“It’s that idea that the grass is always greener. There’s always this interest and this desire to be a part of something different from what we’ve always known. It’s eye-opening, living in Paris from an American perspective. There are those who believe that Paris will become entirely American, those who are already lamenting a Paris that is thought to be entirely past. Yes, places develop, but Paris will always be Paris. It’s a city with an already-strong food identity, and I don’t think anything’s going to change that.”
Frank Barron sat down with me to coffee on Monday morning at Boot Café, discussing the difference in French and American palettes in regards to sweetness, our mutual obsession with Ina Garten, and never questioning what you love to do.
I get to Boot first, ordering an allongé and sitting in the corner to review my notes before Frank arrives. Other morning customers come and go for a few minutes, and then Frank enters, leading his Boston Terrier, Parker, behind him. He gives off an infectious happiness, offering me a greeting that is both warm and sincere. Frank sits down across from me and stirs sugar into his coffee, apologizing to the barista for “ruining his flat white” (he smiles while saying this). This is my first impression of Frank : receptive and informed of other cultures, of how other people live, but remaining adherent to his own sources of delight.
I immediately dive in with questions about his recent trip to Marrakech, and Frank reflects upon camel rides, the omnipresent vibrancy of color, and semolina bread drying out in the sun. He then recounts his search for sfenj, a North African doughnut cooked in oil, eaten plain, sprinkled with sugar or soaked in honey. A perfect transition to the dominating theme of our discussion : sweet in every understanding of the word, the obvious definition of taste, but also in its expression of satisfaction with where you are, what you’re doing and the happiness that results from these practices.
Frank moved from San Francisco to Paris four years ago. Already accustomed to the established coffee culture of the American northwest, Frank was surprised to find that there was little to compare this to in Paris. At the time, the only specialty coffee houses were Coutume and Kooka Boora, among a few others, and at all the places Frank was going, he was finding the same things, banana bread and carrot cake, only the beginnings of what has now become an Anglo-Saxon cake revolution in Paris.
It began when Frank was having coffee at Fondation Café a year ago in August. The confections he had been used to seeing were gone, and the owner Chris told him that their cake providers had left on vacation, meaning only coffee for the next two weeks. So then the obvious ensued : Frank saw a need, Chris said “surprise us”, the Lemon Raspberry Cake was brought to Fondation, and a photo on Instagram sent word of Frank’s baking genius into circulation. Cake Boy was born.
“It was serendipitous, but it’s become my way of building a sense of purpose in Paris.”
Almost two years have passed, and Frank is distributing to a number of cafés which have popped around the city since his arrival as well as occasionally doing private orders. He talks to me about the Double Chocolate Bundt and Blueberry Cinnamon Swirl Cake he did for Honor Café in the 8th, a Blackberry and Chocolate Layer Cake with Fudge Frosting, and his most recent project, Red Velvet and Raspberry Cake for Café Oberkampf this past weekend. This sets off a conversation centered around cream cheese frosting and the French reception of his cakes. “This recipe, because of the tang in the cream cheese, is much more well-received than buttercream. Buttercream just isn’t conducive with the French palette. The French often see a savory end to their meals, a cheese plate or a fromage blanc, and sure, I've seen my tastes change as well since coming here. That's to be expected in living somewhere new with different customs and different practices. We adapt and change, but of course we retain the core of who we are."
I ask Frank about his observations of the reception of his cakes, how something so decidedly American as chocolate cake with fudge frosting can gain interest in France. “To us, it’s just banana bread, it’s just coffee cake. Back in the States, these things are so saturated into the culture. You go to New York, you go to LA, everyone’s doing it. There was Magnolia Bakery’s being featured on Sex in the City which ignited the cupcake craze of the early 2000s. But in Paris, we live in a city and a country where highly-stylized, perfected pâtisserie creations are everywhere, so there’s room for something different.”
And maybe this is how a trend begins. A desire to discover something previously unfamiliar, previously foreign because of the tendencies and practices your culture has decided upon as the norm. We’re between the ease of these habits and an intense desire to know what exists beyond their comforts. It’s simply a change in context that alters what is seen as interesting, what becomes engaging and new.
I ask Frank about his use of social media, how he perceives it as both a tool and an outlet of creative expression. “When I first came to Paris, it was before Instagram, so I would flip through guidebooks and look up places and recommendations from expat bloggers. But we can see the power of social media in the way things take off, in the way it starts things. It was a few blogger girls taking a picture of my first cake that day at Fondation. It was really an accident, I suppose. A chance that started everything.”
Frank speaks of his accomplishments casually, almost off-hand. He calls Cake Boy a “passion project”, nothing lucrative, never with a focus on profit. It’s consistent with who Frank is, someone who wants to give contentment and pleasure a concrete form. Something delicious, something sweet. Something like cake.
Frank’s Instagram is filled with flower-topped creations, Italian pear cakes given a subtle dusting of powdered sugar, shots of gorgeous produce from the market. It’s idyllic but honest. It’s a Paris that breeds inspiration, a Paris we seek out in the thin, cobblestoned streets of the Marais, the 7 pm walk home with a baguette in hand, the hours spent at cafés over good coffee and something sweet. With each of his photographs, we have access to the way life in Paris can be lived, the certain bliss and prosperity the city generates.
Frank has never been to culinary school and he doesn’t have a professional background in pastry. What he does have is an eye for beauty in every form, memories of baking with his mother, and a profound love for what he does. All of this is evident in the way Frank talks about the future. “I'm still figuring it out. I don’t really want to expand, I don’t see making this a big thing. It's just fun, baking workshops, pastry projects with friends over tea in the afternoon. For now, I’m just doing what makes me happy.”
It’s a statement that could be written off as a cliché, as disingenuous or insincere, but Frank looks away for a moment, petting Parker as he reflects upon what he’s said. I do the same in taking a final sip of coffee. Frank balances his humility with an absolute, almost tangible delight. He’s content with where he is, doing what he does. Cake is a base for his creative expression, Paris is a foundation for his cultural curiosity. And for others, Frank is a source of intellectual encouragement, aesthetic appreciation, and unparalleled joy.
All photos taken from Cake Boy Paris