Lessons in Grand-mére's Kitchen Spark a Mini-empire
by Anne Spiselman portrait • photographs by Nastasia Mora
Vincent Colombet grew up in France, the land of fabulous food, but he never wanted to become a chef. He enjoyed baking but back when he was growing up cooking for a living seemed to be the toughest job you could do with little chance of making much money.
Colombet says he majored in finance because he didn’t know what he wanted to do and thought it would be useful. It was—for the information technology business he started in 2001.
But in the years since he moved to Chicago in 2004, his finance skills merged
with his desire to have access to the best baked goods from his childhood. The 37-year-old has built a mini-empire that includes Cook Au Vin, a cooking school and catering company, along with a stall at the Logan Square Farmers Market, a food truck, two La Boulangerie Chicago bakery cafes and a third one scheduled to open next year. There were fits and starts along the way, but he says he was driven by what he considers a necessity for survival: recreating the great edibles he found easily in France but not here.
Of course, the foundations were laid very early. Colombet learned basic cooking skills in his grandmother’s kitchen. Claire, his maternal grandmother, lived in Corimont, a small commune in the Vosges department of Lorraine in northeastern France, and he remembers that as soon as he was tall enough to see what was on the table, he started asking how it was made. The first thing he learned to bake, at age 8, was blueberry pie with brimbelles—small wild berries foraged in the nearby mountains. His curiosity grew and within a few years he began preparing elaborate meals, cooked on their wood-burning, cast-iron stove.
His parents later moved to Orleans, in the famed Loire Valley. Colombet went to high school and college there, though he spent much of his free time in Paris. What culinary education he got was completely informal. When his father became a dean at a trade school, Columbet liked to hang around in the kitchen and learn from the chef and during vacations he helped his father’s uncle prepare big batches of food at the boarding school where he was kitchen manager. He also began cooking for weekend-long parties of up to 30 friends.
When a girlfriend brought Colombet to Chicago, he was struck by the notion that there were very few places to buy the pates, terrines, smoked duck magret and other French delicacies, commonly available even at grocery stores in France, so they started making them at home. He also observed that Americans were willing to pay more for this good food than the French had been, so he set up shop as a private chef and caterer, as well as operating a crepe cart at farmers markets. His French connections in Chicago got him a meeting with Chef Didier Durand of Cyrano’s Bistrot & Wine Bar and, although their plans to start a pate company didn’t pan out, he worked at Durand’s River North restaurant.
He remained focused on building his own business and rented a shared kitchen for a few months, and then a place of his own. It had to be inexpensive because his business income fluctuated. In summer, 2007 he found a 1,400-square-foot space at 2256 N. Elston Ave. at a rent he could afford and built the kitchen himself. With a personal investment of less than $30,000 there, he opened Cook Au Vin in January 2008 with a couple of small stoves, one five-rack oven, a few crepe makers, a three-door refrigerator, a prep table and the requisite sinks—just what he needed to pass a health inspection.
Colombet’s plan was to supplement his catering with a one-stop shop for French expats to get all the foodstuffs they craved from back home. “What I failed to take into account is that the French weren’t willing to pay the higher prices here,” he says. “I was wasting so much product, I closed the retail store after six months.”
Then he had to figure out what to do next. He thought of giving lessons at his Elston location because of the popularity of television cooking shows. “At first, the classes were more like social events for one or two couples,” he says. “I’d customize the menu. They’d bring the wine. We’d become friends. The price barely covered my food costs, and I spent five or six hours. I did this three nights a week and was happy just to be working. Plus I started getting very positive Yelp reviews.” At lunch, he also ran a small cafe serving crepes to people from nearby businesses, such as Vosges Haut-Chocolat.
Colombet’s expansion into bread-making was a combination of necessity and serendipity, after the company he’d been buying from went bankrupt. He’d been in the habit of picking up his loaves personally (as they do in France, he says), so he’d gotten to know the baker, Pedro, and offered to hire him part time. “We were using my five-quart KitchenAid and little oven,” he says, “but I believe there’s always a way to do what you want.”
Sure enough, another acquaintance whose bakery had gone bankrupt asked him to store his equipment, and instead of leaving it idle, Colombet asked permission to use it and turned his 1,800 square feet of warehouse space into a makeshift bakery. With a small Hobart, a proofer, bigger ovens and bread racks, he and Pedro were baking more and more bread every day. “It would come out of the oven at noon,” he says, “so we started making sandwiches on the warm bread for lunch in the cafe.”
One day someone brought some of his bread to Caffe Baci, which also had been left bread-less by one of the bankrupt bakers, and Colombet’s wholesale bread business was born. He rented another 4,000 square feet in his building to create a bonafide bakery serving the Alinea group, MK, Quartino, Jerry’s Sandwiches and Pastoral Artisan Cheese, Bread and Wine. He then revamped the 1,800 square feet as a pastry lab.
However, Colombet finds the wholesale bread business problematic because the bread loses its freshness quickly and the profit margin is very small so he’d prefer to scale back.
He began opening cafes to grow his business. The first La Boulangerie Chicago was in Logan Square because he had a following at the Logan Square Farmers Market for his crepes and bread. It opened in September 2010 and closed January 1, 2015. “The lease didn’t permit me to serve coffee because another place on the block did,” he explains.
He expanded La Boulangerie to the Lakeview neighborhood October 2012, with room for a dozen seats. The newest location, in Ravenswood, opened last summer with double the capacity and, next spring, will have 20 more seats outside. The stores have similar menus of breads, sandwiches, savory and sweet crepes, quiches and traditional pastries, among them croissants, eclairs, almond pear tarts, financiers, madeleines and macarons. He has designs on a southside location in the future. The food truck, inaugurated in April 2014, can often be found in Hyde Park, but it also travels downtown at breakfast and lunch.
Columbet stresses that absolutely everything—except the Nutella for a crepe—is made from scratch. He uses organic ingredients when he can, and sources much of his produce from Get Fresh in Bartlett, Illinois. While some items are made at the main bakery on Elston, the baguettes and croissants are baked fresh at each cafe, serving a delightful aroma upon entry.
One measure of how far Colombet has come is his latest project. In August 2016, he inked a deal to buy the 2,500-square-foot, three-story building for another location of his signature bakery, projected to open in late 2017.
“I want to keep creating small bakeries with employees who are passionate about what they do and on-site managers to control quality,” he says. He dreams of further expansion to Bucktown and starting a baking school to train staff for the growing number of La Boulangeries.
Between Cook Au Vin and La Boulangerie, he has 40 to 50 employees, including six bakers and three cooking school instructors (two for savory, one for pastry). He still teaches most of the corporate and private classes himself. He’s come a long way toward changing the paradigm of his youth. With revenue projected at $3 million for 2016, one could say he found a way to make money “cooking for a living.”
Ann Spiselman is a world traveler and writer who has experienced food-and-wine barging in the Burgundy region of France, warm croissants from a French street vendor and the exquisite discovery of the cheese Aisy cendré—a pungent cow-milk cheese covered in ash. In other words, the best of the land of fabulous food.