Tucked inside Kennedy-King College in Englewood is a school little known here except to foodies, but boasting international acclaim.
The French Pastry School, headquartered in the Loop, with a second site within that South Side institution of City Colleges of Chicago, draws students from across the globe.
The tantalizing smell of baked goods often wafts from kitchens lined with stainless steel appliances, rows of marble-topped cooking counters.
Students craft paper-thin puffs of crumbly pastry; perfectly structured, logos-imprinted chocolate drops; cakes of spiraling flowers, bears and ribbon decorations; buttery,flaky croissants, creamy filled eclairs and sinful treats of sprinkled nuts and garnish.
Founded by internationally renowned French chefs Sebastien Canonne and Jacquy Pfeiffer in 1995, it’s the city’s lone pastry-only culinary school.
“He was pastry chef at the Ritz-Carlton. I was pastry chef at the Sheraton Hotel, and we could never find enough qualified pastry employees who were properly trained, so we decided to open our own school,” says Pfeiffer, co-author of the 2013 “The Art of French Pastry.” His cookbook won the 2014 James Beard Foundation Award in the Baking and Dessert category.
“It’s been such an exciting journey that it still feels like yesterday. The best part is we have graduates who have opened their own businesses, and call us to hire our graduates. That’s what it’s about,” Pfeiffer says.
To expand the high-demand career and entrepreneurship training to Chicago youth whose backgrounds resemble theirs — Pfeiffer and Canonne both grew up in low-income homes — the two chefs have launched their first Mayor’s Cup Youth Pastry Competition.
Partnering with the city, the “Cake Wars” TV show-like competition has issued an open call to city high-school students ages 14-19, in search of the best cupcake recipe and essay on “What Inspires You to Bake.”
Twelve finalists will receive mentoring from the school’s many master chefs, then participate in a live baking contest in May, the winner to be awarded a $23,700 French Pastry School scholarship.
“Both Jacquy and I grew up in circumstances very similar to these students — my parents worked in factories,” says Canonne. “But we were lucky. In France, if you decide not to go on to a four-year college, you have to do a trade, it’s mandatory, and it’s paid for, so Jacqui and I followed the vocational path.”
Both have numerous times won the top awards of their industry, from Pastry Chef of the Year in America to United States National Pastry Cup, to Pastry Chef of the Year at the World Pastry Forum in Las Vegas.
Canonne began his career with culinary and pastry apprenticeships, including with legendary pastry chef Gaston Lenôtre, of Paris. His path took him to work at world-renowned hotels and restaurants in France and Switzerland, then a year at the Palais de L’Elysée as pastry chef to French President François Mitterrand. He landed at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Chicago in 1991.
Pfeiffer’s career also began with apprenticeships, also spanning world-renowned establishments, including working for the Royal Family in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, and for the Sultan of Brunei. He too arrived in Chicago in 1991, at the Fairmont Hotel.
Their 21-year-old school is recognized as one of the top such schools anywhere “for all things sweet and baked,” drawing baking enthusiasts from close to home and as far away as Mexico, Thailand, Brazil and India.
It claims seven job opportunities per each full-time graduate.
Chicago teens interested in learning from the two Pastry Hall of Famers have until March 31 to enter the contest http://www.frenchpastryschool.com
And at Chicago Public Schools that offer vocational culinary programs, word’s gotten out.
“Baking has always been a part of my life. I love sweets!” says Julissa Maya, 17, of Ashburn, a senior at Curie High School. “Baking is something that I’m so happy is in my life. It’s brought me joy, and it’s brought my family closer, and it’s beautiful. Of course I’m entering!”
Maya’s family actually owns a bakery, GBD Cakes and Sweets, in Bucktown, which was in the news last August when her mom and sister competed in an episode of “Cake Wars,” Food Network’s baking competition show, winning first place and $10,000.
Her fellow student, Curie sophomore Quovon Smith, 16, of the Near West side, also plans to enter.
“I grew up watching my mom and grandma cook, and my uncle’s a chef,” says Smith, enrolled several years in the After School Matters culinary program, “You Got Served.” “I started baking at around seventh-grade. I can make cupcakes, cakes, sweet potato pies, different types of stuff. I may become a culinary chef. An opportunity like this would mean a lot. It would show I strive for my greatness and put effort into my passion.”