Eric Marie belies stereotypes.
The executive chef and co-owner of New World Pastries, 1601 Simpson St., bakes French desserts in a place once crowded with pasta lovers. Fanny’s name is still on one brick wall.
He is a boss who professes an aversion to hierarchy. The rule in his kitchen, he says, is “Don’t call me Chef; my name is Eric. Everyone is at the same level.”
He is a Parisian native but a booster of his new country. “I love Paris, but I live here,” he says. He buys chocolate from Chicago, not Europe, saying, “The economy I need to help is here.”
He is a chef who bows to the egos of others and routinely expresses gratitude. “Show me a chef who made it on his own,” he says, “and I’ll show you a liar.”
He is the creator of delectable pastries for some of Chicago’s finest hotels and restaurants, but is content to leave the impression the desserts are made by them.
Perhaps it is enough for Eric Marc Marie that he is living out his dream.
He crossed an ocean and traversed an adoptive country in bold pursuit of it. Along the way, he was not too proud to do whatever job would sustain him.
As a child in France, Eric Marie writes on Facebook, he awakened each morning to the smells of croissants and chocolate and began “look[ing] intently into the showcase of magnificent pastries and European delicacies and think[ing] one day he would be the one behind the counter to recreate those endless smiles every day.”
That little boy, says Mr. Marie, was “the black sheep in school – the kid every teacher didn’t want to have.” At 15, with the counsel of a school social worker, he turned from academic studies to an apprenticeship at a pastry school in Paris. During the four-year training program, he says, he learned to make “all the things you aren’t supposed to eat.”
Afterwards he found a position in La Coupole, the famous Montparnasse brasserie where writers like Hemingway and Sartre talked and artists left their mark on its decorative columns.
A single phone call from a French restaurateur in Philadelphia lured Mr. Marie to the United States. But the restaurant closed four months later, leaving him speechless (in English) and jobless.
Making his way in what he calls “a big French community in Philadelphia,” he landed a job as a dishwasher in another French restaurant. He acquired English, he says, by “listening”; soon he was also making pastries.
He honed his skills at a couple of highly rated Philadelphia dining spots and pays tribute to the chefs who gave him a boost, especially Stephen Starr of Buddakan. “Without these people’s help,” says Mr. Marie, “I would never have succeeded.”
In Miami the refrain was familiar. Moving from wait-staff to baker, he says he “start[ed] a new trend of French pastry in Miami.”
When he boarded a bus to Chicago, it was partly because he “had never been to Chicago.” He met his future business partner, the financial half of the duo, while waiting tables at Tavern on Rush.
Their first, abandoned, business plan involved a retail store and an unreachable $1 million in capital. Two and a half years ago, they opened New World Pastries for $25,000.
Drawn to Evanston by the kitchen space at Nell Funk’s Now We’re Cookin’, they built their client base to include large vendors like Sunset Foods. Mr. Marie says he sometimes “made pastries for 36 to 48 hours straight” to compensate for a small mixer and limited freezer space.
NWP outgrew the shared kitchen but chose to stay in the neighborhood. Known as “The Baker,” Mr. Marie keeps his eye on the junior Wildkits football players across the street and consults Brella Productions next door.
Amid the current proliferation of celebrity chefs, Mr. Marie is no stranger to cooking competitions or to television. But he now limits himself to charity competitions and says he is offended at the notion of the chef as a superstar.
“Food shows on TV are entertainment, and chefs are not doctors. We don’t save lives,” he says.
What chefs should do, he says, is listen to what their customers need and want. “The big problem with chefs is not adapting,” he says. Though there is “a touch of French pastry in all that I do,” he says, “it doesn’t matter what I like.” It matters, he says, that he and his staff (one other chef and three paid interns) offer wholesale, catering or retail customers “a menu as large as their imagination.”
When working with clients, Mr. Marie’s attitude is that “nothing is impossible.” But he does not claim infallibility and is quick to admit, “I don’t know, but I know someone who does.”
Though NWP has a seasonal menu, they often customize orders. After listening to a client/chef, NWP is able to generate a pastry especially for his dining room. It is “cheaper and better quality [for hotels] to buy from outside” than it is to hire their own pastry chefs, says Mr. Marie. And he stays mum about the places that outsource to him.
As he talks, it is clear the payment that counts comes in smiles – on the faces of the boy he surprised with a 3-D Mickey Mouse birthday cake or the guests at the Hard Rock Café who marveled at his life-sized guitar made of solid chocolate.
The very smiles, one suspects, that he saw in the pastry shops of Paris and has spent 22 years re-creating.