Excerpt from “Cape May’s Elusive Baker,” Cape May Magazine, June 2006. Photographs of Michel Gras by Erin Kirk. Cake photographs appear courtesy of Michel Gras. Text by Susan Tischler.
It isn’t easy to catch a baker while he’s baking, especially one who specializes in wedding cakes. They are elusive, a bit reclusive and extremely focused, not to mention prone to working odd hours. Michel Gras of La Patisserie begins his day at 3 sometimes 4 – a.m. that is.
Often when he needs to try out a cake design he goes back to the bakery after dinner, around 7:30 p.m., and doesn’t return home until nearly midnight.
It is 8 a.m. on a Sunday morning. Church bells are ringing, breaking the silence of a warm, sunny morning. The door to the mysterious baking room, located in the basement of the circa 1872 building, is not readily apparent. It is down an alleyway between two buildings. Then, the wind shifts and a familiar scent of fresh bread baking drifts down the alley.
The tempting smell can be traced to a door on the side of the building. If one opens the door just an inch to see if this is the one, all the smells of baking drift up the steps the way a fine perfume fills a room, teasing but never overwhelming. Walking down the steep steps, the blues music of Eric Clapton is the only sound.
It is a very large room and the baker is still nowhere to be found.
Then, a sound and there he is, pulling a tray of mini- baguettes from the large convection oven.
Sunday morning is not a wedding cake day, which means there are loaves of bread everywhere. Baguettes are stacked on cornmeal-covered trays waiting to be sent on the dumb waiter upstairs to A Ca Mia’s Bakery or delivered to area restaurants.
Bread loaves for slicing are cooling on racks. Rolled dough for dinner rolls is on a flour-covered baking sheet waiting to go into the oven. Lamb-shaped cakes with coconut coats sit eyeless, waiting for the finishing touches before they are sent on their way. In the meantime, a freshly baked cake is sitting on Michel’s work table, which dominates the center of the room.
“Taste this cream,” he says, rushing into the back work room where the mixer is. It is a sweet, buttery tasting cream – so light, that it is gone, melted away, before it can be scrutinized any further. This cream will be the primary ingredient for a strawberry shortcake Michel is preparing for a regular customer. The cake on the work table is the shortcake in question. Soon he will transform it into a lovely, dinner dessert.
Mrs. P. (the customer) is typical of Michel’s customers.
She called a couple of days ago and said she wanted a strawberry shortcake. Those were her only instructions because, as Michel says in his distinctive French accent, “She knows the cake will taste good but she allows me the creativity to make it beautiful as well.”
And that’s how he approaches a wedding cake. “I cannot be a copycat,” he says, balking at the thought. “I will try to do what the couple or the bride wants but I have to change things to make it my own. I make different cakes. I use a little more creativity. People generally like that, and that is good because it is what I like to do.”
When it comes to creating a wedding cake design, he says, “I try to do something I want to do and that people will like. Those cakes are an original, crafted just for them. Sometimes people don’t want to spend the money for that, but those who do recognize the work behind it.”
Much of the work lies in the design, usually a minimum of 12 hours for an original concept. He doesn’t plan the way an architect plans. He gets a general concept of what the couple wants and tries to go from there. But first and foremost, he decides, along with the prospective couple, on the structure of the wedding cake. Will it be round or square or square with a round top? Will all the tiers be centered or one or two set back?
Then, there is the taste and texture of the cake and of the icing as well. “I want to make a good cake, not just a cake which looks good,” he says.
Naturally, a custom cake is more expensive. For those who do not want to spend as much money or who simply cannot afford it, Michel often duplicates a design he has already created. “It is like a painting, you know. The original costs more. The copy? A little less so.” The second cake can usually be made quicker and a little easier.
So, one wonders, how does a wedding cake maker get to be a wedding cake maker? It started back in Reims, France where Michel’s father ran a restaurant and got him an apprenticeship with the local baker who sold him his pastries. He worked there for three years of what he calls “hard labor.”
Michel came to Cape May in 1984. There has been a bakery at this location since its inception in 1872, so, although Michel brought a rich tradition of good food with him, he also inherited a traditional operating bakery.
Currently, the nuptial season in Cape May runs from April through November. Michel now averages 100 wedding cakes a year. Two years ago in April he made 12 wedding cakes in one month.
When all is said done, however, Michel’s greatest concern is with the taste. A pretty cake which is inedible is not a success. Locals love his custom-decorated birthday cakes – think of a moist chocolate cake thick with creamy, white icing, topped with an icing bouquet of purple irises. So, no one need wait for a wedding to appreciate his craft.
“Food is the foundation of the family,” says Michel. “When I go home to France, we never leave the kitchen table except to clean it and make way for the next meal or to take a little walk. Food brings everyone together.”
And what better way for the family to come together than with a wedding which features a wedding cake by Michel Gras?
Thinking about one of Michel’s creations for your Cape May Wedding? For more information and photographs, visit michelgras.com.