The first American to be invited to join Relais Desserts, a 100-member fraternity of the best of the best French pastry chefs, quietly bakes croissants at 46th and Grand in south Minneapolis.
He’s John Kraus, and he’s bursting, justifiably, with pride.
Kraus, baker/owner of Patisserie 46 and the recently opened Rose Street Patisserie, also in Minneapolis, is no stranger to flying in the stratosphere of his industry. Last year, he led a three-man American team to the bronze medal at the Coupe du Monde de la Pâtisserie, the Olympics of pastry competitions.
His ascent into the Relais — a 35-year-old, excellence-obsessed Who’s Who of the bakery and chocolatier universe — has been more than a year in the making, and a fulfillment of a career-long wish.
“It’s kind of a secret order of knights,” Kraus said. “It’s just mind-boggling, the talent in that group. And the humility. The whole purpose of the group is to share knowledge. There are no secrets.”
The vetting process started with a sponsor (or, in Relais-speak, parrain, or godfather). Two of them. One has to come from the initiate’s region, and there’s only one other member in North America: François Payard, a Frenchman working in New York City. The other was Thierry Mulhaupt of Alsace.
They agreed to host Kraus at the group’s 2015 annual autumn conclave in Yssingeaux, located just south of Lyon, the pastry epicenter of France.
“It was meeting people that I’ve only read about,” Kraus said. “They give you that kiss on the cheek and say, ‘We hope to see you next year.’ ”
Then the waiting began.
Finally, in April, Kraus got an e-mail: A member would be visiting the bakery the next day.
“And I started to panic,” he said. “He’s going to look at everything, and when I say ‘everything,’ it’s the health inspector, times a thousand.”
Michel Bannwarth, an Alsatian, spent the day talking — in French, of course — assessing, cooking and nibbling.
Then, more waiting. Finally, a month later, a letter arrived.
“I couldn’t open it,” Kraus said. “I was shaking.” The news was good. He was asked to return to Yssingeaux in September for a final daunting examination: an hourlong PowerPoint presentation on the bakery — in French — and a baking demonstration, also in French.
To bolster his wobbly kitchen French, Kraus immersed himself in twice weekly lessons, from a Patisserie 46 customer.
All potential inductees are required to present a cake. Kraus crafted a tropical fruit doozy: a macadamia crisp bottom, then a vanilla mousse (made with Mexican, Madagascar and Tahitian vanillas), a mango-passion fruit cream, a hazelnut sponge cake, a lime-passion fruit gelée, a lychee-vanilla glaze and a coconut sable garnish.
Kraus estimates that he prepared the recipe more than 50 times over the course of the summer, refining and perfecting it. (What Kraus has dubbed the Tristan 19 will soon appear on the bakeries’ menus.)
Ten days before the showdown, Kraus and partner Elizabeth Rose hauled enough baggage to outfit a small commercial kitchen — including a 65-pound chocolate sculpture packed in a 53-pound crate — to Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport. Much wrangling ensued.
After landing in Paris, luggage intact, the couple faced a seven-hour drive to the southern village of Beauzac. The schedule? More practice.
Finally, the 19th — Kraus’ 45th birthday — arrived. At the Ecole Nationale Supérieure de Pâtisserie, a chateau turned culinary school, Kraus and three other invitees from Japan, Italy and Spain gave their all.
Along with the cake, showpiece sculpture and PowerPoint presentation, another requirement was producing a regional specialty. For Kraus, that meant a cookie.
“Because, to me, a cookie is one of the most important things that an American bakery should do well,” he said. “Customers who aren’t familiar with modern French pastry should be able to come in and get a cookie. Then, maybe, eventually, they’ll try a cake.”
It was a hit. No wonder. It’s the buttery, salty, triple-chocolate treat that has long been a Patisserie 46 favorite.
The stressful part over, Kraus and his fellow invitees were gathered in front of a table heavy with Champagne bottles, surrounded by Relais luminaries.
Was he in? Was he out? The Spaniard was first. In. Then Michel Bannwarth turned to Kraus.
“He said, ‘John, we are so proud that we can invite the first American, and so proud that it’s you,’ ” Kraus recalled. “I was stunned. Suddenly everyone is patting me on the back. They’re pulling off my jacket and putting on the Relais jacket. For the first time, the best of the best said to me, ‘You’re good enough. We like you.’
“It was very emotional. That made my entire career worth it. I’m not saying that I’m Time magazine’s Man of the Year or anything. But it was beautiful. And now this weird little bakery on a corner in south Minneapolis is on the map.”
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