremba saying, imitating his thick Israeli accent. “Lord, what a hot mess that would’ve been,” she laughed. “That’s what we should’ve called it: Hot. Ass. Mess. We have such completely different styles and such completely different views on pastry.”
Poremba was right. A brainchild of the two sugar mavens would never have worked.
As I walk the three-and-a-half steps from the glass door to the wood service counter at Pint Size Bakery, it’s instantly clear that the name on the sign outside is not ironic. This place is freaking tiny. The sounds and smells dancing through the air indicate that the bakery’s day commenced hours ago. The whirr of a blender. The metal clank-clank-clank of the churning stand mixer. The banging of sheet pans pulled from the oven and clumsily slid onto the cooling rack. The clap of eggs as they break on the counter and the plop as they plummet into the pool of cold milk below. The suctioning of the fridge door opening and closing. The smell of butter and sugar and brewed coffee. The Temptations belting out the chorus to Sugar Pie Honey Bunch. This is less a measured ballet than a frantic tap dance, with just enough space for everyone to conduct their routine without knocking one another to the ground. But that’s the fun of it. A young girl greets me from behind the counter. Augustin, the choreographer of the show, is nowhere to be found.
While I wait, I peruse the display case lit by bulbs nestled inside quart-size Mason jars that dangle from the ceiling. Plates are crammed next to tiered cake stands and linen-lined baskets, all filled with crumbly pastries in flavors like nana-nut, lemon-passion fruit and artichoke-Asiago. To the left, oatmeal cream pies oozing with marshmallow fluff buttercream share space with walnut-white chocolate blondies and rosemary scones crowned with dollops of orange marmalade. Behind them, there’s a ricotta bundt cake, and back toward the cash register sit brown-butter Rice Krispie treats. They’re wrapped in little Mylar bags stamped with white labels bearing a drawing of a Mason jar with the words “Pint Size Bakery” scribbled inside.
These are the kind of desserts you could actually pass off as your own at your sister’s baby shower or your cousin’s christening. They’re big and wobbly, misshapen, messy and a bit too gooey. They have names like Upside Downs and Brookie – which, let’s be honest, sounds like a fourth-grader’s after-school experiment. But then you take a bite. And the brownie is rich and moist and tastes deeply of really good chocolate. The tender cookie smashed in the center was baked just long enough and is sprinkled with coarse golden sugar crystals that glisten like little jewels and crunch pleasantly with each nibble. Your cover is blown. There’s no way you could pretend to have made these; no way you’d know that the tiny little seeds inside real vanilla beans make cupcakes sweeter than any extract ever could. Or that the salty debris of potato chips are the perfect foil to juicy cranberries and super-sweet white chocolate in the bigger-than-your-fist Cranberry Crunch Cookies. Or that by turning classic sandwich flavors into BLT muffins and ham-and-cheese scones, you can satisfy both the egg-lovers and the pastry devotees during the morning rush. Nope, that takes talent, skill, experience.
“I’m here! I’m here!” A cheerful voice cascading from the back door wakes me from my sugary daze. “We’d run out of herbs, so I was li-ter-a-lly picking them out of my yard,” Augustin explained excitedly. Apparently, it also takes some damn good ingredients. Like basil that was plucked from the backyard, bacon that was cut from pigs who were free to root in the mud at Todd Geisert’s sprawling nearby farm, and eggs that fell from hens who happily coo and peck with the sun on their backs all day long. “It’s something I take great pride in – having a check for that farmer when he comes through the door every Saturday,” Augustin said as she scrubbed sticky dough from large metal bowls in the sink. “Not only am I using what I think are the best possible eggs and I might pay twice what restaurants pay for their eggs, but I’m also supporting this little, niche industry, which is keeping that nasty factory farming out of something that we eat so much of.”
I soon realize that Augustin’s dedication to free-range eggs, unbleached flour, pure butter and real sugar isn’t some half-baked effort to emulate Gwenyth Paltrow but rather a deeply ingrained element of her baking philosophy. “Most flours are bromated in the U.S., which is illegal in many parts of Europe. It’s a known cancer-causing agent,” Augustin explained, now peeling locally grown zucchini for Morning Glory Muffins. “If it’s bleached flour, they bleach it with chlorine bleach to whiten it and to extend the shelf life. Bromating does the same thing. I’m a tiny, tiny bakery and I go through about 100 pounds of flour a week, so does it need to be bromated? Having a health scare myself, it certainly made me think, well, I don’t really eat fast food but maybe I shouldn’t be eating all this boxed and packaged stuff, either.”
That health scare arrived while she was the pastry chef at Sidney Street Cafe in Benton Park. “I didn’t know what was wrong for a really long time,” she recalled. “I was having trouble getting through the day in a hot kitchen on my feet.” When the opportunity to teach at Le Cordon Bleu arose, the regular hours and time off her feet lured her in. By the time she found out she’d been battling curable thyroid cancer, she had already accepted the position. But teaching gave Augustin time. To relearn the skills she had acquired in culinary school. To learn cost control and what it meant to be someone’s boss. To create a business plan for the bakery taking shape in her head. On January 1, 2012, Augustin made a resolution with her husband that she’d be 50 percent of the way to opening her bakery by the end of the year. Within six months, Pint Size opened for business.
When I first sat down with Faure to talk about her new bakery, Chouquette, her opening date was still unknown. She didn’t have the space ready or the logo designed. But she had an image in her head – a very clear one – just like Augustin had months earlier. “I want a sweet boutique, and by boutique, I mean if you went in to a shoe shop, everything would be beautifully displayed. Like, when I went into Coach, everything was displayed in a way that you feel compelled to look, to touch, to smell, to buy.”
Before I even open the door to La Patisserie Chouquette, it’s apparent that all those months of planning paid off. I’m staring at precisely the picture Faure had painted. It looks nothing like the old-school bakeries to which Augustin’s cramped little corner spot pays homage. In fact, it doesn’t look like a bakery at all, but rather the designer stores lining Paris’ Champs-Élysées, with its sleek white walls, airy open space, glitzy window displays, overpriced bags and shiny jewelry cases.
Except the structures in the windows aren’t mannequins donning Dior, they’re old hat boxes propping up beautifully crafted tiers of wedding cakes: some white with purple flowers, others black with elaborate quilting detail. And that shiny jewelry case – the antique gold one right in the center of the shop, with gold leaf-lined drawers – it’s not catching my eye with glistening diamond necklaces but with row after row of French macarons in vibrant shades of green, fuchsia, purple and deep, dark espresso. This is an entirely different kind of beautiful.
Even the handbags are edible: Cakes enveloped in sugary fondant that’s been impeccably folded and probed to perfectly imitate the quilting on handbags that would easily cost four figures if they were made from leather instead of sugar. Even the molding on the ceiling looks like it’s been piped in frosting. “It reminds me of cake,” Faure gushed.
The pastry cases are filled with desserts with clean, modern lines. A tall, triangular wedge boasts more than 40 layers of paper-thin crepes and ivory-colored cream for a cake known as mille crepe that, when carefully sliced, reveals flavors of candied ginger, lime and white chocolate. On the far left are the signature choux du jour: flat-bottomed spheres of crisp pastry dough whose hollow centers get filled with milk chocolate-hazelnut cream from the pointy tip of a pastry bag upon ordering. To the right, there’s a plate of canelés, classic French domes whose crisp, caramelized surface give way to a creamy center in flavors like chocolate and green tea.
If Augustin is childlike, warm and whimsical, then Faure is refined, fussy and all grown up. Faure looks as far as Japan for pastry wisdom. Augustin rips out pages from old church annuals. Faure seeks to awaken the senses with her desserts. Augustin wants to give you that warm and fuzzy feeling with hers. Both women have been classically trained and worked in kitchens well within the city’s – and the country’s – upper echelon. But it’s the way each chooses to use those experiences that distinctly separates them.
Augustin’s philosophy toward baking is much the same as a great writer’s approach to the laws of language: Once you know the rules, you know how to break them. By dreaming up playful hybrids of memorable pastries, she appeals to the little kid inside each of us who remembers when sugary treats were a reward for cleaning our rooms or downing a plate of Brussels sprouts. She uses her experience working with dedicated locavores like Sidney Street’s Kevin Nashan and Bayona’s Susan Spicer to source the very best ingredients, and then tricks our taste buds with flavor profiles that leave us both nostalgic for the past and giddy over the feeling that we just scored a seat at the hot, new farm-to-table restaurant. She tells me that her husband refers to her style as “punk rock grandma.” It fits perfectly.
Faure is less punk rock and more princess, less American and more French. She adheres strictly to the rules and techniques she first learned in culinary school and then honed as she worked her way up the notably tough kitchens of The Ritz. She pays painstaking attention to every detail in order to properly introduce American palates to the high-end pastries of Paris and southern France, most of which we’ve never heard of, much less tasted. Before opening Chouquette, Faure told me that she wasn’t sure how St. Louisans would take to some of these new, foreign treats. “I loooove canelé but there are probably five people in the city of St. Louis who know what canelé are and they are probably all of French decent. I want to introduce those to people, but not just in the traditional way but in a way that would come off well to an American palate. I think the biggest thing for Americans to get over will be the texture of the canelé, where it’s crisp on the outside and custardy on the inside. Is it a cake? Is it a pudding? What is this?” Turns out, it didn’t matter. The canelés have sold out every day since Chouquette opened its doors in February.
By now you’ve probably realized that there are few parallels between Pint Size and Chouquette (beyond the sugar, flour and butter, of course). Why, then, would two distinctly different women with two completely opposing styles of baking ever consider going into business together? Well, put them in a room together and you’ll understand. These two go way back.
They met more than a decade ago, when Augustin walked into Faure’s pastry kitchen at The Ritz-Carlton, New Orleans. “These two fresh faces came in and one was like, ‘Hey! I’m Christy! I guess I’m gonna be working here!’” Faure recalled in her best Augustin impression: bubbly, smiley and filled with enthusiasm. “I looked down at her and I was like, ‘You need to cover that tattoo right now.’ It was not love at first sight.”
Of course they didn’t hit it off immediately. Faure is sarcastic, outspoken and has no problem putting you in your place. Augustin, meanwhile, is just as warm and energetic as Faure portrayed her to be, positive in a way that lets her belt out a makeshift ode to caffeine and sugar (her two favorite things in life) one second, and makes you wish such relentless optimism was contagious the next. They were an unlikely match, but they quickly developed a close bond. “Soon, we were getting together to eat ridiculous pastry around New Orleans, going to Christy’s hosted Oscar parties at her house,” Faure said. Their friendship grew stronger, even as Augustin left The Ritz for Bayona six months later.
So when the storm surge of a Category 3 hurricane tore through the levees of the Gulf Coast a year-and-a-half after the women met, they both felt the pain. In one morning’s time, the city they called home became awash with uncertainty. Faure went off to work at The Ritz-Carlton, Naples Beach Resort and Augustin evacuated to a place she never planned on returning to: her native St. Louis. “I did not intend to leave New Orleans or Bayona, but the storm changed things and I didn’t have much of a choice,” Augustin said. “For a long time, I really struggled with the fact that we left. I didn’t want to come back [to St. Louis]. I was pretty pissed about it, honestly.”
It was four years before Faure applied to the pastry chef position at The Ritz in St. Louis in an effort to be closer to her now husband. By then, Augustin had fallen in love with her hometown, discovering a camaraderie within the local restaurant community that didn’t exist in the tourist-focused kitchens of New Orleans. When Faure walked off the plane at Lambert, Augustin was there to greet her. The friendly face was a source of comfort for Faure, a sign that her path was shifting in the right direction. For Augustin, having Faure close by meant she had someone to eat and laugh with, someone who had seen what she’d seen. “Christy goes into a funk that time every year,” Faure said about the grip that Katrina still has on Augustin today, her voice now softer and quieter. “She starts to feel it. And you see it coming on her face, in her body. She is a different person. It had a different effect on all of us. Since I was a kid, I knew New Orleans was not gonna be my last stop. I fought like hell to get out of New Orleans. Coming from the projects and a mother who was 14 years old when she was pregnant with me, I knew that I couldn’t be there. But for Christy, she made a choice to live there … For all intents and purposes, she was a New Orleanian.”
Look closely inside the cases at Pint Size and Chouquette, and you can see traces of the intertwined paths of their owners: the galette des roi that sit out front during Mardi Gras season at Pint Size. The bourbon pecan buns that drip with thick white glaze at Chouquette. But what really ties these two very different women together isn’t location or timing or tragedy, it’s the very same thing that brought them together in the first place: a profound passion for their craft.
One Saturday morning before Faure had left The Ritz to open Chouquette, she found herself at Pint Size, standing in line for a salted caramel croissant. Since their extremely laborious nature restricted them to weekend-only fare, the gooey, buttery buns had quickly garnered a cult-like following at the bakery. “They weren’t gonna be ready for like 10 minutes, and Simone convinced a woman she had never met sitting next to her in line to wait for her croissant in exchange for some free macarons if she delivered it to The Ritz,” Augustin recalled. “Simone was on her way to work, so she couldn’t wait and she had been telling the lady that she had just made pumpkin pie macarons. So the lady waited for her croissants, went home and went about her day, and went to The Ritz for dinner and got her pumpkin pie macarons. Simone can convince anyone to do anything.”
When Faure opened Chouquette, she began selling what she called “not your grandma’s croissants.” Augustin’s croissants are made by hand. Faure uses a sheeter. Augustin rolls hers in sugar and salted butter so the sugar caramelizes when they bake. Faure makes a classic version, one slathered in almond paste and another with a thick sliver of rich, dark chocolate hidden inside. Whose is better? Good luck figuring that one out.
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