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Let Them Eat Cake

Photo of Vince Basehart

By Vince Basehart

September 26 -- There certainly must exist some French expression which describes the satisfaction Chef Jean Louis Kippelen gets from his life's work. It is more than just joie de vivre.

Kippelen is the owner of Caprice Fine French Pastries, the bakery which sits on Pico, just inside Santa Monica city limits a stone's throw from the 405 overpass.

To find the place, look for Hugh Hefner. A toque-clad mannequin wearing a mask of the original playboy stands guard outside the shop's door. (Following a sort of logic, once Hef's rubber face deteriorates, Chef Kippelen has a Bill Clinton mask ready.)

The shop does not have the typical window jammed with delicacies one associates with "pastry shop." But for the mannequin, from the outside it could be any accountant's office. A sign on the brown door instructs visitors to buzz the doorbell and enter.

Upon doing so recently the Lens was immediately greeted by Kippelen who, at 60 years old, is still as excited about baked goods as when he discovered his "calling" at the age of six in his mother's kitchen in Alsace, France.

"I can still remember the smell of those cookies coming out of the oven as a boy," says Kippelen dreamily.

He is short, squared-shouldered and solid. He smiles brightly and has thick wooly eyebrows. He wears a toque over blue jeans and white sneakers. After 34 years Stateside he still speaks with a French accent as thick as chocolate mousse.

A person a few weeks into the Atkins Diet could become deranged upon entering the large stainless steel kitchen. Everywhere the Lens looks there are trays crowded with thin, delicate cookies which promise to disintegrate into buttery goodness at the first bite. A pot filled with bubbling milk chocolate sits on a stove. Racks of cookies and tarts, toasted coconut shavings and toasted almonds seem to fill every corner of the large space.

The good chef opens one of many large vault-like refrigerators to show me racks filled with small cakes decorated like women's hats from the '30s. There are fruit tarts that shimmer like exotic corals.

This afternoon Kippelen and his assistants are busy preparing an order for a yacht club. One of his assistants, a slender man in white, painstakingly pares the fuzzy skin off of a Kiwi fruit. There are about another five dozen of the furry fruits waiting for this same treatment in a bin beside him.

Two women are laying sliced strawberries, chunks of pineapple, sections of mandarin oranges and other fruits into chocolate-painted pastry cups. Each look like jewel boxes.

1970 the young chef left his home town and went West, running the pastry show at high end resorts in the Bahamas, Georgia, Maui and Beverly Hills before opening Caprice in 1985. Among many honors he has earned over his lengthy career, he is a member of "Les Toques Blanches" which, among chefs, is the equivalent of making it into the Pro Bowl.

On a wall above a row of Hobart mixers the size of outboard engines is a chart with army-scale master recipes for Winter Ganache, Pastry Cream, Lemon Custard. One, for Sacher Torte starts out with "2 lbs of chocolate chips, 1 lb butter, 32 egg yolks, 32 egg whites."

Kippelen creates wedding cakes and event centerpieces which are similary large-scale. He opens a book to show me pictures of some of his work which is architectural. There are a few multi-layered, towering wedding cakes which seem to have been put with a crane.

The French do know how to live. Chef Kippelen tastes everything that leaves his kitchen, but he is not fat. He seems to love his staff.

Kippelen is a happy man. "My family asks when will I retire? Retire? Why would I retire from what I love doing? This is not work."














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The views expressed in this column are those of Vince Basehart and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of The Lookout.
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