Pastry chef John Kraus of Patisserie 46: The sweet life, part 3
Today, we conclude our interview with pastry chef John Kraus. In part 1, we heard stories from his competition days, and in part 2, we watched him cut his teeth in the kitchens of London. In part 3, everything comes together, and the craft he's worked so hard to hone helps him create the life for his family he's always wanted.
Pastry chef John Kraus
The boys leaped out of the SUV and spotted Kraus and me sitting in front of the bakery. Dressed in full karate garb, they sprinted towards us--and Tristan arrived first. "Hey, buddy, what's up?" Kraus said, greeting his oldest son. The seven-year-old smiled sweetly at his father and then quickly disappeared inside the door.
"Heyyy!" came a high-pitched squeal from Rory, his three-year-old.
"Hey!" Kraus yelled back, bracing himself for the impending collision. Rory came in full-force, and tucked into his father's arms for a hug. He gave Kraus a peck and then sped off to catch up with his brother.
"How much of this--opening the bakery, deciding to move here--is about them?" I asked.
"All of it," he answered, without an ounce of hesitation.
In the mid-'90s, Kraus returned to the U.S. from London, feeling a pull to be closer to loved ones. He landed a job in Nashville, just over the border from his hometown. And while working in the pastry department at the Wild Boar, he fell in love with a bartender named Dawn--who eventually became his wife.
Tarts from Patisserie 46: Pistachio Raspberry (middle) and Mont Blanc (behind)
After the Wild Boar, Kraus served as executive pastry chef at Magnolia Restaurant, and then met the esteemed European duo of Jacquy Pfeiffer and Sebastien Canonne, co-founders of the French Pastry School.
In Kraus, Pfeiffer and Canonne saw a kindred spirit, and they invited him to Chicago to assist them in their growing venture. He accepted, and moved north to become an instructor, now passing along what he'd learned in London to the next generation of pastrymakers.
"I probably had the best job in the country for a pastry chef," says Kraus. "It was tremendous--pure creativity, helping people, and teaching."
For over a decade, Kraus stayed on with Pfeiffer and Canonne, occasionally stepping away for competitions, as well as a brief stint at the Park Hyatt Hotel. But while he continued to relish his role as an educator, a nagging doubt began to take root. "There was something in my gut saying, there's somewhere else you need to be," he says. "I just couldn't figure it out."
Patisserie 46's Tropical Petit Gateaux
Rory had just been born, now making them a brood of four. And the grand plan he and Dawn had talked about for years--opening their own business--was still on hold. His career was blossoming and they liked Chicago, but he'd always hoped his sons would grow up the same way he did.
Kraus spent an apple-pie-and-baseball boyhood in the tiny river town of Paducah, Kentucky, where duck-hunting and going to the lake were the orders of the day. His Sicilian mother was a constant fixture in the kitchen, making country hams, biscuits, and her specialty: pasta sauce and meatballs.
When he ventured into town, he hovered around the Blackhawk Bakery, a tiny white storefront that always seemed to be filled with people.
"There was something about that little corner bakery that was always appealing," he says. "The smells, the people. You just wanted to hang out, relax, and watch the world go by."
Kraus was called up to the Twin Cities to teach a class at the Minneapolis Institute of Art. And between walks around Calhoun, nights out at great restaurants, and morning jaunts along Nicollet Mall, he realized it was the perfect backdrop for raising his family and hanging out a shingle.
The Krauses immediately began making plans to move and set up shop in Minnesota. But when the economy took a nosedive, their house sat on the market for almost two years without a single offer, and they couldn't find the right Twin Cities location for their new business--they loved Kingfield, but Rustica Bakery was already firmly entrenched.
Then, finally, they received a phone call from their Twin Cities' realtor: "Rustica's moving out of Kingfield."
"Then that's our neighborhood!" Kraus replied.
Kraus and his family packed up and headed to Minneapolis, took over the space at 46th and Grand, gutted the building, and opened their doors in July 2010.
Like the bakery in Paducah, the Krauses hoped Patisserie 46 would become a meeting spot for the neighborhood--a place where everyone was welcome, people were encouraged to linger, and a respite from whatever you needed respite from. "This can be a mini escape," says Dawn. "It doesn't matter what's going on in the world. People can come here and have some happiness for awhile."
And that's exactly what's happening. On any given morning, you might see the 70-year-old Frenchman who savors his croissant for hours--and then retires to the bench out front for a few more. When the weather warms up, Emily and Gabriel will swing by with their four-year-old Zach for a quick bite--but end up staying much longer. And yesterday, the friendly gentleman who's wife had been ill came in for his daily bowl of soup, but instead received some much-needed kindness and support--because she passed away.
"It's so much more than cooking," Kraus says. "It's giving a memory to someone, or giving them something that takes them away from everything. That's why we do what we do."
"I know it sounds silly," he admits. "But I want to meet the boyfriends and girlfriends of the little five-year-olds I see now. I think that's how we're really gonna know we made it. That's part of being the neighborhood."
And for his own family, those two little guys in karate gear who he did all of this for: "It's going to be interesting to see what happens as they get older. Are they gonna work here, are they not? There have been days that Rory's on a milk crate rolling Challah with me, and you can't--" his voice trails off. "It's the greatest."
How sweet the sweet life can be.