I set out last fall to write a profile of Chef Dimitri Fayard for Chicago Magazine. I say “set out” because what resulted was a sprawling biography, based on several interviews with Dimitri and his wife Keli, various people at the French Pastry School and even an editor at Pastry Art & Design magazine. I struggled with how to set it up- is he a traditionalist, a rebel, or a phenom? Finally I settled on him as a comeback kid, bouncing back from a disappointing showing in a competition but poised to take the pastry world by storm. I worked with my professor and contributing editor at Chicago Magazine, Noah Isackson, on this thing for weeks. Then, the day I decided it was done- literally that very day- Dimitri e-mailed me to say that one extremely crucial detail had changed. I’ll get to that later.

So it’s my unfinished work, but in a few months I think you’ll be reading a lot about Chef Fayard. He’s young, he’s talented, he’s a little shy but not too shy to unleash the occasional snarky remark and he traded me a chocolate making lesson for a skateboard, so I mean… yeah. What’s not to love? Make sure you read the afterward.

A true champion never really retires. Sure, he might take up golfing, write a few books and appear to be out of the game for a while. But for anyone who has ever fought and won there comes a Rocky Balboa moment when he or she must decide, “is it really over?”

National Pastry Championship silver medalist Dimitri Fayard claims to have hung up his gloves after taking a disappointing second place in the 2003 competition, but at only 29 years old could this really be the end of Fayard the contender?

These days, the L’Isle Arne, France native stays busy in his Lincoln Park bakery, Vanille Patisserie. He and his wife Keli, also an accomplished chef, opened the shop in 2003 and in its short existence, Vanille has already earned a handful of Food Network appearances, several mentions in various food and dining magazines as well as the respect of some of the country’s most prestigious pastry chefs.
“Vanille is definitely one of the best pastry shops in the country,” says Chef Sebastien Canonne, Meilleur Ouvrier de France (MOF, An exclusive title awarded only to the best pastry chefs in France,) and co-founder of the French Pastry School in Chicago. Canonne considers the Fayards ambassadors of French pastry to American people, a mission the couple is glad to take on. “You can get what you see on TV and it’s only five dollars,” explains Keli.

Most recently, Fayard was named one of the Top Ten Pastry Chefs in the country by Pastry Art and Design magazine. “He’s a perfectionist,” says executive editor Tish Boyle, “he obviously has a passion for what he does and he’s able to bring that passion to the public with his shop.” Fayard says earning a place among the Top Ten from such a respectable pastry trade magazine is an honor, and the one he is currently the most proud of.

Vanille’s cozy little storefront is a far cry from the very lavish patisseries of Fayard’s youth, but only in appearance. Much like Fayard himself, the shop appears American but it is French to its very core. The walls are painted warm shades of maroon and earth tones with a few large, overstuffed seats for customers who can’t wait to get home to devour their treats. There they can sip espresso and enjoy the view of two bakery cases packed with handmade chocolates, croissants, fruit tarts, entremets, colorful macarons and petit fours.

In his thick French accent, Fayard calls the patisserie a life-long dream and a way to expose Americans to French pastry without pretension. He knows all too well that most Americans hear “French” and immediately get defensive. “People and friends would say I come out sounding rude when in fact I did not mean too,” he says, explaining that his accent, like his food is unusual, but not snobby.

His appearance on Food Network’s program “Sugar Rush” introduced Fayard to thousands of foodies from coast to coast. Keli says after the show aired the shop received dozens of calls from people across the country who watched Dimitri preparing his signature entremets on television. They wanted to know if the classic French mousse cake featuring layers of cake, mousse and hand made chocolates would survive being shipped. Unfortunately for them, it would not, but Chicago customers can pop in Tuesday through Sunday and choose from a variety of traditional flavors as well as seasonal offerings. One of Dimitri’s most popular creations is the decadent Manjari entremet, a moist chocolate biscuit topped with rich chocolate cream and chocolate mousse and finally glazed with shiny dark chocolate and topped with a single, curled sliver of handmade chocolate.

The Food Network may have brought some attention to his shop, but Fayard is definitely not a fan. “I get mad at it,” he says, “I see a lot of people who aren’t very skilled and I think some of those people bring down the business.” One person who consistently deters Fayard from tuning in is Duff Goldman from “The Ace of Cakes.” “I only watched it once because it pissed me off so much. His cakes are made of Rice Krispies,” Fayard quips, “my daughter can do that. That’s the kind of thing that gets me mad.” To Fayard, Goldman’s hit reality series is “just some guy talking shit” and many of the network’s cake challenges involve little more than pastry chefs showing off for TV cameras.

This outburst is unusual coming from someone who claims to be quite shy, but Fayard’s rebellious nature goes way back to his childhood days in France. “I was kind of bad at school,” he confesses, “I never studied or did my homework.” Fayard’s lack of interest in traditional schooling, he says, stemmed from the fact that he already knew he wanted to be a pastry chef at the age of 12.

Fayard’s study habits turned around when he started pastry school in Auch, France at just 16 years old. He eventually received his CAP Cuisine and CAP Patisserie, French diplomas for culinary and pastry training, from the Lycee Pardailhan and simultaneously interned for acclaimed pastry chef Philippe Urraca, MOF.

Eighteen-hour work and school days didn’t leave much time for friends or teenage antics, “I was boring, a little bit,” Fayard recalls. When he did find time to see ses amis, the diligent 17-year-old frequented heavy metal shows to watch his friends’ bands play, although he says he was more of a hip-hop fan. Hip-hop and skateboarding, another hobby Fayard managed to squeeze into his busy workday, were booming in mid-90’s France. He was mainly a fan of French hip-hop, but American acts such as Wu Tang Clan and Snoop Dogg also found their way into his Walkman.
It was at this time when the quietly rebellious Fayard got his first tattoo, a Chinese symbol on his back that spells out his name. “Frankly, it’s pretty ugly,” he says, “but every time I look at it, it reminds me of that certain period of my life.” Two years later Fayard got tattooed again, but then decided to stop at two so as not to upset the pastry “old school,” as he calls it. Traditionally, French pastry chefs maintain a very professional appearance, and even though the shop is successful and he is his own boss, Fayard says, “I don’t think people would respond very well.” He doubts his customers would feel comfortable buying macarons and nougat from a chef sporting knuckle tattoos.

It was at the Lycee Pardailhan that Fayard had his first taste of competitive pastry, and despite taking home a disappointing third place he knew he would compete again. “I like to win,” he says, “but I’m a good loser too. I’m not bitter or anything.” Third place in a student competition was not enough to discourage a man who claims to be competitive “about pretty much everything.”

Fayard eventually left France, despite his opinion at that time that all of the best pastry chefs to learn from in the world were in his mother country. When renowned pâtissier Laurent Branlard joined the team at Urraca’s patisserie his world travels and vast experience inspired Fayard to get out there and see what the world had to offer. After a year and a half at the same post, Fayard implored Branlard to send him anywhere where he could learn something new. A week later Branlard obliged with an offer for Fayard to join the opening team at the famous Payard’s Patisserie and Bistro in New York, New York under Chef Jean-Philippe Maury, MOF.

It was at Payard’s tart station that Fayard first met his future wife Keli, a Kankakee native and Culinary Institute of America and French Pastry School graduate. The two chefs were good friends, but they didn’t start dating until five years later when they were reunited at the Bellagio in Vegas, again working under Maury.

It was in the City of Lights that the 20-year-old Dimitri fell in love with 25-year-old Keli. One night, after a two-month courtship, Dimitri flipped a coin to decide if they would spend their evening getting married or watching TV. They were married Vegas-style complete with a chocolate mousse cake with vanilla crème and licorice ganache prepared by Chef Maury.

Working eight-hour shifts at the Bellagio was a strange experience for Fayard, who had become accustomed to 12 and 16-hour days in France. Always looking to absorb knowledge and techniques from the masters, he would clock out after his shift and stay to watch the executive chef in action. “People ask me ‘what’s your hobby?’ and I say ‘pastry,’” he laughs.
While making contacts within the industry, traveling and learning new techniques at every turn, Fayard also swept the 2001 Southern Pastry Classics, taking home the gold medal. He also took home the prize for the best chocolate cake with his milk chocolate mousse and chocolate crème cake topped with candied hazelnuts. His toasted almond sorbet and apricot sorbet each received top honors as well.

The Fayards eventually moved to Chicago where Dimitri joined the opening team at Sofitel Chicago Water Tower at the age of 23. It was at Sofitel where Fayard met French Pastry School graduate Cathay Rayhill, whom he later hired to be his first sous chef.

Vanille opened shortly after the birth of the Fayard’s twin daughters, Maya and Grace. Dimitri had always imagined himself as a business owner, but as a new father making decent money at a large hotel, he wasn’t sure if it was worth the risk. Once he and Keli saw their current location, however, they knew it was the opportunity of a lifetime.
The space was the first and only one the Fayards saw on a tip from French Pastry School co-founder Jacquy Pfieffer. The couple was very excited about the already-existing equipment and décor; large African masks were painted on one of the burgundy walls and despite Keli’s protests, remain there today. Dimitri has been interested in African tribal masks for some time, and he took their appearance in the store as a sign that it was meant to be.

The patisserie was a life-long dream of Dimitri’s but his career aspirations did not stop there. Even before the shop opened Fayard was training to compete in the 2003 National Pastry Championship in Las Vegas. Competitive chefs often train for one full year before a big competition, spending thousands of dollars to travel across the country, sometimes the world, to train with their coaches and teammates. They purchase equipment identical to what will be used in competition and practice their recipes time and time again until they are flawless. In the end, the cash prize for a gold medal varies from only a few hundred dollars to tens of thousands of dollars to be split among a team, but often it doesn’t come close to covering each chef’s personal expenses. Money isn’t the real prize anyway, says Fayard, rather it’s “the thrill, you know? The adrenaline rush.”

Chef Rayhill assisted Fayard the year he trained for the Nationals. She describes that time as “very intense for him.” Rayhill says Fayard was quite confident going into competition, and she believed the team would do well.
In June 2003 Fayard ventured to Las Vegas, leaving Keli and the girls back home to tend to Vanille. Like most of the other people arriving at McCarran International Airport that day, he was in the city to gamble. But there was much more than money at stake for the chef this time. A lifetime of preparation and perhaps the future of his career as a competitive pastry chef were at stake in the National Pastry Championship.

Unfortunately for Fayard, luck was not a lady that night and a year’s planning and thousands of hours of training were lost. His team took second place, but Fayard takes no comfort in the notion. “I feel like there’s one winner and everybody else is the loser. There is first place and then that’s it,” he says.

A disappointing silver medal is all Fayard has to show for what he calls his last competitive effort. What’s worse, one of his closest friends Chef Claude Escamilla took home the gold with his team. Since what he considers “the loss,” Fayard has re-evaluated his priorities in his career and in his personal life. “I really miss it and everything,” he says about competing, but “it’s hard to be away and it’s not really what I want anymore.” Keli isn’t so sure Dimitri is ready to retire from competition, “Over the past year and a half he’s been sort of getting that itch to get back into it,” she says, “so we’ll see. I’m interested to see what his next step is.”

That itch may get itchier as Dimitri was recently asked to assist Escamilla’s team in training for the World Pastry Championships, which take place in the fall of 2008. The team representing the United States in the international competition consists of celebrated chefs Laurent Branlard, who Fayard says is “like a big brother” to him, Frederick Monti, and Stephane Treand, MOF. Gold medalist Escamilla will serve as the team’s coach.
Fayard remains humble about his contributions to the teams’ efforts. “I don’t want to make it look like I’m a big shot or whatever,” he explains, “we’re all friends and they were like, ‘Well, you can give us a hand.’” He will lend a hand each month for a year leading up to the competition in September, traveling to every practice to help the team to plan its menu, to train, and to fine-tune each station. “They’re all better than me, so it’s more like another pair of eyes to see things that maybe they didn’t see,” he says.

Fayard plans on drawing from his own experiences in competition, both victorious and otherwise, to help Team USA take the gold in Nashville. “I learned [at the Nationals] that we made a couple of mistakes,” he says, “You have to do a flavor that will be recognized by an international palate.” He sadly points out, however, that it won’t be him up there competing, and although a victory for his friends would make him happy, it won’t do much to change the way he presently feels about competing. Like Keli, the world of competitive pastry must wait to see what Dimitri will do next.

Not yet thirty years old, Dimitri Fayard has seen more success than many chefs twice his age. A self-described workaholic and control freak, he has also tasted the bitter reality of what he considers failure. Losing the National Pastry Championship to a good friend and rival was more bitter than bittersweet.

Victory and defeat, gold medals and world titles all disappear as Chef Fayard drops in at Wilson Skate Park. His new skateboard and talk of a third tattoo, an African mask to symbolize fatherhood, demonstrate Fayard’s pledge to take more time for himself these days and to remember that happiness is more important than world titles- or at least it should be.

The peacefulness of his so-called retirement seems to have rubbed off on the ambitious young pâtissier. “Every time I open the oven and something is baked the right way,” he smiles, “it makes me happy. Every time I do a cake I’m happy. Pastry makes me really happy.” Only time will tell if pastry itself, and not a championship title of his own will keep him that way.

Well, time DID tell and in the end, one of the chefs representing Team USA had to drop out of the competition leaving a spot for you-know-who. Yep! He’s on the team and competing again. So Keli was right, but wives are always right. Good luck Dimitri and Team USA!