‘I Was the Only Woman In My Culinary Group’
When you own a patisserie, and your daughter is getting married in France, there isn’t any other option. You have to make the wedding cake.
‘The flowers on the cake were made out of pulled sugar and they’re so delicate, but we had to take them on the plane,’ says Ruth Poupon, owner of Patisserie Poupon on Wisconsin Avenue. ‘I had the flowers in boxes with a powdered limestone on the bottom to keep them dry, and I put them right through security. My husband had 300 homemade chocolates in his carry-on. The TSA agent ended up asking for our business card!’
What would have been a nightmare travel scenario for most was a labor of love for the Poupons, whose entire adult lives have centered on pastry.
Ruth attended the Culinary Institute in New York, a ‘dream place to go to school.’ She graduated in 1978 the only woman in her class group.
‘It was more of a man’s world and a lot rougher. The conditions were rougher. I thought cake was a little calmer than cooking, a little more cerebral, a little more skilled. And the actual making of the pastry was a little easier for women to be a part of at that time. I loved the decorative and creative parts of pastry and cake.’
As soon as she graduated, Ruth returned to DC. The White Flint Mall was new, and Ruth noticed a French pastry shop there. She got a job and quickly met her future husband, Joe, a fellow baker and Frenchman from Brittany.
When their friends’ Ellicott City restaurant burned down, they offered to help the Poupons open their own bakery in Baltimore. They stayed for 12 years before opening a second patisserie in Georgetown.
‘We wanted to do something on our own, and we were sure we knew what we were doing, but we didn’t know anything. We were on this corner in Baltimore in a bad neighborhood that was going to turn around. Except, it never turned around, so we came to Georgetown. We wanted a really nice retail location, and we also felt Washington was a better market, with more French people and Europeans. We also wanted to put our daughter, Audrey, in French school.’
The Book Hill area of Georgetown proved to be the perfect location. This year, Ruth is celebrating the location’s 20th anniversary—which opened on her 40th birthday.
‘In Baltimore, people would say, ‘What’s that?’ and I’d say, ‘Chocolate croissant,’ and they’d say, ‘Chocolate? For breakfast?!’ When we came to DC, we couldn’t make enough chocolate croissant. There was no competition back then, and we had the right clientele here.’
Today, Ruth says Patisserie Poupon is a bit of a dying breed. While the city has no shortage of bakeries, few offer the authentic and all-encompassing experience you’ll find in France. From cookies to Danish and chocolates, it was important to Ruth and Joe that they honor what they loved so much abroad.
‘You walk into those patisseries and it smells so good, and it’s about getting something that would take so much time at home and is so difficult to produce. At first we were worried that people here only eat pastry on weekends, but actually that’s not really true.’
In the early days, the Poupons did all of the cooking and baking themselves. They still oversee both aspects, and often make the daily food specials, and seasonal and specialty pastry and cakes. If Ruth had her choice, she’d still spend all of her time in the kitchen, always trying something new.
Her daughter also caught the baking bug, though it took a while to develop.
‘I think Audrey was a little intimated at first. Eventually, I felt a bit ashamed that I hadn’t been able to teach her a thing about cooking. When she was 16, I got her and her friends and a few others to come over to the house for cooking classes. I’d worked really hard on the plan, and what we were going to do, and on the first day Audrey said, ‘Mom, go put on your uniform—they’ll expect it.’ To this day, they still talk about it. I tried to replicate what you’d get in cooking school, teaching the methods and not just specific recipes.’
The Poupons still cook frequently at home, though most days it’s quick and easy. Ruth says they get invited to their fair share of parties, and often feel awkward about whether or not they should bring something.
‘You don’t want to always force your cake on them!’
It’s hard to believe much coercing is required. Five years ago, the Poupons expanded yet again—opening a café inside of a Baltimore hotel. The majority of the cooking and baking is now done in the Baltimore kitchen for efficiency’s sake, though both locales do work in tandem. For a recent chicken pot pie special at both cafes, the Georgetown kitchen made filling and the Baltimore kitchen made the crust.
As the holiday season approaches, business is picking up. Traditional American Thanksgiving pies will soon give way to one of Ruth’s most involved cakes—the traditional Buche de Noel Yule log. This year, like every other, there will be a few surprises, too.
‘As Christmas gets closer and closer, my husband brings out more and more things to the front counter. By Christmas Eve, it’s this big surprise and cakes people haven’t seen until then. It’s just so fun and so pretty.’
Nothing seems to phase Ruth when she’s baking, even during the holiday rush.
‘I always have a good day when I’m in the kitchen.’