Pastries and coffee seem to be made for each other. The rich flakiness of a quality croissant is the perfect foil to the complex robustness of coffee - add a sweet ribbon of chocolate, cinnamon or almond paste to that croissant, and all the better.
We are so stoked on the coffee we serve at HubBub that we would never serve you a sub par pastry alongside it. That's why we source croissants, danishes and other buttery baked goods from Au Fournil, a bakery out of Narberth, PA (a little 'burb on the outskirts of Philadelphia).
Au Fournil is owned by Stephane Wojtowicz and operated by himself and a small staff. Stephane founded Au Fournil in 2008 and has been pursuing pastry perfection for over 20 years in total. We've been singing Au Fournil's praises to our customers since our beginning, and wanted learn more about Stephane and his journey. Last week, we got the chance to sit down with him, hear his story, and tour his commercial kitchen space.
Stephane grew up in Lyon, France, where he began his culinary education at age 16. He studied baking and pastry for four years in culinary school, and after completing rigorous apprenticeships, he began baking professionally. In 1994, a career opportunity led him to Beirut, Lebanon, where he worked as a baker for 7 years. While living there, Stephane met his wife, and they married and had two children.
When their kids were still very little, Stephane learned of a job opening with a French-born chef named Georges Perrier in Philadelphia. "We didn't even know where Philadelphia was," he said. "We had to look on a map to find out!" Ready for a change, he applied for the job and was quickly informed that he had gotten it. He and his family moved to the suburbs of Philly in 2001, and Stephane worked closely with Chef Perrier, who at the time was Philadelphia's most notable culinary icon.
Stephane parted ways with Perrier in 2008 and decided to start his own business. "When I was still working at [Perrier's] restaurant, I had a paycheck at the end of the week, health insurance paid...why would I take a risk? When you have a family, you have a mortgage, credit," he says. "But I really had no choice - it was either this or finding another job as a baker and starting again, and I wanted to give it a shot."
In the years since, Au Fournil has grown in a steady, sustainable way. "We do the quality first and slowly, slowly get the quantity, if we can," Stephane says. "If we are making 100 good croissants, I want to make sure we have enough room, equipment, and employees to make 500 or 600 good croissants. If we cannot, we say wait, and slowly go up."
Last year, Au Fournil expanded into the space nextdoor to its original location on a quiet residential street, and now they are capable of producing thousands of pastries each week. But every day presents a different challenge, Stephane says, and he and his staff diligently work with the best ingredients they can find to craft products they are truly proud of.
"It's all about respect for the food," Stephane says. He notes that his hometown of Lyon is the capital of gastronomy in France, and food is a hugely important part of life there. "We are very respectful and careful with the food," he says. "In France, when I was a kid, we had RULES. Rules were rules. We had breakfast, lunchtime, we had dinnertime, that’s it." He said it was surprising at first to see people in the United States snacking all day. Unsurprising, because discipline is such a big part of being a chef, but Stephane is in favor rules and structure. "When we do what we want whenever we want, something is missing...without rules, it is anarchy," he says.
Stephane runs his kitchen as a tight ship, with rules, processes, and precision behind each decision and the execution of every recipe. "Dough is alive," he insists. "You have to treat it very carefully."
Stephane's experience, passion and love of food really makes his pastries shine. The amount of labor that goes into each Au Fournil croissant is rather staggering, and you can tell how much care was put into them when you taste the outcome. In fact, if you close your eyes while sinking your teeth into the crackly, flaky exterior of one of their plain croissants or pain au chocolat, you might even trick yourself into thinking that you're sitting at a cafe in Lyon, a worn rattan chair supporting your back, a wide awning shading your face from the sun.