Cedric Barberet’s love for pastry gradually developed when, as a young boy, he spent his free time playing with dough at his family’s pastry shop, Patisserie Barberet, near Lyon, France. It was also here where, as a teen, he served his apprenticeship, learning the skills and techniques required to become a top pastry chef. Barbaret followed this apprenticeship by honing his skills at top patisseries, hotels and restaurants in France and the U.S., including Le Bec-Fin and Buddakan in Philadelphia, Mar-a-Lago and Maison Janeiro in Palm Beach, and M Resort Casino & Spa in Las Vegas. In 2015 he opened Bistro Barbaret & Bakery in Lancaster, PA, where he delights customers with some of the finest pastries and desserts in the country. Barbaret went on to be named one of the Top Ten Pastry Chefs in America by Dessert Professional Magazine, and has been recognized as a member of the prestigious Academie Culinaire de France since 2011. He is also one of only 12 U.S.-based members of the Cacao Barry International Ambassador Club. Busy as he is, Chef Barbaret took time to speak with us about his career, competitions and his life as a pastry chef and entrepreneur in the heart of Amish country.
How did you get started in the pastry industry?
I started in my parent’s bakery in Villefranche-sur-Saône, near Lyon, France. I grew up in the pastry world with my dad being a pastry chef, so from the age of 11 I played with pastry for fun on weekends. School was not the right choice for me, as I wasn’t successful there, so I chose pastry and did my apprenticeship for two years at my dad’s bakery. After getting my diploma, I went to Nice and worked for two years on a pastry master’s degree at Patisserie Chereau. That was much more difficult than working in your parents’ bakery. After that I had six months free and I had a choice between working in a ski resort at a two-star Michelin restaurant in a hotel, or going to a small seasonal U.S. hotel in Cape Cod, Massachusetts. I was always drawn to the United States, so I chose that over the glamour and prestige. When I arrived, I didn’t speak English, but like most French people I could say ‘hello’ and ‘how are you?’. We learned British English, which differs to American English, but luckily everyone in the Cape Cod kitchen spoke French. The chef and two line cooks who came with me from Paris were French, so it was easy. Communication was harder outside the kitchen. When you have no choice you learn a few words, but it was a rough experience. Also, their pastry techniques were completely different to what I had learned. Wedding cakes were a big debacle for me. Buttercream in the U.S. is different to Europe, especially with mass-produced wedding cakes. People use shortening and powdered sugar and never understand how a cake can stay outside in 90 degree weather without melting. I now understand why their buttercream was so white, while mine was yellow. It was a good experience, but the I.R.S. shut the place down after I had been there for eight months. In 1995 I moved to Florida to work with my dad’s friend, who was the chef at a fancy Palm Beach restaurant, Maison Janeiro. The owner was an eccentric American from Pittsburgh and the restaurant had zebra booths, Versace and Sambonet silverware and flatware and Riedel glasses. We had the best table settings in the United States, according to many magazines. I learned how to make soufflés there, as they had 16 soufflés on their menu. I stayed there for six years, until it closed. I knew many people in Palm Beach, and the Executive Chef of Mar-a-Lago offered me the Pastry Chef position. I knew it was a difficult place to work because staff couldn’t keep their positions for more than a year. It was a gamble, but I took the job and stayed for six years. I revamped their entire pastry program, to the capacity that you can in a country club. People pay for membership, but expect the same comfort food they get at home. After a point I got bored and wanted to be more challenged.
While you were there, you made Donald and Melania Trump’s wedding cake – was that a big challenge?
Yes, Melania approached me one weekend and asked me to do the wedding cake. I was worried she would bring me a million pictures from magazines that look super nice and sharp, because in reality, it is not always what you see in the pictures. She showed me a picture of a blue cake with gold and white roses and asked if I could make that. Then we talked about flavors and we ended up choosing a chiffon cake. She also wanted todo a mini cake as a favor box. We did that cake in chocolate ganache. We did a small version of the wedding cake for her to see, but she didn’t like it. She moved some flowers and asked if we could stack flowers on one side. I told her we could cascade the flowers from the top to the side, but many people had already done that, so I suggested if she wanted something unique, we could cover the whole cake in layers of flowers and do some accents with buds. I ended up making the cake for 450 guests, including the Clintons, Barbara Walters, Shaquille O’Neal, Oprah and Larry King.
We decided to make a cake for the display and pictures and a backup cake, as well. We also made favor cakes that were small versions of the big cake – chocolate ganache topped with a pastry rose. I was able to get the box monogrammed with 24-carat gold leaf, which each guest could take home. That is what you saw when Barbara Walters and others showed their cakes publicly. Years later, many of those cakes were auctioned for thousands of dollars.
The large cake was the biggest piece of work because it had to serve 450 guests. We made a huge base that was five feet in diameter. We had woodworkers make the platform of the cake, which was white and gold-plated on the side. We started to build the cake up, but the biggest work was making the pastillage flowers, which took two months.
How many flowers were on the cake?
Between 2,500 to 3,000 pieces, once you count every accent, flower and bud. The base and flowers weighed 200 pounds. Several structures had a Styrofoam base, but the rest was real. I call it the Fort Knox of cake, because there was no way to get inside, but you had to leave space for them to take pictures. Couples always cut the cake in the wrong place, and end up doing it with their hands.
Where did you go after Mar-a-Lago?
I went to Las Vegas for a year to work with Jean-Claude Canestrier at the M Resort Casino & Spa, where we were doing 12,000 covers a day. The buffet was the best in town, because buffets are important in Las Vegas. They do everything at the beginning to attract all the customers – cheap price, all-you-can-eat and all-you-can-drink, so you have 5,000 people. The hotel had 12 restaurants which our bakery shop serviced. We also did 400- to 500-cover banquets, which were not that big for Las Vegas. Sometimes we had huge conventions with outdoor events. Zachary Golper from Bien Cuit was my head baker at the time. I had a good team of people and I still talk to many of them. That was a good experience on the volume side, and I really learned pastries, because I created all the pastries. Jean-Claude was more in the background, letting me do everything, but after a year it was too much.
After that, I went to Le Bec-Fin in Philadelphia. Jean Banchet asked me if I was interested in working at Le Bec-Fin, as he heard I was looking for an exit. I knew a little about the restaurant, but not much about Georges [Perrier]. I had heard he was verbally abusive. I went there for a tasting, but it never happened. I had a good time with him and was hired. I took over Le Bec-Fin and all the other restaurants he was a partner with.
What inspired you to open your own business?
After working for many years, I could have taken over my parents’ bakery. I never wanted to take it over, and I was also turned off by the way things were going in France. I saw my parents working so hard for something, but at the end they were taxed 50 percent when selling their business.
Is it much more difficult for a small business owner in France than it is in the U.S.?
Yes, either you are huge, or you are on your own. If you are in between, with eight or nine employees, you can make a living, but you have to be careful how much you sell, because the government will take a good share of it. I am happy I left, because I now call Lancaster [PA] my home. When we were in Philadelphia, my wife and I wanted to open something. We had several opportunities which required a private partner, because banks have a hard time lending money to a bakery because, like a restaurant, it has an 80 percent chance of failure. They don’t like to take risks and that has gotten worse since Covid. If you ask a bank for X dollars, they want you to have that collateral and put down 40 percent, but if I had that I wouldn’t be asking them. We tried to find different options, but never found the right thing. We had one, but it fell through. We tried to buy Art of Bread, Georges Perrier’s place, but people see a French person that doesn’t know anything about business, so it wasn’t very taken seriously. A friend of mine was looking to open a catering business in Lancaster. He brought me along, because they were looking at a space with a private investor, but he disappeared, so I was in direct contact with him. He was tearing down a building in downtown Lancaster and was planning to build it up. He put his son on the roof to run a bar and restaurant and needed someone on the bottom. He was willing to pay all expenses to open it. I wanted a bakery and my partner wanted a restaurant, so we decided to do both both.
What’s your biggest challenge?
Scheduling is challenging, because the restaurant is evening work and the bakery is early morning. For the first five years I was here from 5 AM until 10 PM, because I had to be in the restaurant. I cannot do that all the time, so at one point you have to rely on your staff. I am not a savory chef, so I don’t have the perspective of cooking on the line, but I have been in the restaurant business long enough that I know what I’m looking for and how the food should taste. I am involved in all the menu development. My staff comes up with all the ideas, we do a tasting and I choose whether it goes on the menu. That also reflects what I’m doing on the pastry side. When we opened the bakery in Lancaster, the county was known for its all-you-can-eat buffets with Amish and Dutch pies and other heavy food. Since then it has become more fine-dining oriented, with smaller operators opening decent high-end restaurants – not Michelin star, but that kind of level. Whether they succeed or not is a different story, but there are still some very interesting restaurants in Lancaster. There are no longer busloads of tourists eating at places serving 3,000 meals a day. There’s an Italian restaurant, for example, which has been nominated twice for a James Beard award. There is also a mixologist bartender in Lancaster on that list. There is a good dynamic in this city, and they’re doing everything to make downtown very interesting. I am in one of the biggest farmland areas in the Northeast, where I work with fruits and vegetables that I have a hard time finding in other cities. When you buy strawberries from the farm, for example, they last five weeks, whereas if you buy from regular distributors they cross the country and only last five days. Promoting local is tricky, because it has a price tag. A restaurant or high-end bakery is a luxury, not a necessity, so people will challenge you on the price more than they will a grocery store. A flat of strawberries from a distributor costs $40, but it costs almost double locally. You will get nice strawberries, but they are a lot more expensive.
How would you describe your style and your approach to pastry?
Traditional French with a modern twist, but not ultra-modern as I can see certain pastry chefs do. I like that, but it’s not what I do. What I make is reminiscent of something very classic, but I do have those little twists on certain items.
You have been part of various pastry competitions over the years, including Chopped Sweets in 2019, which you won. What motivated you to enter those competitions, and what are some keys to your success in those competitions?
There are two different types of competitions. There are the ones where you bring something you’ve made and then build it up, and then the ones where you are required to do something on the spot. I did the Charles Proust Junior competition in France, which is a very high level one. That was my first competition where I was introduced to a higher national level. I’ve also done competitions back in the day where you do a showpiece and you put it in a glass dome. Then you carry it and drive with it to the competition, hoping it’s not going to break before the presentation. Many of those competitions are like this, which is cool but sometimes you don’t know, anybody could have made it. If you go elsewhere you wouldn’t be able to recreate it and your credentials will quickly diminish. I did many of those and won a few. One in Lyon was the first Biennial International of Lyon, owned and run by Gabriel Paillasson, the former Coupe du Monde de la Pâtisserie President and founder of the World Cup. He is a good friend of my dad, and nominated me for the medal of Chevalier du Orde du Mérite Agricole. The TV competitions are slightly different. When I opened the bakery I quickly got many accolades, some from the French government like the Chevalier du Ordre du Mérite Agricole, and I also received several letters from different presidents of France, congratulating me on my success. The Top 10 Pastry Chef award from Dessert Professional magazine was another accolade I had in 2016, a year after I opened. Before that I was inducted into the Académie Culinaire de France, which you need to have a certain curriculum and background in order to enter this academy of chefs, which is very prestigious. Chefs like Thomas Keller, Eric Ripert, Georges Perrier and many other big-name chefs were inducted. A few years after we opened the bakery, people from TV competitions called us, because they saw our Instagram and LinkedIn posts. But during the first four years it was hard to get away, and even now we are lucky if we can get a week or two off. A few times they called and said they would love me to be on the TV show, but I would have to do castings. I agreed but when I asked when, they said it was during the week of Easter, Mother’s Day or between Thanksgiving and Christmas. That’s great, but I am running a business, so I can’t do that. One day I got a similar call, and I said yes, but I didn’t want to do it. We did Zoom meetings, and I had to send a video so they can see it. They did that meeting with me on the computer, and I didn’t say anything that was intriguing or funny, I was cold, hoping I would not get it, but I did get it. Then I went to the next stage and decided to do it. It was the first time they were doing Chopped Sweets. I know Chopped – you open a mystery basket which, on the savory side, doesn’t contain crazy ingredients. Chopped Sweets was slightly more crazy. It’s a little bit of everything – luck, experience and time management. Those shows are made for you to be uncomfortable during the game. They want to make sure that your time management gets up quickly. You’ve got 35 minutes on the first round to do a dish, which should include the baking. You know the theme of what you’re going to be doing two weeks prior, so you know you’re going to do Neopolitan – you know it’s going to be chocolate, vanilla and strawberry. What order you don’t know, but it does give you enough time to prepare yourself. If you are competitive, and I am, I had no intention to be out on the first round. I worked for two weeks on vanilla, strawberries and chocolate. I’ve seen shows on regular Chopped, and I knew I needed a dessert that could change very quickly, depending on the ingredients. You have a core recipe, and can do different things with it, so that was my idea. You basically don’t know anything, so you ask questions such as, “Can I bring my recipe book with me?” No recipe book, you can only bring a small index card with what you’re thinking you’re going to do. Memorize it, because it’s not with you when you do the competition. You are in stress mode because you’re doing something and you only have 30 minutes. Also, the pantry doesn’t have any labels on ingredients, so it’s hard to recognize things. Everything is in jars – it will say sugar, cornstarch, vanilla, but it won’t have anything that you will recognize. Your alcohol has no branding, and you are not used to seeing that. You have two minutes to look through the pantry, then the show starts. Your first round is 35 minutes and the second and third rounds are 45 minutes. It’s nice, because we shot in November in a warehouse, not a kitchen. It’s a set with a stove and a fake hood. There are hundreds of lights, and the stoves are running the whole time. You start at 6 AM and end at 11 PM, because there are interviews in between. That specific show, compared to others, was a better fit for what I was doing because I saw people with bugs and spider legs, which I wouldn’t even try to touch. I also believe you have to train. I saw that on the show they work on a small six-foot table, so I set one up and timed myself. I realized I had already spent 50 minutes and needed to come down to 30 minutes.
Did you approach it as if you were doing the Coupe de Monde?
Yes, because I didn’t want to be out. I still run a business and I spoke with my friend Florian Bellanger who is on Cupcake Wars on the Food Network, and he told me to be careful and reminded me that I had a reputation. I trained for two weeks and when I got there my six-foot table was only three feet, because I had a contestant next to me. It was created to make you feel uncomfortable right away. I saw many big name pastry chefs doing that show who were booted off in the first round. It also depends on what you get. It is a combination of many things that will make you either succeed or fail.
What are some of your most popular items?
Everything chocolate is popular, but that seems to be the trend anywhere you go in the U.S.
Anywhere I worked, everything that has chocolate was my biggest seller. If it’s a fruit tart or something like this, it sells. A cake with fruit is harder to sell than other items. 85 percent of my items are gluten-free. I have a seven-layer cake which is 71 percent dark chocolate and flourless chocolate sponge, cocoa syrup – that’s my biggest seller. It has a super deep black glaze and a couple of little chocolate decorations. A few too many decorations on my cakes, but that’s who I am. Another one that sells a lot is the Azure, which is a blue glaze with a sparkle. That is a milk chocolate and vanilla crème brulée, also gluten-free. We also do an upside-down Snickers, which is the version of the candy bar that we interpreted our way, which is peanut butter with a liquid salted caramel that oozes out. It’s got a hazelnut dacquoise and milk chocolate whipped cream with peanut brittle pieces. That’s a big seller. We also did the Apple, which is a play on a Cédric Grolet dessert, but I only did the apple because my name is Cedric as well, that’s why. I did it with a candy that people in their youth probably eat a lot, which is the Jolly Rancher green apple one. I use that as my filling and mousse, then we do a green apple ginger and lemon compote in the center. That sells pretty well. The line of macarons, if we count that by the piece, is another big seller at the retail store. We sell about 8,000 per month, which is not crazy, but everything is done by hand. We pipe and mix by hand, there is no machine. We are in between the volume where you can use a machine and the volume where you cannot use a machine. It is time consuming. We also do chocolate bonbons, but they’re all molded — they are not enrobed bonbons, because I do it by hand and I have a small machine. We also do many jams in different ways, but all natural, so only fruit, sugar, apple pectin and lemon juice.
Do you ship any products?
Not yet. We sometimes do corporate orders, but not on a regular basis. We would like to open an e-commerce shop at some point, but we haven’t done that yet. I am 90 percent concentrated on
retail, so e-commerce is fine. I don’t do any wholesale, only one account, because I have a good relationship with the locations, so it’s easy and is a good way of making extra income.
Do you have any exciting projects in the works?
We just partnered with a hospital in Lancaster to take over a portion of their retail space and offer a new line of pastries there. The advantage of it is the location will have my name on it, but I don’t have to run it at all. I sell the pastries, but I don’t have to take care of any of the rest of the work that goes with running a business. It’s a fairly large hospital with 15,000 employees. Their food court does 1,500 covers per day. It is brand new, and run by the Compass Group, so you have to run with their program. That’s the next step. We are trying to work on an e-commerce shop, too, because I believe we can generate revenue with that. It’s hard with shipping, because pastries are very fragile. You can ship macarons but 50 percent of them will break. You have to buy the special packaging for the macarons, and the same for the chocolate bonbons. You can say fragile all over the place, but UPS and FedEx will handle it the way they handle it. I am trying to concentrate on jams and chocolate tablets, because they are easier to ship and have a long shelf life. We do many jams, and usually produce 150 to 200 jars at a time. We do different flavors, such as mango and lime, peach and lavender, peach-saffron and strawberry and black peppercorn. We make some pretty interesting flavors.
(This article appeared in the Summer 2023 issue of Pastry Arts Magazine)