Photo by Malissa Winkowski

Nate Meads is some kind of a pastry wizard. Before he and his partners Elaine Heaney (also his lovely wife) and Jared Nance opened Fritz Pastry I was a die-hard American bakery fan. Brioche? Gateau Breton? Stick it in your ear, Frenchy. I’ll have a big slice of chocolate cake with plenty of buttercream.

My problem wasn’t so much with the buttery breads and subtle flavors I’d come to associate with European pastry – it was the snoozefests I’d suffered at the hands of these foods. Mmm, tastes like… plain.

Yes, Nate is well known to be a technician, executing even the lowly  muffin with the precision of a surgeon. But he’s no croissant-producing robot. He’s a young guy, a dare I say it… cool guy. And he’s managed, at least in my opinion, to breathe some new life into what I used to believe were stodgy old pastries.

I am not alone in this opinion. In fact, Nate was recently named one of the “Twelve Most Important Chefs Right Now” (alongside a couple of zeros named Rick Bayless and Rick Tramonto). He is also responsible for a vegan blueberry muffin that brought tears to The Urban Housewife‘s eyes, and he once made me a salad so scrumptious I completely forgot I was eating salad.

It doesn’t hurt Nate’s case in my book that his wife and business partner Elaine happens to be my peeps (a Joliet native) who may or may not have had a high school job in the Louis Joliet Mall with me. She also has a charming way of working Descendants lyrics into casual conversation. But don’t let the fact that she and I have shared Auntie Annie’s pretzels while wearing Mexican wrestling masks cloud your judgement, just take a gander at the press they’ve received in their single year in business and you’ll see that this charming little sweets shop is no joke.

In order to properly introduce you to a shop that I find cool on so many different levels, I asked Elaine (and Jared and Nate) few questions – ok, a shitload of questions – so hang onto your macarons because things are about to get freakin’ sweet. (Read all the way through and you’ll be rewarded with a chance to win something I know you’re going to want!)

Elaine, where and when did you meet Nate?

Nate and I met back in 1996 through a mutual friend, Bob Lanham, when we were attending junior college and Nate was in the culinary arts program.

I have a very vague memory of being told that Elaine had a boyfriend who worked at a doughnut shop. Is that true, and was it Nate?

Vegan treats shot by The Urban Housewife

It IS true.  He baked at this doughnut shop in Bourbonnais and he smelled like doughnuts and sugar ALL of the time.  My friends knew how much I liked eating and also that I did not know how to cook, so when they found out that he was a baker, they all told me that we were going to get married.

So when you guys first started spending a lot of time together, what were you both up to?

I was really focused on school for teaching children with disabilities.  Nate was taking culinary classes for a little while, baking at the doughnut shop, cooking at this Mediterranean restaurant and, of course, playing in a band…skateboarding.

You guys just celebrated your 10 year anniversary – I’m dying to know if you ate anything/anywhere particularly fancy or exciting for that.

That’s super funny because we always make such a big deal about our marriage anniversary.  We either host a nice party or go out to a really fantastic dinner with a ton of friends, but this year we’ve just been so devoted to the shop and we really spend so much time here.  Well, when the big 10 year anniversary came around we worked open til close…so we just decided to grab Chinese from this hole-in-the-wall joint on Ashland, made our own little table in the back of the shop and the two of us had an awesome celebratory dinner.

Can we get a Wikipedia version of Nate’s culinary career so far?

Sitting on the counter watching his mom bake, fast forward–>>> baker at Donut Time in Bourbonnais–>>>  pastries at Brasserie Jo–>>> pastries at The Everest Room –>>> pastries at TRU –>>> executive pastry chef at Blue Water Grill Chicago –>>> Fritz Pastry!

I really love the balance you guys have struck at Fritz of high-quality, impeccably crafted food, in a casual-but-elegant environment and then like – bam, the prices are totally reasonable. What kind of decisions did you have to make about the menu, the ambiance and the pricing before you opened? What was your philosophy while making those decisions?

Thank you for noticing that balance.  The three of us (myself, Nate, and Jared) all wanted to create a space that we would want to patron ourselves.  We envisioned serving the high-quality, made from-scratch food that you might get at Tartine in San Francisco, along with the small, but very important touches of service that you would get at the Payard that used to be on Lexington in New York.  However, we would obviously prefer that our guests not have to pay inflated prices.  Ultimately, we wanted to build a concept using quality and seasonal ingredients, and also an approachable, comfortable atmosphere that is affordable.

Before you were an owner, Elaine, you were a food blogger yourself. I remember reading your posts about traveling and eating. Do you keep up with your blogging anymore, or is Fritz a 24/7 operation?

True, I did blog about our destination eating!  Sadly, we have not traveled for well over a year.  Since the early planning stages of the pastry shop, we’ve been pretty devoted to staying close to Chicago and staying focused on the shop.  However, we can look forward to reading Nate’s blog that he’s starting.

Of all the places you’ve traveled and eaten what’s your favorite food city? If you could instantly transport to any restaurant or pastry shop you’ve been to before, where would you go and what would you eat?

For Jared, its San Francisco.  He really enjoys the northern California farmer’s market influence that is at every establishment.  For Nate and myself, we absolutely are beyond stoked about New York and all of its food.  Our favorite New York spots are ChikaLicious, John’s pizza by IFC on 6th, and Adour.

The chef and a wee fan snapped by Fritz Pastry

Where do Mr. and Mrs. Fritz Pastry dine most often in Chicago?

Nate could no doubt eat Coalfire pizza everyday and I could probably eat Ben Pao everyday….Ben Pao just has THE most flavorful vegetarian dishes.

From an outsider’s perspective, you guys have had a great first year. You’ve got a loyal clientele, lots of great press, you’ve got a great staff – looking back now how would you sum up your first year in business?

Well, 2009 was pretty awesome to say the least.  The efforts and support from all of our friends and family really made this all happen.  There was always a group of us here laboring away, staining tables and chairs, building shelving, knocking down tile…  The warm response from the neighborhood and the media in Chicago is just overwhelmingly touching.  Our staff is made up of all of our close friends, so that makes coming to “work” everyday more than enjoyable.

Nate – I’ve been fortunate enough to enjoy both your sweet and savory creations; of the two, do you prefer to make one over the other? What is your general approach to your food?

I definitely enjoy making pastries much more than savory food.  I think it has to do with the smell.  The scent of a great savory sauce or dish can bring a certain amount of joy, but for me that moment when you can smell that a tart or a cake or a cookie is finished just by catching the aroma on the other side of the kitchen is magical.  As for approach… I’d like to think that I aim for classic technique and time tested flavor combinations.

Tell me about FritzCakes – is that a traditional recipe or something you guys developed?

FritzCakes are Elaine’s recipes that have been adjusted here and there over the years.  They’re just basically our style of cupcake that happen to be vegan…a little less sweet than other cupcakes with a touch of sweet/salty frosting.

Which of your items are you particularly proud of or a fan of? Is there something you could eat every day?

Jared’s favorite for sure is the blueberry muffin, in fact, he does have one every day.  Nate is a big fan our croissants and springerle cookies.  I would say my number one is the gateau breton, but because it is so intensely buttery I can only eat it once in awhile.  The blueberry muffin is something I can definitely devour everyday.

Chicago has a lot of bakeries (thankfully) but not so many pastry shops – I think you guys filled a need for danish and croissants in Lakeview… have those been particularly popular?

Yes, its interesting because in so many cities there really are pastry shops EVERYWHERE and that is something we were really excited to contribute to Chicago.  We

Lemon macaron by Fritz Pastry

definitely hope that our croissants and danish and brioche are quickly becoming neighborhood favorites.  There is so much time and care that goes into each of those doughs.  Nate and Sara spend hours and hours each day making sure that the doughs are perfect…and if they ever are not perfect, they get tossed.

Although you are not a “punk” pastry shop persay, I know you both from the 90’s Joliet/Chicago punk rock scene. In fact, I remember Elaine’s My Space profile picture from a few years back was a Black Flag cupcake you’d made. Other than always having a song I love playing in the shop, how do you think you’ve incorporated what you picked up from your punk rock roots into your business?

To all of us, music is totally special and inspiring.  We play everything from Joey Cape to Cat Stevens to Smoking Popes…or pieces by Yann Tiersen to Joey Ramone to Miles Davis, yet all of the songs are so fitting to sipping on a cup of tea and eating a croissant in a European-inspired pastry shop.  The punk subculture is essentially concerned with individual freedom and a non-conformist viewpoint…so here in the shop that could translate into creating what we want to create and serving what we want to serve.  Trend and business-wise, it could seem wiser for us to open up a bakery filled with cupcakes and cookies, but we were more than comfortable with taking the risk of bringing lesser known pastries like pithivier to our Lakeview neighborhood because we really believe in what we do.

You carry loads of vegan pastries, most of which are “secretly vegan,” meaning that you don’t market them as such, and non-vegans buy them often. What are some of the vegan options in rotation and what made you decide to offer so many options? I know you blew Melisser’s mind when we stopped in, and she’s a tough one to impress! Has the tightly-knit Chicago vegan community picked up on your “secret” and started making regular purchases?

Well, Elaine was vegan for several years, and during that time we baked a lot and found that vegan sweets can be tasty if made well.  We think it is a breath of fresh air for our neighborhood moms to be able to stop in and get a variety of affordable treats for their children who have egg or dairy allergies.  The Chicago vegan community has been beyond supportive and do call and stop by regularly.  Its great to be able to offer all of our vegan friends birthday cakes and doughnuts and muffins that they can really get excited about.

Before there was Fritz, I bought vegan cookies at a craft fair from you and our friend Malissa. How long were you two baking together?

Yes, Malissa, our good friend Missy and I started a company called the Invisible Wives several years ago.  We ran it for about two years, mostly special order sales & selling our baked goods at hardcore shows.  It was super fun, but because it wasn’t our main focus, we eventually became too busy with our “real-life” jobs to keep up with it.

You guys recently announced your mission to make 100 macaron flavors in one year. Where did this self-imposed challenge come from? I have to tell you, the editor-in-chief at Baking & Pastry North America told me that cupcakes are out, macarons are in. Do you think 2010 will be the year of the macaron? What flavors have you done so far and what are some interesting ones we can look forward to?

Every year should be the year of the macaron!!  We were just looking at Twitter one evening and one of the feeds was from asking what everyone’s New Year’s food resolution was …. and Nate just blurted out “to make 100 new flavors of macaron in the shop”.  We decided that most of the flavors we do should come from our loyal guests’ requests.  Immediately a long list of flavors collected: chocolate w/orange, rootbeer, and lemon poppyseed have been big hits.  Pretty soon we’ll be seeing ginger and one made with Intelligentsia’s organic loose leaf masala chai.

You have a great tea menu, a rarity in Chicago pastry shops. I know you carry Intelligencia’s King Crimson tea – could you talk them into a custom King Diamond tea? Because that would be awesome. You could serve it with a danish because he’s the “great Dane.”

That’s a fantastic idea!  We’ll pass that along with all of our fingers and toes crossed.

Photo by Martha Sarno

Elaine does a great job running your Twitter account – I love checking each morning to see what’s fresh out of the oven. Have you found it to be a valuable tool for gaining new customers as well as serving current customers?

Thumbs up to Twitter!  So many people come over when they read the feed of what kind of danish is being served or what new soup we have for lunch.  We really get excited about making things as convenient as possible for our guests…which is why we also added online ordering to our website.  Event planners for offices can easily order breakfast pastries by the dozen for meetings…you can order birthday cakes online…someone in New York or California can order macarons to be shipped to their door!  It is unbelievably convenient.  Beyond that, soon we’ll be featuring some videos that illustrate from beginning to end on how to make croissants or macarons or whatever.  At the end of the day, we want our guests to be as excited as we are to come back in the next morning.

And so you guys know, you can find out what’s hot out of the oven, and what the macaron flavor of the moment is by following Fritz on Twitter @fritzpastry.

Last question – this one is for all the aspiring pastry chefs reading – which cook books should every pastry chef have on his or her shelf?

There are a lot of really great books out there, but I would say Jacques Torres: Dessert Circus, Extraordinary Desserts You Can Make at Home.  There are great basic recipes that always work.  Plus, it shows how to make a super creepy clown face dessert (p.156, the mask)

Thanks so much to the folks at Fritz for letting me peek inside their kitchen! And now it’s your turn to be a fancy-shmancy pastry chef! Leave your suggestion for one of Nate’s 100 macaron flavors by 2/8/2010 and you’ll be entered to win a $50 gift certificate from Confectionery House! Choose from chocolate molds, top-quality baking ingredients, or even cute cupcake papers – $50 worth just for dreaming up a killer macaron. And as if that were not enough, Lucky Cupcakes Hairclips is also working on a Fritz-inspired hair bow for the special cowboy or cowgirl who wins the drawing! I’ll choose a winner at random next Monday.

(For some reason I blurted out that Fritz Pastry is in my neighborhood, Ravenswood when, in fact, they are in Lakeview. Wishful thinking.)

Thanks for playing everyone, the giveaway is closed! The (random) winner was Desiree with her suggestions: horchata, matcha and Hawaiian Punch! Enjoy your adorable Lucky Cupcake Hairclips bows and your $50 spending spree at Confectionery House!