By Derrick Taylor
A woman dressed in jeans and a white button down shirt walks into La Table Exquise on the corner of Tompkins Ave. and Putnam Ave in Bedford-Stuyvesant. As she approaches the glass pastry case, she smiles, displaying missing teeth. Her eyes become glassy as she gazes down at the French pastries. She places her order, folds her hands, and patiently waits for it to be boxed. She walks out the door clutching her pastry. Paris has come to Bed-Stuy and people are eating it up.
“I want to open minds in the neighborhood,” Sebastien Chaoui, 36, says as he rolls out more dough to make pastries. With the lights above reflecting off his bald head and dressed in his food-stained chef’s jacket, he carefully adds some flour to the counter and points out that none of his pastries contains sugar. According to Chaoui, he uses a substitute but won’t reveal what it is. It’s the secret to his pastry success. In any event, you wouldn’t notice the difference.
Originally from Paris, Chaoui has been a chef for 20 years. He was trained at the Mederic Culinary Institute in Paris, came to New York in 2003, and began working as a chef in Manhattan. He grew tired of cooking meals and wanted to try his hand in something new, pastries. According to Chaoui, pastries require more skill than regular cooking and he enjoys the technicality of it.
Shortly after he arrived in New York he met Mylène Mirande, 34, also from Paris. She was also working in Manhattan restaurant, not as a chef but on the administrative side. She’s now his girlfriend and business partner. Speaking with heavy French accents, they laughed as they described how they arrived at opening their own bakery.
While living in New York the couple grew tired of Americanized French food, which left them less than thrilled. They missed the comforts of home and its food, particularly the pastries. Pastries in America, according to Mirande, don’t taste authentic. America’s imitations of French pastries are too sweet according to Chaoui, which is why he leaves the sugar out. Their disappointment drove them to take a leap of faith during these hard economic times. “Why not open a shop to have what we want, what we love,” Mirande said. Chaoui traveled to Miami to be a chef in a restaurant and Mirande accompanied him, the couple then returned to New York in 2007.*
Chaoui and Mirande have been planning to open La Table Exquise for more than a year now. After establishing a catering business, doing business around town, and catering Jay-Z’s Rocawear 10th anniversary event this past August, the couple earned enough money to open the pastry shop they both desired. They found an old rundown corner lot just a block over from where they live. They chose the location because of its proximity to their home and because Tompkins Ave. is a busy street. The couple decided to invest their money into the dilapidated space, spending nearly $30,000 in renovations. They installed dark hardwood floors, plumbing for the bathroom, and a brand new kitchen. They painted the walls lilac and purchased dark wooden tables and chairs to fill the space. Community artists display their artwork on the walls of the cozy bakery.
Ultimately, Chaoui and Mirande understand the risk in opening a French pastry shop in Bed-Stuy. It’s a risk because people in the neighborhood aren’t educated in French culture, particularly French food Mirande said. “It’s a challenge for us,” because customers are initially hesitant, she said. People come by and peak in the windows, stop and stare, but don’t always come in. She and Chaoui take care with their customers. When customers ask about the pastries they’re buying Chaoui and Mirande explain the ingredients in each pastry and how each is made. Customers are receptive to their explanations she said, and they listen patiently. “This is how you gain trust” she said, “We will explain it until they get it.”
Mirande, her hair short and her lipstick red, keeps her cool when she encounters impolite customers. She knows that some Bed-Stuy customers are more aggressive than others. They come in and ask why such a shop is in Bed-Stuy and sharply suggest they go to Park Slope or Forte Greene. She says she tries to stay nice. She knows that once she gets them to taste something they’ll be back, and without the attitude. It works, according to Mirande. Locals come in on a regular basis.
Living in Bed-Stuy has given Chaoui and Mirande a perspective on the community that’s different from outsiders who come in and start a business. “I want to be part of the community” Chaoui said. “We are not from here, we want to be accepted.” But Chaoui feels at home in Bed-Stuy. Mirande says that Bed-Stuy is what Chaoui’s neighborhood in Paris, Vitry sur Seine, is like, predominantly black.
Opening a pastry shop in Bed-Stuy requires special circumstances to survive. Chaoui says he needs the community support to be successful. It’s not unusual to see Chaoui giving away free pastries to the police department, local churches, schools and even neighborhood kids looking for something sweet to eat. Perhaps, like his affordable prices-many pastries start at four dollars- this is a clever way to win over Bed-Stuy residents. He mentioned that prices needed to be affordable enough for the neighborhood. La Table Exquise has yet to make a sizable profit. By summer they hope to be in the black, “I can feel it,” Mirande said.
When asked why their pastry shop matters to Bed-Stuy, Mirande has an answer. “We wanted to bring a part of Paris to Brooklyn,” she said.
* This information was corrected based on fact checking.