It’s 8am on a Friday and we’re here to observe the inner workings at Isabelle et Vincent, aka The French Bakery in Fairfield. Eight a.m. is nowhere near the dark morning hours one would associate with a baker’s schedule, and yet there’s plenty going on even at this “late” hour. In one corner of the kitchen, a wide galley space behind the counter lined with ovens, a gigantic standing mixer, and speed racks of measured flour and finished pastries, strawberry tarts are being assembled. The scent of fresh berries, an enormous pile of ruby red, hit us before we even laid eyes on them. In fact, the entire space is a feast for the senses. Piles of baguettes, stacks of macarons in a rainbow of color, glistening apple tarts, fondant covered eclairs, and savory quiches...close your eyes and just imagine a symphony of freshly baked bread, butter, sugar, fruit, and chocolate. It’s incredible.
But what’s even more incredible about this special place is the charming couple who run it: Isabelle and Vincent Koenig. The Koenigs resided in Strasbourg, a French town near the border of Alsace where they owned a bakery for 18 years (Vincent is a 7th generation baker). In January 2007, Vincent, who was approaching his 40th birthday declared to his wife: “At 40 you divorce or you change your life.” Because the Koenigs were (and remain) very much in love, they made a change. A big one. They flew to New York, telling their family it was a vacation, but they had other plans in mind. Their host took them on a day trip to Fairfield County, Connecticut, where they were enchanted by the New England landscape.
Returning with their children, then aged 8 and 10, a few weeks later and showing them the area, the family agreed to move. By May 2007 Isabelle and Vincent sold their business in France and moved to Westport. Speaking very little English, the road wasn’t easy, filled with trial and error as well as financial sacrifice. Yet the Koenigs persevered, sustained by the emotional support of their new neighbors, who welcomed them with open arms. Eventually, as luck would have it, they connected with a landlord, a francophile himself and the owner of a property in Fairfield off the Post Road where the bakery now stands. The deal was made over a glass of wine, a handshake, and a mutual love of France.
For the next 10 months Vincent tinkered with his recipes, adapting them as necessary while building out the new bakery space. It’s no stereotype that the French love their bread, and the Koenigs were dearly missing their daily baguette. Using the small oven in their house, Vincent perfected his baguette recipe first for his own family, and the end result can be tasted today at the store--a crisp, crunchy crust with a slightly chewy center.
By May 2008, the bakery officially opened and has been satisfying pastry cravings here ever since. Each week, it runs through nearly 200 lbs of butter along with 25 to 30 lb bags of flour for the baguettes alone. Vincent doesn’t believe in the superiority of European ingredients; but rather, great flour, eggs, butter, and fruit can all be found here. His recipes are a mixture of old tradition and new discoveries, and he never tires of tinkering.
When we met with Vincent, he had been at work since 3 a.m., which apparently was a bit on the late side, and he was putting the finishing touches on some desserts. On the counter before him were rich, decadent looking chocolate bombes and alongside, large parchment lined baking sheets spread paper thin with glossy dark chocolate. Breaking the chocolate into shards, he decorated the bombes methodically and beautifully. Next were large apricot tarts, the fruit nestled in vanilla pastry cream. Vincent gave the tart a generous dusting of powdered sugar and cut it into slices before it made its way into the display case.
We snuck into the chocolate room, a glass enclosed space that is part kitchen, part laboratory. Intricate sugar lattices were draped over large cans to form them into concave shapes, chocolate molds in all sizes were piled on a work table, including ceramic bunny molds given to Vincent by his grandfather. Isabelle half joked that when he’s working with chocolate, you cannot utter a word to Vincent, as tempering the chocolate requires his intense and complete concentration. Vincent takes chocolate very seriously and it shows. After our visit, he was going to work on something special--a chocolate case to enclose a ring--a unique order requested by a customer as a gift to his wife.
Vincent and Isabelle work with a staff no larger than six, eight if you count their children, Caroline and Philippe, now in high school, who come in the early morning hours to help their parents before their school day begins. It’s a small staff that allows the Koenigs to have complete quality control. They have no interest in expanding, nor wish to sell their confections to local restaurants for their dessert menus. They want to see their customers face to face. While Vincent, in the words of his wife is the “artiste,” Isabelle can be found behind the counter greeting people with her sweet and open smile, and performs the hard work of running the business itself.
On his one day off, Vincent generally stays out of the kitchen. He enjoys tinkering in his yard and being outdoors, but the bakery, in the Koenig’s own words is “the place we love.” For them, it is truly their home away from home. Their customers, their extended family. As we were leaving, we noticed by the door a chalkboard with this message, "Dear Wonderful Customers, We are closed from April 16 to April 23 -Isabelle et Vincent."
Isabelle et Vincent 1903 Post Road, Fairfield (203) 292-8022