West Chester & Chadds Ford Q & A
By J. Chambless
Catherine Seisson. (Photo by Jie Deng)
It happens at the moment you first walk
through the door, and you cannot help but come back again.
When you first enter La Baguette Magique on Market Street in West Chester, you are swept up and taken on a journey to halfway around the world, and when you finally land, you realize that you have been temporarily placed along the Left Bank in Paris, and smack into a Doisneau photograph.
In the little more than a year that Catherine Seisson has owned and operated her La Baguette Magique, thousands of her customers have delightfully taken that carpet ride of the senses, to where the taste, touch and fragrance of fresh baked French bread and pastries is both tantalizing and tactile.
Recently, West Chester & Chadds Ford Life sat down with Catherine to hear the story of her own journey, her own carpet ride, one that went from a professional life to the fulfillment of a childhood dream.
West Chester & Chadds Ford Life: After 23 years in the pharmaceutical industry, you decide that you want to learn how to bake, as a way of taking you back to the pleasures you had of being a young girl growing up in France. What led you to this noble life decision.
Seisson: I spent 23 years in the pharmaceutical industry, and in that time, I learned how to run complex projects, but the world changes every day, so I changed along with it. I had turned a certain age and asked myself, 'What do I want to do with the rest of my life?' My father was a chef, and my younger brother is also a chef, but from the time I was a little girl, I wanted to be a bread maker.
I had raised my kids, and I could not envision staying an extra 15 years with a group that had become so big. I had lost my meaning. I needed more direct interaction with people, and I knew I wanted to bake. I spoke with my kids and my husband, in order for them to be ready for the change, too, one that involved moving to another country as well. Life was telling me to do something else.
You didn't just step out of your career and walked into a bakery one day and just start working. You graduated from a prestigious school in France. You learned on the job, in bakeries in France and in the United States. How did what you learned both in school and early in your baking career prepare you for eventually starting your own business?
Seisson: First, I learned a lot when I was still in the pharmaceutical industry. I was running projects, so I learned how to put things into perspective and order, determine how we can be compliant, put things into motion, determine what must be done first, etcetera. Baking is simple... and complex at the same time. There are four ingredients to bread: water, flour, yeast and salt. But you need to understand several parameters, such as temperature, fermentation, and shaping. I needed to master all of this simplicity, to be able to become capable of organizing our production. When I had the opportunity to come to the States for internships, I could measure all the differences and get adjusted to ingredients, equipment, units of measure. There was a lot to learn.
I developed a business plan and had it reviewed by individuals at the Wharton Business School at the University of Pennsylvania and Kutztown University. When you have a plan, you can adjust easily, so I was able to fine tune it. I came prepared.
Take me back as a young girl growing up in France. What role did the preparation and enjoyment of food play in your early life?
Seisson: As a kid, I was asked quite often to help my parents. I would love being with my father, early in the morning -- just with him -- in his kitchen, and enjoy the smell of everything he was chopping. Ground herbs, parsley, onions. Every Wednesday, he and I would climb in his truck at three in the morning -- because there was no school on Wednesdays in France -- and go to see this huge marketplace of flowers, vegetables and foods, where he would do his shopping for the week. I have such great memories of those moments.
He passed away before I moved here. I'm sure he can see where I am now. I owe him a lot. He loved what he was doing, being in his kitchen -- touching and feeling -- with the smells and the noises. He inspired me.
How did you arrive in West Chester?
Seisson: When I was in the pharmaceutical industry, I spent two years in Toronto, and would come hundreds of times to one of our production facilities in the Poconos. I spent summers there with my kids, and also had the opportunity to visit Philadelphia, Lancaster and other towns in the area. This place -- West Chester and the Brandywine Valley -- is really unique. My kids felt that way, too.
My husband is the CEO of a company in France, and most of his potential clients are on the East Coast here in the States. He is opening a subsidiary of his company here. West Chester was the perfect place to be for me, for him, for us as a family, and for the bakery.
One Summer, we rented a car and with a paper map of Pennsylvania, we drove everywhere between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. My husband prepared an XL spread sheet with all of our criteria. It had to be a place where food was important, but one that had no bakery. West Chester had all of these things.
When it comes to your experience, what are the differences in the tastes and needs between customers in France and customers here in the States?
Seisson: When I was figuring out my business plan, I had almost everything that you see here in the store -- baguettes, French bread and pastries. The bakers with whom I did my internships with in the States suggested that I incorporate cinnamon into my foods. In France, we know about cinnamon but it's not in our tastes, and anything made with apples in France, is made without cinnamon.
I realized early that I would not compete with places who made donuts and bagels -- which I love -- but I was willing to take a risk here. One year later, you would be surprised to see the number of people -- American people -- coming in here to get their French baguettes, willing to try new things, and coming back. People from the neighborhood; we know their names, we know their children's names. It is so much more than simply a transaction here!
Your mission statement is to create a bakery that nourishes the mind, body and spirit. Achieving that takes more than just making great products. How does a bakery nourish a spirit?
Seisson: When I started baking at school, it was a difficult time. My father was dying of cancer. My oldest child was going through a difficult time with several conditions. I went to baking school. I found it so therapeutic. Even now, I enjoy being here at night, where everything is quiet and peaceful, being focused on what I need to do.
In baking, the entire body needs to be used and focused.
You work, and you wait. You divide and you wait, then you shape and you wait. You need to wait. Time and observation are important factors in baking. You can see the results. You can smell the results. You have to feel it. All senses are contributing. You have no instrument -- no knife, no spoon. It's your hands. Not every job takes you through your entire body the way baking does. And then, at the end, you eat. You nourish. You share.
You could probably spend less and just get your ingredients elsewhere, but instead, you have chosen to work with local vendors. It's a true collaboration.
Seisson: Although I chose to come to West Chester, I was welcomed here by a community. The least I could do to become a part of this community was to partner with those vendors who are here.
What is your favorite spot in West Chester?
Seisson: Marshall Park. I like the atmosphere. I like the project for the fountain. I spend a lot of hours here, but I need to see the trees, and beside, it's in the heart of West Chester.
Dinner party guests?
Seisson: Because I like the history of this guy, Louis II de Baviere, the king of Bavaria from 1864 to 1886. There would be Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. There would be Ella Fitzgerald. There would be Audrey Hepburn. Then there would be my dad, as well as our customers... and also all of those who have not yet come over!
What food is always in your refrigerator at home?
Seisson: Pineapple. I love pineapple. I have fresh juice and the fruit, all of the time.
La Baguette Magique is located at 202 W. Market Street, West Chester, Pa. 19382. For more information, visit www.magicbaguette.com.