Photo by Caitlin Abrams
John Kraus of Patisserie 46
In February, John Kraus led the U.S. team in the international pastry Olympics in Lyon, France: the Coupe du Monde de la Pâtisserie. His was the palate responsible for bringing home the bronze medal. The gold was taken by Italy (who took bronze last time), the silver by Japan. If the best pole vaulter in America is the one who takes the top medal at the Olympics, then Kraus is the best baker and pastry chef in America, case closed. And yet, no one much noticed in this country. There was no ticker-tape parade, no annoying TV interviewers asking him where he planned to celebrate. His family was overjoyed to see him, and then he slept for two days.
Why the lack of attention? Possibly because Americans don’t have a great depth of experience with the heights of French pastry, a fact brought to light by the way that most of the cakes that sparkle in the case at Patisserie 46 are built from components that are literally untranslatable, they have no English names. Each edible flight of fancy is built of praliné, coulis, biscuit, crémeux, crème Chantilly, pastillage, sable breton, pâte à choux, ganache, crème brûlée, and, perhaps most gallingly, crème anglaise. Even “English cream” is known only by its French name. (Meringue, that staple of county-fair-winning pies, has preserved its French name unaltered since it entered the English lexicon in the 1700s.)
Not that Patisserie 46 lacks love. You couldn’t squeeze more people in there with a shoehorn on an average weekend morning. They come for the black-as-night flourless chocolate cake, built with a half-dozen pencil-thin layers of alternating chocolate ganache, chocolate sponge, and jellified crème anglaise, culminating in a crown of housemade raspberry jam and a single raspberry minutely gilded with sparkling white sugar. Or they come for the Rory, named for Kraus’s youngest son, now 6, or the Tristan, named for his oldest, now 10.
The Rory is just heaven on a plate, a base of sable breton (sort of a butter cookie turned into a cookie-crumb crust) topped with half-inch layers of salted caramel marmalade, pecan nougatine, and vanilla crème brûlée, each layer distinct, maintaining its pure flavor and uniquely different texture. Those layers are then encased in a cylinder of delicate and fluffy salted caramel mousse, which is sheathed with a glossy coating of caramel cream, then topped with a chocolate disk and a whole little profiterole filled with vanilla cream.
The entire cake is the size of a teacup, and would take a novice baker about six to 10 years to make. Kraus says he can make a full tray in three hours. Considering they cost $5.25 a pop, getting three hours of labor of one of the best pastry chefs in the world at $1.75 an hour seems a bargain—for the sake of argument let’s just say Kraus throws the ingredients in for free. Do Minnesotans meeting their friends for a cup of coffee to share one of the Rory cakes know what they’re getting? When little Rory comes in from hockey practice, he can get the whole thing in his mouth in almost one bite.
Kraus isn’t too worried about whether anyone notices all that he does. If he was, he probably wouldn’t have put his bakery in a quiet south Minneapolis neighborhood. Instead, he would have put it someplace like London, where he used to make pastries for the first British Michelin-starred rock star chef, Marco Pierre White. Or in Chicago, where Kraus taught for many years at The French Pastry School. But by opening his bakery in Minneapolis, he can be who he is—a soccer dad who delights in pillaging his own cookie and ice cream cases for the elements of the ice cream sandwiches he takes to his boys’ soccer games when it’s his family’s turn to provide the snacks.
A hockey dad, a Grateful Dead fan, a fisherman, a fan of good bourbon and duck hunting, Kraus guesses he spent 10 months perfecting the cake he entered in the Coupe du Monde. He spent every other weekend in Chicago training with his teammates, and has likely put more cakes through Delta security than anyone on Earth. “It’s always the same,” says Kraus. “They see the unmistakable outline. Then you have to open the box. Then everyone says: ‘Can I taste it?’” Kraus started passing out boxes of the chocolates he makes to security, gate agents, and flight attendants. The chocolate-eaters were so appreciative that Kraus ended up with a business-class upgrade on his flight to Paris. “They are very good chocolates,” he says with a smile.
Ten months and 50-some cakes later, Kraus is happy with his chocolate cake. “It was the most harmonious cake I ever tasted,” he explains. He made it with consideration, careful to not fatigue the judges’ palates with too much intensity or texture, knowing they would sample dozens of cakes that day. (A smaller version of his Coupe cake—to be called 100% Chocolate—soon will be available at the bakery.)
Even though Kraus didn’t win gold, he was happy with his cake. Also with the chainsaw ice sculpture of a howling wolf that his handpicked teammate and friend Josh Johnson carved, and the sugar art spun by their third teammate and other friend Scott Green. He was just as happy with an ice cream cake shaped like a Wile E. Coyote stick of bright red dynamite, wedding-appropriate chocolates and tiny desserts, the plated restaurant-style dessert stuffed with Minnesota apples, and the chocolate sculpture of a Deadwood, South Dakota–inspired tower of a cow skull, gun belt, and stagecoach money chest. Speaking of money chests, Kraus had to bring his own real money to compete, as well as the chocolate kind. Winners of the Coupe get a medal and a small cash prize. To compete, Kraus guesses he ended up 10 grand in the hole, despite the generous support of sponsors including Valrhona chocolate. “I have been lucky enough to witness someone giving 100 percent for no reason. If you can give all you have, to the point of exhaustion, not because you’re getting anything, the quest itself is amazing.”
That’s why Kraus does it. He’s our Zen master of cream puffs.
Kraus grew up in Paducah, Kentucky, son of a gastroenterologist and a homemaker who cooked three meals a day for her family, but didn’t much care for desserts. Kraus turned into the kind of teenager who was more interested in fishing and friends than school. In a sort of scared-straight move designed to show his son the hard labor he’d be heading for if he didn’t apply himself, Dr. Kraus got his son a job with a hardhat. It backfired. “I would come home every day covered in black soot, but other than that I thought the steel mill was great,” Kraus remembers. “It was just hanging out with people I liked, [including] one really cool ex-con, and a lot of good, honest countrymen.” He decided life without a safety net looked pretty cool, and went to St. Petersburg, Florida, to live on the beach, maybe study marine biology and the manatees, and pick up money working in a hotel. That hotel was the pink art-deco beach palace Don CeSar, where of course the cooking bug bit him, and where he gave up his dreams of manatees for a new dream of Europe.
Speaking only English, he ended up in London, first at Marco Pierre White’s The Restaurant, and his then-new Canteen. After that, Kraus landed at The Dorchester, home of the world’s finest high tea and all the old-time perfectionist pastry chefs who made it. The chefs of The Dorchester sent him to learn at the side of the French chef Michel Perraud at Fleur de Sel in Surrey.
“Here’s how I remember Canteen,” Kraus says. “I went to learn. Marco said, ‘Stand there.’ He gave me a square foot to stand in, and I watched him plate food for six hours. It was the most incredible, intense thing I’d ever seen. He said, ‘Never forget to season your food.’ That seemed like good advice. I guess I stood there pretty good, because he let me come back the next night to put olives through a tamis [drum sieve]. Another night, I cut the tip of my finger off. I was about to pass out or throw up, and this German girl leans over and barks, ‘Clean that up! Put some tape on it. And get back to work.’ I was too mellow to work there. My feeling about yelling and drama is always: Why? Am I going to yell, ‘You burned it’? Why? That’s not going to unburn it. So yelling has nothing to do with a burned cake.”
Yelling also has nothing to do with coming home with the silver or bronze when you wanted the gold. When I talked to him, Kraus was considering whether or not to compete again in two years. On the one hand, it was financially foolish, and all consuming. On the other, he learned so much from competing. If he did it again he would not rely solely on hand-carving chocolate, which he thought would be the winning strategy. He would bring in many innovative chocolate molds, which is allowed and, he thinks now, necessary. He also knows now that if you have a pastille cowboy hat to hang on a man-sized chocolate sculpture, it cannot be affixed when the sculpture is on its podium, so it must be rested on its spot before transport. There was also the palpable pain of the Japanese team, wrecked and furious to have come in second. Kraus never wants to be in that spot, demonstrating what most around here would call bad sportsmanship, driven there by the keening desire to make the most beautiful sugar, the tastiest cake in the world.
Kraus traces his adoption of the pursuit of pastry perfection to the inspiration of seeing the old-guard pastry chefs of The Dorchester, and the French MOFs. Those who have won the French title Meilleurs Ouvriers de France go through many rounds of competition, culminating in a three-day, closed-door competition judged by a jury of MOFs. The contest is held every four years, and sometimes no MOF is named. The competitors pay their own expenses. There is no reward other than the title itself.
“When you see them you realize you want to do something better, because you want to do something better, not because anything comes from it,” Kraus says. “I watched this MOF cheese maker, the way he picked up his knife, the way he cleaned it, the way he cut slices of cheese—I was just in awe. He had no ego, he just made sure every slice of cheese every person took home would be perfect. This is me who you’re taking home tonight. All the experience of his craft, in every slice.”
The Coupe competition was just one day, but it might have been more than that too, says Kraus. “In a lot of ways that 10-hour day was just a part of the journey of every day—but at the same time I’m thinking things are different now,” Kraus says. “It was a day to realize you are either going to exhaust yourself and give up—or achieve what you want. And you’re never really going to achieve what you want, because with every achievement you will want to keep improving. And that’s the paradox. You then realize: There is no other reason to do this on such a high level, except that you want to.”
Which is how the best baker ended up in a leafy neighborhood in south Minneapolis, spending hours making tray after tray of beautiful tiny cakes, which would especially impress the samurai-like MOFs of France who will never come, because it’s all part of the beautiful journey.
4552 Grand Ave. S., Mpls., 612-354-3257, patisserie46.com