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Pâtisserie Poupon

At 45, Joseph Poupon might just be hitting his prime. The normally laid-back pastry chef is still beaming about his success at the 2001 U.S. Pastry Competition, a kind of Academy Awards for the crème brûlee crowd. Poupon’s Fuji San, a passion fruit and milk chocolate mousse cake carpeted in dark Venezuelan chocolate and macaroons, scored in the top five out of 28 entries in the “overall taste” category. (Yes, Fuji San cakes are available at Pâtisserie Poupon and yes, they taste as good as they sound.)

Poupon has been an unlikely fixture on East Baltimore Street since 1986, when he rented the twin 19th century rowhomes from his friend Fernand Tersiguel, the Ellicott City restaurateur. That first summer he and his wife, Ruth, and two employees (including Spike Gjerde of Spike & Charlie’s fame) struggled to find a niche in a neighborhood that was better known for graffiti than gâteaux. Fifteen years later, Poupon employs nearly 20 people at his East Baltimore store and another dozen at the Pâtisserie Poupon that Ruth manages in Georgetown. Even the neighborhood is coming around.

To see Poupon in action, you have to walk past the jaw-dropping dessert case, through a squeaky champagne-colored door and into the kitchen. The master himself is usually dressed in a white apron, pockmarked with chocolate and butter cream and flour. “At the end of the day, I’m not a pretty thing to look at,” he says with a wink.

His kitchen, smelling of burnt butter and hot cream puffs, is a whir of activity. In a floury haze, a half-dozen pastry chefs fiddle at various stations throughout the kitchen, cutting brioche dough, shaping pastry shells or unloading sheets of chocolate cake from the SUV-sized ovens.

In the course of a 24-hour day (the activity continues all night), Pâtisserie Poupon churns out as many as 1,500 pastries, 1,500 croissants and a handful of wedding cakes. Most of the pastries wind up at hotels in Washington, others sell at Baltimore restaurants such as Louisiana and Boccaccio.

That display case inherits the rest: miniature pyramids of chocolate mousse, hazelnut cream and hazelnut cake, chocolate “beggar’s purses” filled with milk chocolate mousse and bittersweet chocolate cream, and classic French triomphes concocted from layers of chocolate genoise filled with ganache and a touch of raspberry jam.

“The best thing about Pâtisserie Poupon is that the desserts taste as good as they look,” says Kathleen Truelove, who has used Poupon for both her daughters’ weddings and recommends the mango-lime mousse for summer entertaining. “Everything is just wonderful.”

Poupon, who has been on the same career path since the age of 15 when he began work as a baker’s apprentice in his native Brittany, is modest about his success. “I wasn’t looking to make a million dollars. As long as I’m doing the pastry I like to do, I’m happy. I just try to make the cake better and better all the time.”

820 E. Baltimore St., 410-332-0390

A. Kirchmayr

Albert Kirchmayr, a man who makes more than 10,000 pounds of chocolate a year, is skinny. As thin as an after-dinner mint. And it’s not because the 45-year-old German-born chocolatier doesn’t indulge in his products regularly. He says it’s what he doesn’t eat that keeps him thin.

“Chocolate is a very clean product, free of chemicals. If you eat chemically enhanced products— like junk food— I don’t think our bodies know what to do with it.”

Still, a visit to his small retail outlet in a Timonium strip mall (he relocated in spring of 2000 after 14 years on North Charles Street) is enough to make any lifelong dieter fall off the wagon with a thud. The warm smell of chocolate invites your attention even before you enter the store. Out front, a modest display case holds 12 varieties of candies and six types of truffles, some spiked with liqueurs, others loaded with rich butter creams, marzipan or caramel. In one particularly creative concoction, chocolate ganache gets teamed with Earl Grey and Japanese teas.

The chocolate aroma that’s so alluring at the front of the shop is just plain overwhelming in Kirchmayr’s kitchen. Here metal vats of dark, milk and white chocolate sit ready to be ladled into plastic molds, and candy shavings clutter his marble workbench like chocolate sawdust.

Kirchmayr, a bit of chocolate smeared on his forearms, tries to explain the science behind his products: “Chocolate is a mystery,” he says. “It’s hard to understand unless you really work with it. It’s such an unforgiving product. With chocolate everything is either right or wrong, there is no in between.”

Apparently, successful chocolate making is all about having the proper proportion of crystallized fat cells, the right viscosity and the correct temperature. Otherwise, the chocolate turns gray and has a consistency like soft butter.

To get steady results, Kirchmayr uses several high-tech machines that mix the chocolate and heat it to the proper working temperature, 86 to 89.6 degrees. He and his staff of three either pour the liquid into molds or let it run in a chocolate sheet over fillings that move along a conveyor belt and into a cooling chamber, a la the famous “I Love Lucy” episode. Kirchmayr says he’s had some chocolate-making rookies “pull a Lucy” and fail to keep up with the relentless march of candy.

For all the chemistry involved—Kirchmayr went to candy-making school in Switzerland and apprenticed under a German candy maker for a year— the chocolatier realizes that customers don’t really care about the science behind his products. People just want good-tasting, high-quality chocolates, he says.

And perhaps a waistline just like his.

9630 Deereco Road, Timonium, 410-561-7705

Bonjour Bakery

While Baltimore sleeps, Gerard Billebault bakes. Around 2 a.m., he starts with the fruit mousses, a French cheesecake, the frangipane. By 4 a.m., he’s onto the details: slicing fruit, filling eclairs, plopping cherries with his red-stained fingers onto Black Forest cakes. If he’s in bed by 6 a.m., it’s been a good night.

Billebault doesn’t know any other way. This is a guy who spent his impressionable years helping his father bake bread and make pastries at his family’s pâtisserie in Paris. “At 4 o’clock in the morning on a Sunday, [my father] would come into my room and say, ‘Hey, wake up! We need help.’ Every day was like that.”

After three years at a Parisian cooking school, Billebault, who possesses a dry European wit and an accent as thick as custard, immigrated to Philadelphia in 1972. Three years later, he opened his first bakery with money loaned from his cousin’s husband, Don McLean— the “American Pie” Don McLean. In the 1980s, he brought his reputation for creating fabulous desserts to Philly’s exquisite Le Bec Fin, where he worked as executive pastry chef for four years.

After moving to Baltimore in 1997, Billebault and his wife, Gayle Brier, opened The French Oven, a wholesale bread business that supplies the Baltimore Convention Center, Classic Catering and others with thousands of rolls, baguettes and breakfast pastries every day.

When the little purple-painted building that once held Lacey’s Produce on Falls Road became available in fall of 1998, Brier and Mary Romeo, who also owns Bel Air’s Coffee Coffee, thought they’d take a chance and open Bonjour. “We figured we’d just do something for Christmas,” Brier recalls. “[Gerard would] bake a few bûche de Noëls, we’d make a little money, and then we’d close.”

But their customers wouldn’t let them. Now far more than Yule logs fill Bonjour’s pastry case.

Billebault, who uses recipes gleaned from his days at Le Bec Fin and traditional favorites from his father, is hesitant to name a favorite creation. His fruit mousses— available in unusual flavors and bright colors like blood orange and green apple and resting over a thick bed of chocolate ganache— are certainly among the prettiest to look at, as is the classic operá, seven layers of hazelnut, mocha and chocolate.

But it’s his fruit tarts— chocolate-painted shells filled with French custard and layered with glazed strawberries, kiwi, raspberries and other seasonal fruits— that have garnered the most attention. “No matter what you get, it’s all authentic,” says Karen Davis, a Bonjour regular, who also favors the bread pudding. “It’s not an Americanized version of French food. Things are not overly sweet. A tart is tart.”

Brier and Romeo hope to expand the offerings at Bonjour in the coming months. Maybe even sell some of Billebault’s homemade sorbets in exotic flavors like pomegranate and grapefruit champagne. That, of course, will mean even later nights for the chef.

6070 Falls Road, 410-392-0238

Vaccaro’s

The denizens of Little Italy still tell Nick Vaccaro stories about his old man, Gioacchino, a.k.a., “Mr. Jimmy,” the immigrant from Palermo who started the legendary Baltimore bakery in 1956. Most of them begin with well-meaning customers coming into the store and end with Mr. Jimmy refusing to sell to them because they either asked the price of a rum cake one too many times or commented that the cookies looked fattening or wanted a single cannoli cut into pieces.

“Did you ever see the Soup Nazi on ‘Seinfeld’?” Nick Vaccaro asks. “That was my father— the Cookie Nazi.” But boy, could Mr. Jimmy bake. Using recipes passed down from his mother and older sisters, he transformed the Little Italy rowhouse on the corner of Albemarle and Stiles streets into a sweet-smelling success.

Nick, who had been working at the bakery since he was a youngster, took over the business from his father in 1980 after an overblown argument over what size container should package the cannoli cream. “There was no signing of papers, no exchange of money,” says Nick, who was just 24 at the time. “Italian families don’t do that. He just ripped off his apron, stormed out the door and never came back.”

Nick expanded the business in 1986, taking over three rowhouses across the street, and opening a café with table service. In 1998, Nick moved the baking operation to a 15,000-square-foot Highlandtown warehouse that formerly housed Haussner’s bakery.

Despite its growth, Vaccaro’s is still very much a family operation. Nick’s wife, Maria, handles the business end of things and about a third of the staff could be considered family since they’ve been with the company almost since Nick took over.

Ironically, most of the employees have worked at Vaccaro’s for so long, they hardly even nibble the pastries anymore. Nick says he hasn’t eaten a cannoli in 20 years.

A crew of 12 bakers still makes all the pignoli (those divine pine nut cookies), tiramisu, rum cakes and 14 flavors of gelato by hand. But the centerpiece of the operation is a 120-foot-long cannoli shell machine, custom built in Italy. According to Nick, the only other one like it in the world is at New York City’s legendary pasticceria, Ferara’s. Every Wednesday, the Rube Goldberg-like contraption cuts, curls, warms, oils, deep fries and finally cools approximately 2,400 cannoli shells per hour. The whole process takes about 20 seconds from raw dough to plastic packaging. Between him and his father, who baked about 4,800 cannoli shells a month, Nick estimates his family has produced more than 12 million cannoli since 1956.

Jimmy Vaccaro died in 1985 at 79. Toward the end, Nick says the two made peace with each other and even become good friends. “My biggest fear was not to be successful, to let my father down,” he says. “I had heard of so many sons who had taken over their father’s business and then run it into the ground. I was determined that would not happen to me.”

There are six Vaccaro’s outlets now— from Washington’s Union Station to Owings Mills Mall to Annapolis Mall. Wherever he is, the Cookie Nazi might finally be smiling.

222 Albemarle St., 410-685-4905

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