In Paris' posh St. Germain-de-Pres neighborhood, John Kraus set his shopping bags on a park bench and took a seat.
He carefully unboxed three small treasures as finely detailed as the facade of the Church of Saint-Sulpice across the street.
First, a paean to pink, was a cake made of two large cookies sandwiching rose cream and a ring of raspberries. Next, an oval of ombre orange, glazed to shine like a wax mango. Last, coiled strands of chestnut cream concealing a snow-white mountain of meringue.
Kraus took one forkful of each of the precious sweets he had collected on the first leg of a daylong pastry walk through Paris.
"Isn't that beautiful?" he said, admiring their delicate textures and flavors. Then, he threw the rest away.
The Twin Cities pastry chef learned long ago that eating his way through Paris' best bakeries would require near-impossible discipline. Just one bite.
It was one of the first lessons he taught me when I joined him in January for his favorite pastime. Over seven hours, in two neighborhoods, we tried some 16 sweets — a mere dollop of the city's cakes, tarts, ice creams and confections.
Kraus — the owner of Patisserie 46 in Minneapolis and Rose Street Patisserie in St. Paul — made a great guide. He specializes in French pastry and is the only American-born member of Relais Dessert, an exclusive club of worldwide pastry chefs who adhere to strict standards of excellence.
To guide our walk, he made a wish list of 25 bakeries, ice cream parlors and chocolate shops. Some were favorites he hits up every trip: the standard-bearers and well-known industry innovators. Others belonged to younger luminaries just beginning to generate buzz. Kraus talks about them all like they're rock stars.
We made it to 12 of the stops before we succumbed to sugar-induced exhaustion.
Every time he returns to Paris, Kraus spends a day, maybe more, roaming from bakery to bakery. It's partly for professional reasons; he combs for ideas he can bring back to the Twin Cities, and he keeps up with acquaintances in his field.
But it's recreational, too. This is his version of vacation.
"I pretty much go to pastry shops and make everybody crazy," Kraus told me as he checked his phone for directions to the next bakery.
His wife and business partner, Elizabeth Rose, is the innocent bystander compelled to come along.
"People always ask me, when you go to Paris, what do you do? Do you see an exhibition? No," Rose said drolly. "This is it."
To Kraus, sugar and flour are more than ingredients; they are both tools to master and keys to unlocking happiness in others. They are as symbolic as they are tasty, and Kraus can speak eloquently about their powers in between bites.
Bakers "wake up in the early morning as an attempt to make people have a better day," he said, "and that's all we really care about."
Prowling for pastries
I made the mistake of showing up at Kraus and Rose's hotel lobby with breakfast, four croissants I bought on my way over. Kraus tore the crunchy nob of amber dough off one corner. "Good," he said, and handed the bag back to me.
Rule one on an epic pastry tour? Don't bother with meals.
Kraus was disappointed with their hotel; he hoped to stay within walking distance of "the big three" pastry masters. Until he realized this hotel was near "the other big three."
After all, this was Paris, Rose said. "It's like the Las Vegas of pastry."
We walked down the street to Pierre Hermé, whom Kraus called "the king of kings." The name, in white letters on a black box of a store, is almost as ubiquitous in Paris as Starbucks is here, thanks to several bakery outlets and a burgeoning chain of cafes. Widely known for his macarons with unusual flavor combinations, Hermé is "potentially the greatest pastry chef of all time," Kraus said.
He picked out a Hermé hallmark, the Ispahan cake, a delicate pink creation that looks like a giant macaron sandwich.
As Kraus explained it, there are rules in French pastry, something like arranged marriages, that forced raspberry and chocolate into a lifelong partnership. Hermé broke the mold when he introduced raspberry to rose and lychee instead, and his Ispahan became a phenomenon.
"He's just a genius," Kraus said. "Every century, one comes along."
Around the corner was another legend: Michalak, the pastry boutique belonging to French television personality Christophe Michalak. "He's the superstar, the big daddy," Kraus said. While Pierre Hermé's shop was all black and dark wood, this one was stark white, with bright gleaming cakes popping against the plain counter.
Kraus selected the mangue, an almond cake with coconut and mango mousse, shaped and tinted to look like a shiny piece of fruit. And the Mont Blanc, a classic French pastry made of meringue and chestnut paste.
Not far away, at Place Saint-Sulpice, we approached Patrick Roger, a chocolatier whose name in green block letters is also easily spotted throughout Paris. But it was Sunday, and the shop was closed. Not getting in was Kraus' biggest regret of the day, he told me later.
Like Kraus' other idols, Roger twisted classic flavors together into something new. His chocolate marbles filled with yuzu-lemongrass or lime-caramel "basically changed the way I look at pastry," Kraus said. (On his recommendation, I went back a few days later and got a small box of Roger's signature chocolate "Hemispheres." They were extraordinary.)
After Kraus sampled his "lunch buffet" on the park bench, we strolled to another part of the neighborhood that was teeming with sweet shops, and Kraus reminisced about his first self-guided eating tour.
The Kentucky native had come to Paris to train as a chef in the mid-90s. When he arrived, his boss put him up in a hotel and gave him 300 euros to "go have some fun," he said.
"I went to every pastry shop I had ever read about and I spent all 300 euros. I went back to my hotel room and sampled everything and then completely passed out."
Kraus returned to the U.S. and worked in Nashville before moving to Chicago to teach at the French Pastry School. He became friends with pastry chefs from all over the world, especially from the industry's epicenter, France.
Eventually, he made his way to Minneapolis, opening Patisserie 46 in July 2010. At this point well-connected, his relationships with French bakers helped him make history in 2016 as an inductee into the 100-member Relais Dessert, putting Minneapolis on the international pastry map.
Savoring the moments
Kraus lifted a baguette to his nose and sniffed. Then, he tore the end off and listened to it crackle.
"I smell everything," he said. "The fermentation, the flour. It's going to be a special bread."
The loaf was from Thierry Marx, a Meilleur Ouvrier de France, or MOF, which is a title awarded to the best craftspeople in the country.
Kraus' second rule for scouting the best in baking? Look for those letters, displayed proudly at any shop fortunate enough to have earned them.
We were having our second picnic of the day, in a twinkle-lit courtyard called Beaupassage that's packed with quick-serve cafes from some of Paris' food stars.
Women at a neighboring table eyed our haul and raised their eyebrows. Satchels from five different shops sat at Kraus' feet. "He looks like me when I go clothes shopping," Rose said.
Kraus laid out a cylindrical brioche with a core of chocolate-hazelnut spread.
Then a white dome called écorce that looked liked a Hostess snowball, yet was filled with a refined caramel mousse.
Next to that, a caramel-filled cake topped with circular ridges of bright green matcha. Another Mont Blanc cake, this one from Angelina, a shop renowned for its chestnut paste as well as liquid hot chocolate so thick it's practically chewable.
And finally, baba au rhum, the French classic of rum-soaked yeast cake with whipped cream.
Every bite became Kraus' new favorite of the day. But the écorce, from fellow Relais Dessert member Claire Damon, almost made him go back for seconds.
"It's so light," he reasoned. "It's delicate and it's beautiful."
Rose looked him in the eye and nodded toward me. "Don't make me tell her the story of your cheese coma," she warned.
"Maybe I'll stop now," he said.
Taking your time
We hailed a taxi to take us to the Marais, on the other side of the Seine, for our last stops. But we weren't close to done. We spent almost an hour each at the next few places, doing what it seems like Parisians have all the time in the world for: tasting, drinking and talking.
Rule three: Eating in Paris means taking your time.
It happens occasionally at the little slice of France that Kraus built in south Minneapolis. "When we first started, we'd have Europeans come in and sit for two hours. No laptops. They're having a moment and they're actually enjoying eating, and it's pleasure," he said. "We don't have that luxury. We have a 15-minute break. We have a culture where we have to work, and I don't think we'd survive if everybody took August off."
He shared this and other philosophies as our tour went on. How "bread has become a demon," how Americans don't value cake, how making food is really about making memories.
We shared a globe made of stacked slices of ice cream, wrapped in yet more ice cream, a newfangled vision of an ice cream cake from La Glacerie Paris.
"There's nothing like this in all of France," Kraus said, and then imagined how he could re-create it at home.
At another ice cream shop, talk turned back to Minneapolis. Maybe it was the need for
salt after the day we'd had, but Kraus and Rose started naming favorite places back home to get roast duck and collard greens as our ice cream-filled pastries melted on the table.
That should have been our cue to stop. But with a hunger that could not be satisfied, Kraus realized there was another pastry shop nearby that he hadn't yet tried. Rose gave him a withering look, but quickly relented with a sweet smile.
He dashed inside and ordered a lime-and-shiso tart to go. We headed to the nearest cafe, unboxed the dessert, and had one more bite.
Follow along on John Kraus's pastry tour the next time you're in Paris:
Pierre Hermé: 72 Rue Bonaparte, 75006
What to get: Ispahan (raspberry and rose-lychee cake or macarons)
Pâtisserie Michalak: 8 Rue du Vieux Colombier, 75006
What to get: Mangue (mango), Mont Blanc (chestnut and meringue)
Patrick Roger: 2-4 Place Saint-Sulpice, 75006
What to get: Hemisphere chocolates filled with lime caramel, yuzu and lemongrass verbena, and caramel honey
Sadaharu Aoki: 35 Rue de Vaugirard, 75006
What to get: Tarte Caramel Salé Mâcha (salted caramel tart with matcha)
La Pâtisserie Cyril Lignac: 133 Rue de Sèvres, 75006
What to get: Baba au Rhum (rum cake)
La Grande Epicerie de Paris: 38 Rue de Sèvres, 75007
What to get: Bread, pastries, prepared dishes at this food market that's part of the department store Le Bon Marché
Angelina Paris: 108 Rue du Bac, 75007
What to get: Le Mont-Blanc, hot chocolate
Des Gâteaux et du Pain Claire Damon: 89 Rue du Bac, 75007
What to get: Écorce (almond cake with caramel mousse and caramel filling)
Thierry Marx: 53 Rue de Grenelle, 75007
What to get: Baguette, brioche feuilletée tigrée (striped chocolate brioche filled with chocolate-hazelnut spread)
La Glacerie Paris: 13 Rue de Temple, 75004
What to get: Le Dôme (ice cream cake)
Une Glace à Paris: 15 Rue Sainte-Croix de la Bretonnerie, 75004
What to get: Chouquette (pastry with hazelnut caramel and vanilla ice cream)
Yann Couvreur Pâtisserie: 23 bis Rue des Rosier, 75004
What to get: Tarte Citron-Vert Shiso (lime and shiso tart)