There are hardly any noises coming from the kitchen of Lafayette Bakery and Cafe (915-6286)—just a few phrases of French and a couple giggles.
This is totally abnormal and completely normal.
Abnormal because it's often a hive of baking activity. Normal because—while the brand new spot is open 7am-7pm next to Robata Sushi in Carmel's Barnyard Shopping Center—both the furious baking session and breakfast and lunch surges are long gone. The only customer is a gray-haired lady sitting at a booth. She’s munching on a succès, a deliciously dense yellow cake layered with chocolate that taste more like a candy bar than cake. (She later insisted I try.) She’s smiling and contented.
The bakery itself is laid out like a long wide corridor with a row of communal tables, lined with modest vinyl tablecloths, and accented with yellow and red daisies. Glass cases are filled with all sorts of treasures—ham-and-cheese croissants and quiches, brioche feuilletees, fruit-flavored and chocolate macaroons, a bacon specked wheat, rye country breads and whole puff pastry fruit tarts.
Behind it an impressive array of bakery tools and mechanisms lets visitors watch the bakers at work—a rare open kitchen treat in the world of bakeries—if said visitors get their early enough in the morning.
Marion Vial, daughter of master-baker and Lafayette owner Jean-Bernarnd Vial, is a baker herself who happens to be manning the register at the moment.
Her dad trained her in pastries after he couldn't convince her to find other work.
“My father is the type of parent whose harder on the children so they can be best,” she says.
She greets me with a huge smile and a hello, coated in a French accent. Then she and her father and teacher sit down and unfurl how the bakery came to be.
Lafayette is the long chased-after dream of Vial and pastry chef Pascal Merle. Though the duo often work with different mediums—Vial tends toward breads, Merle toward meringue—they enjoy equally impressive baking resumes that began back in the 1970s.
Vial first fell in love with baking in his hometown of Saint Germain Laval, France, and got his first baking job in the U.S. at La Madeleine, a bakery in Dallas, Texas. The success of the bakery soon led to openings all over the eastern part of the U.S.; upon the openings of each, Vial was asked to relocate and help launch the newest outpost. He then moved back to France in 1988 to train more intensively as a master-baker, working in five different bakeries in Lyon.
Somewhere in the middle he met Merle, a pastry chef who began his craft at just 15 years old. Merle honed his skills in the Rhône-Alpes region of France and would continue perfecting his pastry working for world renowned French chocolate supplier Valrhona Chocolate.
After Vial hired Merle to help run a bakery—and the two developed a fast friendship over admiration for their respective goods and the deeply held belief all great meals start with incredible bread—Vial realized that their own bakery in America was possible.
“It was always my dream to come to America and bake,” Vial says.
“We just want to bring some of our knowledge to a country has always made us dream,” Merle adds.
Nothing goes on the shelves that they do not test first, and items that do not sell well one day are not made the next.
“We want the taste to be different every day,” Marion says.
The ever evolving menu however, will never get rid of Vial’s pride and joy—the old fashioned French baguette ($4.50).
Skinnier and more thickly crusted than its American copy-cat, Vial’s baguette is something he’ll slice up daily with a dab of butter and serve as a sample. That will help reform American eating habits, he hopes, only half joking: “In America, you get a customer once a day. In France, a women with children in the afternoon will get one baguette, eat it on her way home, and come back for two more for dinner.”
The other best-seller is the chocolate croissant ($2.50). Its texture isn’t anything shocking, but the chocolatey center reveals a ganache that keeps a creamy texture nicely. The slightly salty-crust also provides an interesting and tasty accent on both croissants and almond puffs (also $2.50).
The crowning glory of our taste test, though, is a slice of heaven, called the fraisier ($4.50), an intricate and difficult strawberry short cake-type concoction that's simultaneously nothing like strawberry short cake. Lafayette’s pastry crème is light but sturdy enough to hold together its moist cakes, soaked in some mysterious and addicting lemony liquid. My slice is intricately decorated with vertical slices of perfectly placed strawberries and a slice of kiwi on top.
Even after less than a week open, restaurants are already asking for Lafayette’s baguettes. Customers joke like old friends with the workers, family/work problems get resolved in private face to face talks, and the well established friendship between Vial and Merle has Lafayette running well.
Like a dream, you might say.
And a country where his dream's been realized.