There are three certainties in this life: death, taxes and the long line at Patisserie 46.
The devoted crowds hark back 21/2 years ago to the bakery's opening day, when a queue of hungry curiosity seekers began to form at sunrise, a phenomenon that surprised and humbled baker/owner John Kraus. The popularity has never slackened -- it's not unusual for as many as 600 customers to walk through the door over the course of a weekend day -- and the bakery's saffron-tinted walls have become a kind of ad hoc community center.
They flock to 46th and Grand for the bonhomie, sure. But the real hook is the flour- and sugar-fueled riches displayed behind the glass cases. In this remarkably democratic collection of breads and sweets, words like financier, dacquoise and gibassier are spoken in the same breath with chocolate chip cookies and blueberry muffins, and the mousses, ganaches and pastry creams of the exquisitely intricate cakes and tarts are as celebrated as the butter and cinnamon of the far more modest coffee cakes, pound cakes and pull-aparts. That's not even mentioning the superb chocolate confections, the knobbly breads that decorate the bakery's back wall ("I love rustic breads," Kraus said. "The uglier, the better.") or the dreamy ice creams and sorbets.
It's visual overkill at its salivating best, and because the line forms in front of the cases, the splendors only reveal themselves as customers inch ahead. Fortunately, the wait is rarely a long one, thanks to a service crew that nimbly navigates a workspace so cramped it could incite an OSHA investigation.
Every so often, Kraus, 41, appears, in his chef's coat, surveying the crowd, lending a hand behind the counter, chatting up customers. He loves the neighborhood -- home is a few blocks away -- and the neighborhood has responded in kind. And how. One of his biggest fans is fellow baker Solveig Tofte, whose Sun Street Breads is just five blocks east.
"His is the first patisserie I've ever been, anywhere, where everything tastes as good as it looks," she said. "Usually, everything can be beautiful, but chances are you'll be disappointed. A pink filling will just taste pink, for example. Who knows if it's raspberry, or strawberry, or whatever. But John's work is all about clean, precise flavors."
The baker's kitchen
It's a shame that the bakery's magic is done behind closed doors, because Kraus headlines a riveting show.
It's 9 a.m., which means that half the workday has passed. Eight staffers quietly and diligently labor at stations up and down the long, rectangular space -- it's roughly the size of the dining room on the other side of the wall -- their sparse conversation overpowered by the whir of enormous mixers, the rhythmic staccato of dozens of eggs being cracked, the rattle of chocolate chips as they fall into a bowl on top of a scale, the brief chirp of a timer and the 1980s pop music floating out of an iPod-connected boom box.
As with most Tuesday mornings, Kraus takes a position at the bread station, a wood-topped counter surrounded by mixers the size of washing machines. Standing opposite baker Ashley Johnson, Kraus streaks the surface with a dusting of flour, the practiced flick of his wrist as natural as Jackson Pollock swinging his brush against canvas.
Then the ritual begins. Kraus grabs a pale rectangle of sticky dough with his flour-covered hands, pounding it, patting it, flipping it, folding it, pinching it and flattening it -- the order never changes -- before using his palms to roll it into a 2-foot-long rope. He's watching but not watching, his sense of touch -- his muscle memory -- doing most of the work.
Working without speaking, Johnson picks up each spongy baton and deftly lays them across a linen-covered board, separating each loaf by pulling up and doubling over an inch of the flour-laden fabric. Johnson, a native of Green Bay, Wis., interned at the bakery before landing a job in June. She's happy to find herself working under Kraus' tutelage.
"There's not a place like this back in Green Bay," she said.
Soon enough, Kraus, with yet another he-could-do-this-in-his-sleep move, is slipping trays of proofed dough into one of three enormous ovens. Over the course of 23 minutes, the oven's heat will transform that pliable dough into Patisserie 46's golden baguettes, 50 at a time.
Despite the flurry of focused activity, and the exhaustive focus on consistency, it's a fairly stress-free atmosphere. Or at least it feels that way, probably a reflection of Kraus' soft-spoken personality.
"Pastry chefs tend to be, well, a little rigid," Tofte said with a laugh. "But John is the most mellow pastry guy I've ever met."
Yet, despite that pressure -- and the weariness that comes from being on his feet 15 hours a day, often six days a week, frequently starting at 2 a.m., Kraus doesn't appear to be the kind of guy who ever loses his cool.
"It's not worth it," he said. "I have way too many other things to worry about. I've worked for chefs who were real hotheads. They would humiliate you, and you'd get so upset that you couldn't focus. Here, everyone knows that if they make a mistake, they're going to be more disappointed than I am. Caring about the product, and being proud of it, that's the key to success. "
Sweet stuff, with plenty of butter
Kraus embraces Christmas with gusto. His stollen will bring tears to the eyes of anyone with a German grandmother, and florists can't compete with the visual splendor that is his centerpiece-worthy bûche de Noël.
December is also the month when his Sicilian heritage really makes its presence known, with wreath-shaped, prune-packed sweet breads, a heart-stopping chocolate-hazelnut panettone, beloved cookies from his mother's and aunt's recipe files, and other festive delicacies.
The crazy-busy holidays aside, an average week finds the bakery running through nearly 2,000 pounds of flour, purchased from Great River Organic Milling in Fountain City, Wis. Butter comes from three sources, including Stony Creek Dairy, a Melrose, Minn., farmstead operation. The foundation for the bakery's croissants hails from Vermont, a super-elastic product purchased in 50-pound blocks.
Oh, those croissants. "There is no better way to start the morning," said Kraus. "The challenge is to make one that people can afford. Butter isn't cheap."
And Kraus lays on the butter. "Most croissants are 22 percent butter, but ours are 26 percent," he said. "We originally had 30 percent, and they were great, but they also felt greasy, and at 23 and 24 percent they felt dry."
These are just right. Perfect, even. Curved and scalloped like a conch shell, they sport a delicately crisp and nutty brown exterior that collapses into an absurdly tender, mouth-melting interior. Each luxurious bite is an affirmation of all that is good with the world, a transporting experience that can be had for just $2. Toss in another 75 cents, and Kraus' chocolate version just might propel a person to the moon. "Yeah, we like chocolate around here," he said with a laugh.
The rest of his day? After delivering bread to a few restaurant clients, he might help out at the tart station, or spend an hour with chocolatier Josh Werner, or devote some time in the afternoon to shaping croissants. "And then there's always the good stuff, like paperwork," he said. Not that he's complaining. "I'm not prepping kids' brains for surgery. I'm not going into a bad neighborhood to break up a dangerous domestic violence dispute," he said. "Come on, I'm making eclairs."
Chances are, he'll probably do a little teaching, too. "If you want to be a great chef -- and I'm not saying that I'm a great chef -- you have to be a good teacher," Kraus said. "Otherwise, you're going to be the only one, doing everything."
Years of preparation
Kraus is a son of rural western Kentucky, and a hint of his roots lingers in his voice. After two aimless years in college ("let's just say I wasn't focused on my future," he joked), he decided to take his nascent interest in restaurants to a more serious level. An unfamiliarity with French diverted him to London, where he was fortunate to labor under a series of top-flight chefs. It was a graduate-level education, minus the classrooms, and his dream of becoming an executive chef slowly but surely shifted toward pastry.
He returned to the United States, landing in Nashville and then Chicago, all the while continuing to watch, work with and learn from an extraordinary series of mentors. While running the pastry program at Chicago's tony Park Hyatt Hotel, friends -- and culinary idols -- at the city's French Pastry School tapped him to join their staff. He stayed 11 years. "It was like living a dream," he said.
But all good things come to an end. He and wife Dawn were parents, and his crushing schedule meant that "I would leave before Tristan would wake up, and I'd come home after he went to sleep," he said. "I didn't want to be that kind of father."
Enter the power of serendipity. He was invited to teach a four-day course in Minneapolis, and after knocking around the city, Kraus was smitten. "I mean, who wouldn't want to live here?" he said.
It took two years of real estate ups and downs, but the family -- now four, with the arrival of Rory -- left for the Twin Cities 45 minutes after Kraus participated in his last graduation ceremony at the school. They moved into an apartment they'd rented via Craigslist, sight unseen, and by the next morning they were knocking down wallboard at their fixer-upper storefront.
Five months later, Patisserie 46 opened. The original baking staff consisted of a half-dozen former students -- all but one remain, a telling statistic in an industry with a notoriously high turnover rate, and a reflection of Kraus' mentoring skills -- and an even smaller front-of-the-house crew. Business has grown at an astronomical rate; there are now 27 employees on the payroll. Perhaps Kraus' greatest gift is his ability to make his life's work look easy. It isn't.
"I was at this for 20 years before I got up the courage to even think about opening my own place," he said. "It's scary."
And yes, he's baking to please his customers, although he isn't above catering to his own tastes. Which explains the chewy pretzels, the occasional inclusion of bourbon ("It reminds me of home," he said), the frequent nods to Alsace ("it's the best food, anywhere," he said) and most specifically the presence of canelés, the fluted, cylinder-shaped pastries with a caramelized exterior ("so dark that people think they're burned, but dark is different from burned," he said) and a soft, airy, eggy and impossibly rich center. The first time he ever ate one, "it sent me on a quest to find them again," he said. Which is why they have a permanent berth in the Patisserie 46 case, despite their inexplicable low-volume track record.
"Somewhere down the line, someone will eat one and have that same experience that I had," Kraus said. "After all, I'm in the business of giving people omigod experiences."
Follow Rick Nelson on Twitter: @ricknelsonstrib