Pastry chef John Kraus of Patisserie 46: The sweet life, part 1
Every morning, PJ takes his owner for a walk. It might be a leisurely stroll around Lake Harriet or a dash through the tree-lined streets of Kingfield. But PJ doesn't care terribly much--as long as they get to 46th and Grand. Because that's where his door is.
When he arrives, he squints and looks through the glass because his eyes aren't very good. Then he plops down his rump. And waits.
PJ doesn't realize it's only 6:30 a.m. and the people inside aren't taking customers yet. The man with the leash gently encourages him to move along, but he'll have none of it.
All the dogs within barking distance know this is the place where peanut butter-banana treats are made especially for them. But PJ is old-school, so he prefers sugar cookies instead--and the crew at Patisserie 46 is happy to oblige. St. Bernards, after all, are part of the neighborhood. And the neighborhood is what Patisserie 46 is all about.
Since meeting in Nashville almost two decades ago, pastry chef John Kraus and his wife, Dawn, have dreamed about opening their own business: a local gathering spot in a place where they could eventually raise their own children, too.
Lifelong ambitions tend to evolve slowly. But as Kraus has seen throughout his career, taking the time to do things with care--and enjoying them along the way--is usually a recipe for sweet success.
We grab a couple chairs outside the bakery, and Kraus settles in comfortably. Any formality that comes from his chef's jacket--complete with Patisserie 46 insignia--is quickly mitigated by his salt 'n' pepper goatee and the oversized beanie hanging off the back of his head. Away from the oven, he's as easygoing and chill as they come. But when he shifts into work mode, he's measured and methodical.
"If you rush into something, nine times out of 10 you'll make a bad decision," he explains, as he talks about why he held back his new line of chocolates for a year. "Even the first day we opened, we were 15 minutes late because I said, 'Not until we're really ready.'"
Being mindful about both the product and service is paying off. Since setting up shop opposite Cafe Ena and Kings Wine Bar almost two years ago, Patisserie 46 has gained legions of fans. And on this Sunday in early spring, there's an eclectic crowd coursing through the pastry shop, from moms to corporate types.
The Sunday crowd at Patisserie 46
As they pass our table, many say a warm hello to the man they see on a regular basis--the baker who makes a mean brioche. But most of them probably don't know he's also a nationally recognized pastry chef with an impressive collection of titles: Patisfrance Pastry Chef of the Year, National Dessert Champion, and winner of the Food Network Chocolate Challenge.
"I always wanted to compete," Kraus says of his contest days. "But then a month before, I'd think, why am I doing this? And two nights before, I'd freak out," he laughs. "But if you win, you want to do another one!"
For a scrupulous chef who'd rather not act with haste, a timed event presents a unique set of conditions. Kraus's only defense was to make himself battle-ready by doing countless dry runs. So in the months before the Food Network Challenge, he dragged himself out of bed at 2 a.m. several days a week and spent a full seven hours constructing his showpiece.
But Kraus never finished his entry on time. Not once. And when filming day arrived, he entered the Atlantic City studio a bundle of nerves.
His concept, titled "Love Takes Flight," featured a union of two swans. "I was going through a bird phase," he jokes.
Hour after hour, Kraus created individual elements, and then fastidiously cleaned his station--his secret weapon for staying focused and on task.
"I don't think I've ever worked that clean in my life. I didn't have a drop of chocolate on me," he says. But it was about to take a very ugly turn. Kraus gingerly picked up the wings and positioned them on the towering structure--careful not to disturb the other pieces. But as he stepped back to view his progress, the energy immediately drained from his body. The wings were backwards.
Chocolate is an unforgiving medium, and trying to remove an errant section would have been a death sentence. "I thought I lost and was about to give up," he confesses. Months of effort completely unraveled in a matter of minutes.
But it wasn't the first time Kraus had been thrown into the professional pressure-cooker. Early in his career, he'd made his way through the kitchens of London, where top chefs had tested his mettle and instilled discipline, rigor, and resolve.
Kraus refocused and pushed toward the finish line--heaving his creation to the presentation table with only 30 seconds to spare. His persistence was rewarded, and he walked away with first prize.
"It was pretty crazy," he says. "That's the thing about competitions. The person who wins maybe has preparation on their side, but they also have a little luck."
Join us tomorrow for the part 2 as we look back at Kraus's time in London when he worked with celebrity chefs Marco Pierre White (who counts Gordon Ramsay among his protégés) and Michel Perraud.
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