The Past and Future of Patisserie Claude
January 1, 1970Claude disappeared without a word. One day the shop was open, pastries and cookies in the case and croissants on the counter just like always, Claude grumpily dispensing the goods, the next day brown paper had been taped over the windows along with a sign that read “Closed for Remodeling.”
His customers were disappointed. You would think that after twenty-five years as the master of eponymous Patisserie Claude on West 4th Street in Greenwich Village, he would have given us a chance to say goodbye. We knew he was leaving at the end of October, when his latest lease was up. Probably a lot of us were trying to think of ways to celebrate his mercurial tenure, maybe bring in some Champagne and give him a toast. I expect it was the thought of something like that that made him leave town early.
Claude hated fuss, disturbance, ripples on the water. Public attention did not suit him well. He was not gracious. He did not even suffer his customers lightly. The first time I recognized Claude as not an ordinary shopkeeper but a explosive and intolerant character who could go off at any moment, I was standing in line one morning waiting to buy croissants. The woman at the front of the line also needed a croissant fix, apparently quite badly, because she was counting out pennies and nickels from a purse onto the counter. Claude saw this and flew in her face. “I do not want your pennies! Do not give me your pennies!”
“But . . .” she protested.
“No. I do not want your pennies,” he shouted.
“It’s perfectly good money,” she said indignantly, Villagers being people who are not easily intimidated.
“Get out! Get out of my shop! Do not come in here with your pennies! Do not come in here again.” Claude swept her change into a plastic bag, shoved it at her, and pointed to the door. It was embarrassing. Nobody knew what to do. The woman fled, and Claude turned to the next customer. “May I help you?” he said, as if nothing had happened.
It must be said that Claude’s croissants were exceptional, although some foodies objected that he brushed them with butter to crisp the tops when he put them in the oven. His pan au chocolate, almond croissants, and raisin danishes were just as good. The less sweets-addicted could choose a quiche or a brioche. His dessert pastries ranged from fruit tarts to almond cakes, mousses from espresso to pear, white and dark chocolate mousse in a chocolate cup, a chocolate opera cake, Napoleons, éclairs, tarts tatin. He made exquisite little cookies -- chewy macaroons topped with bits of candied cherry, sticky pecan-topped squares of shortbread, plain shortbread cookies, the list went on. There was nothing not to like. When you brought out one of Claude’s creations as the final offering at a dinner party, say a chocolate opera cake with a marzipan flower in the middle, you were guaranteed that your guests would go home smiling.
Claude’s unusual temperament made its way into Zagat’s 2008 New York City Gourmet Shopping and Entertaining Guide as “big time” “Parisian hauteur.” “If you can survive” it, said the guide, “your palate will be enriched.” That much was true. But while Claude had worked in Paris, but he wasn’t a Parisian. He was a Breton, and his big time hauteur came from a little fishing town on the southern coast of the Brittany peninsula called Pont-l’Abbe where his father was a baker. A few years ago Barbara and I traveled through Brittany on a tour Claude had mapped out for us. It’s beautiful country that can’t always be confused with France, in part because the road signs appear in two languages – Celtic along with French. The legend of King Arthur and his Round Table originated in Brittany, not England as is commonly thought, and the standing stones at Carnac form an array as impressive as any of those across the English Channel. Belon oysters come from there as well, a recommendation in itself.
He did like his regulars, or at least he rarely yelled at us. He loved telling stories of his Breton childhood and his days in the French army. These featured priests or nuns and naughty children, crotchety or demented old people, oddballs with quirks of one kind or another, stupid and inept officers, and they were usually hilarious. And he wanted stories in return. “Something funny?” he would ask when I came in late in the afternoon for a cappuccino and the evening’s pastry. Often I would find Tony there. Together we affected to worship at the Church of Claude. Tony always sat down with two pastries and a cappuccino on his way home from work. A guy named Greg stopped in frequently as well, but he wasn’t a member of the church. To belong you had to quip with Claude. I brought him off-color T-shirts from our vacations: "I Got My Crabs at Dirty Dick's." He brought me statues like the one of the robed priest with a penis that rose when you pulled a string. That was Claude’s brand of humor.
Maybe Claude, like Brittany, felt caught between two worlds. He spoke French and Spanish fluently, English less so. Maybe his explosive temper stemmed from nothing more than an exhausting schedule. He worked brutal hours that started at 3:30 in the morning (as I learned when Claude stayed at our house during the transit workers’ strike in 2005) and stretched past 8 at night. Patisserie Claude, except for a month from around July 4 into August, was open daily, no exceptions. Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s, and every other day, you knew where you could get a croissant to warm your morning or a pastry to sweeten your evening. Over the years this took its toll. In the late afternoons, when I stopped in for a cappuccino and that evening's dessert pastry, Claude would heave himself off his stool in the back of shop and limp to the front, clearly tired and in pain.
He began to make it clear earlier that this year would be his last. His daughter had earned her college and masters degrees in England and was embarked on a Ph.D. in a highly technical scientific field. He was happy with his second wife, a Chilean woman who worked for the Spanish delegation to the United Nations. He was looking forward to the rest of his life, maybe in the seaside village in Columbia where he bought a place some years ago. Typically, it was virtually inaccessible to casual travelers. You had to want to get there, which was just the way Claude liked his customers. No casual drop-ins or indecision, thanks. And God help anyone who had the effrontery to ask if the croissants or pastries were made today. "Of course," Claude would say, drawing himself up and narrowing his eyes at the offender. "Are you sure?" was not allowed. You'd get lit up like the woman with the pennies, and pointed to the door.
April, 2014: The good news is that Claude’s has stayed in business. Pablo, Claude’s longtime second in command, purchased the business and it goes on, only calmer now. The delicious croissants and pastries, quiches and cookies are unchanged, new ceiling fans stir the stifling August air, artist Cecilia Marcus has been able to return to sit with a pastry and a book in the afternoons. Latin music plays on the radio and Pablo's son Carlos works the counter in the late afternoons to closing time. Claude was a New York story, and Pablo is another one, a Dominican baker making exquisite French pastries on a street in Greenwich Village, which causes nobody to so much as raise an eyebrow.