Marc Heu Pâtisserie Paris probably shouldn’t be here. Only through a heck of a lot of luck and one man’s laser-specific goal of opening a French patisserie in St. Paul has the Twin Cities been blessed with its most modest world-class pastry shop yet.
Chef Marc Heu was born in France to Hmong parents who fled their native Laos as refugees after the Vietnam War. At the age of three, Heu’s family moved to French Guiana, where they built a farm to grow and sell produce. But 10 years living in France taught Heu’s parents that proper celebrations called for pastries.
“[They] couldn’t afford to go to a pastry shop, so they would just get the basic ingredients: milk, eggs, and flour,” says Heu. “It would be my older siblings baking… I was helping and I loved it!”
In early adulthood, Heu pursued a medical degree in Limoges, France. While visiting family in Minnesota in 2012, Heu met the woman he’d marry and decided to stay here. When his credits wouldn’t transfer to the American system, he started over, taking the GED, ACT, and applying to community college. But he couldn’t go through with it again.
Heu remembers he was lying in bed the night before another first day of school, when his wife said, “Don’t do it. I know you won’t be happy.”
“I guess in the back of my mind I wanted to please my parents,” says Heu, “but at some point I was like, ‘It’s my life.’”
By April of 2018, Heu had enrolled in a six-month pastry program at Paris’s Ecole Lenôtre. “They teach you—it’s not necessarily a secret—but to be true to the ingredient.... If you start with something good, at the end you should have something good, or even better if you put the skills, the knowledge into it.”
While studying in Paris, an odd visit to 18th-century pastry shop Stohrer proved fateful for Heu when he recognized executive chef Jeffery Cagnes and asked to meet him. “[Cagnes] asked me what I was doing, what school I was going to and when I was going to be done. So he told me, ‘Why don’t you come intern here when you’re done?’”
“I mean, I did not ask for nothing…. Everything started like that,” Heu recalls, with tears in his eyes. “I can’t believe he offered me that opportunity.”
After his internship, Heu stayed at Stohrer for an additional two months. “Cagnes asked what I was going to do when I came back to the U.S. and I told him, ‘I’m going to open a pastry shop.’ I remember him and the sous chef… they were laughing!” A pastry chef opening their own shop is usually a goal achieved after years of learning and practice, but Heu could see no other way. “I don’t want to work for anybody. My parents, they are farmers, so they’re kind of like their own boss. So all my life I had a picture of working, being your own boss, working for yourself.”
When Heu returned to Minnesota in late 2018, he began running a pastry catering business out of his in-laws’ house making cakes and other pastries. He quickly gained a following on social media. The sheer volume of work demanded he find commercial space to keep pace. He found a spot at the corner of University and Western Avenue in St. Paul’s Frogtown neighborhood, and moved his catering operation there in April 2019.
“I wasn’t supposed to open until [May 2020]. We had the Little Mekong Night Market [last July] so we decided to do a pop-up. But people thought it was the grand opening,” says Heu. “It was Saturday, Sunday, the [Night Market]... and then on Monday, people were lining up!”
Not wanting to disappoint, Marc Heu Patisserie Paris opened its doors to the public on August 1, 2019. Presently, they provide counter service with pastries to-go. Attentive, handsomely dressed staff is on hand to answer questions and carefully package items in pristine white boxes. The “menu” is a row of glass domes holding the day’s offerings, with tiny gold prices displayed beneath.
To this day, Heu seeks out suppliers with chocolate and vanilla beans from France, and hazelnuts from Italy’s Piedmont region—“the Rolls Royce of hazelnuts,” Heu claims. He’s particularly choosy about the French high-fat butter he sources: “If it has too much water, when you laminate it goes into the dough.”
French baked goods fall into three main categories: boulangerie, patisserie, and viennoiserie. Boulangerie are the breads, like baguettes and sourdough loaves. Patisserie are cakes, tarts, and eclairs—the sweet stuff. Viennoiserie are the buttery, flaky croissant, pain au chocolat, and kougin amman. As a shop, Marc Heu Patisserie Paris specializes in the latter two types.
Viennoiserie relies on the following lamination process. “On paper it’s two to three days, but mine takes almost five.”
Heu sandwiches a layer of butter between two layers of dough, rolls it flat, folds it in on itself, then rests it. “I do one double turn and one single turn,” says Heu, explaining how he creates 12 layers of alternating dough and butter on the first fold, and triples that to 36 layers on the second. He then rests the dough for two days before cutting, shaping, proofing, and finally baking. In the oven, the butter melts into the dough and steams air pockets into the pastry, creating a soft, airy texture with a crisp, flaky crust and a rich, buttery flavor. He starts this process on Tuesdays to make croissants for Saturdays.
“I tried rushing,” Heu laments, “and trust me: It’s not good.”
In the kitchen, Heu leads a team of four women. “In France it’s all men. It’s funny that here I’m doing it with a bunch of strong women. I love it!” They’re also mostly home bakers, inexperienced in professional baking but eager to learn.
“At first I wanted to bring people from France, but people here need jobs, too, and they want to learn,” says Heu, of training his staff from the ground up. “I make sure that the stuff that comes out is good... but the kitchen can be run by my staff; they are way more than qualified now.”
Heu’s pastries are accurate to tradition, eschewing innovation for perfect execution. “My whole idea is, I want to bring a little bit of a taste of Paris to Minnesota,” he says.
“I have so much support from all the community, from everybody. Frogtown, they welcome me. I’m just living a dream right now,” says the chef, who earned a 2020 Charlie Award nomination for best Baker/Pastry Chef (Katie Elsing of The Lynhall took home the honor).
“I do what I love. I’m able to make a living out of it. I’m able to make jobs. I’m not rich, but it’s enough.”
Marc Heu Pâtisserie Paris
383 University Ave. W., St. Paul