Dimitri Vallier is used to hearing other people’s stories about his home country. There are the online fans who rave about Caramel, his French pâtisserie in Salem at the corner of Essex and Crombie Streets. They say the place reminds them of their junior-year study-abroad program or their recent trip to Paris. They go on and on about its authenticity.
“I saw the word pâtisserie on a window out of the corner of my eye and had to pinch myself. Could it be true? Sometimes when I think the universe has it out for me, it throws me a bone, and then I know all is well. Blueberry tart, no words,” wrote one admirer.
“Nothing compares to a rigorously French-trained pastry chef, and Caramel is the real deal,” wrote another. “This stuff is personal, tasteful, and impeccable.”
One woman stepped into the shop and ordered (in French) a cake that is native to St. Tropez, the birthplace of Vallier’s family. The 29-year-old master pastry chef turns out perfect macarons in soft pastel colors with crispy outsides and soft middles—the salted caramel is the most popular. And he rolls out fresh almond croissants every morning and offers the oh-so-special Royal au Chocolat, a delectable work of art with a shiny chocolate glaze, topped by a gold leaf.
“People say, ‘I can’t eat that, it’s art,’ and that makes me so happy,” says Vallier with a smile. “That’s what I’m looking for.”
Just a few months after opening the family-run pâtisserie last October, the Valliers had to turn down the onslaught of holiday orders, and now they’re in high wedding season. They hope to maybe open a second location in Boston or Cambridge, though they would do all of the baking in Salem.
“We have everything we’re looking for,” says Vallier, with an easy smile. “A small town. It’s not too crazy. The ocean. It’s beautiful. It’s what we want. We love what we do.”
On the day I visited, I stood chatting in the bright and sunny kitchen with Vallier and his sister, Sophie, as a passersby stopped to peek in the window and the siblings’ father ran things out front. Discussing “old and classic” pastry recipes, Vallier stirred a lovely vanilla and rum mixture for canelé, a pastry with a soft custard center. It was to be a new offering, based on customer requests.
I had to ask if Vallier had crossed paths with a friend of mine from France who lives in Salem and sells a high-end imported vanilla extract. Of course, the two of them had just dined together, and Vallier uses his new friend’s vanilla in his pastries. The pastry molds, the dark chocolate simmering in the corner, the convection oven—all of it is imported from France. And just like in France, Saturday morning is the day for waiting in line at the pâtisserie, when the cases are at their fullest. When I stopped by later, on a busy Saturday, the tone in the shop was a bit frenzied—all of the canelé, touted on Carmel’s Facebook page in boxes of three and six, had quickly sold out.
Vallier lives with Sophie and her husband, as well as their parents, near Salem Common. After looking at several cities to open the pâtisserie, they chose Salem because they heard the area was more European than other American cities. The family lived in Florida for a time while the kids were young. Vallier has worked under celebrated chef Daniel Boulud in New York City, and the brother-
sister duo worked at a Michelin-rated restaurant in France, travelling between the Riviera in the summer and mountain resorts in the winter.
Even before the brother and sister had teeth, they were eating flan, says Sophie. Their grandfather was a pastry chef, and you can see a giant reproduction of a black-and-white photo of the family standing in front of their pâtisserie in France. When Vallier needs inspiration, he still consults his grandmother for recipe ideas, though sometimes he tries to make them “more modern.” Speaking of their grandmother…her cherry trees yield so much fruit that the family gives some cherries away and finds multiple uses for the rest. Cherry syrup? Yes, please.
Since Vallier is used to indulging other people and their stories about his country, I tell him and Sophie about the weeks some friends and I spent in a little village in the Beaujolais region. The woman at the chalet next door smuggled cherries from heritage trees for us. My traveling companion, a food editor and a great cook, managed to decipher the French recipe and the metric system from a vintage cookbook to roll out the buttery pastry for clafoutis—the flaky pastry filled with warm, gooey cherries.
Vallier says he’s been anticipating cherry season. As he will be making clafoutis, he asks if I know where to source the best cherries. I smile. Welcome to town.
281 Essex Street, Salem