PILSEN — Jeffrey Hallenbeck likes to joke that he studied architecture just so he could design his own bakery.
Funny how things work out.
Hallenbeck, 25, a self-taught baker behind the Beurrage name, has signed a June lease on a former tavern in Pilsen at 1248 W. 18th St. that he plans to convert into the bakery of his dreams.
His architecture degree has come in handy after all. He has sketched out plans for the buildout and even posted them online.
It's all happening quickly for the Pilsen resident, whose croissants grace the cases at Katherine Anne Confections in Logan Square and a handful of other spots around town.
He focused on croissants for two reasons: He never made them at work, and they're hard to get right.
"It was a challenging thing I wanted to eventually master," said the lanky, soft-spoken Hallenbeck who, as a middle-schooler, watched the Food Network and pored over cookbooks. "I've always been drawn to the most difficult parts of cooking, basically."
Though he saw the Pilsen market as simply "an outlet to practice the things I wanted to make," his pastries caught on. People bought them. They looked forward to them.
Then his boss at FIG gave his croissants to chocolatier Katherine Duncan, who was in the process of opening her shop and wanted to add something savory to the menu.
"We tried them and were really, really wowed," said Duncan, who spent nine days in France last year eating a "ridiculous amount" of the layered pastry.
Hallenbeck's, she said, were authentically Parisian. "They're beautiful and light throughout. They're never doughy or soggy."
Her shop, which opened in September at 2745 W. Armitage Ave., now sells three kinds of Beurrage pastries daily. They also can be had at New Wave Coffee, 2557 N. Milwaukee Ave., City Grounds, 507 W. Dickens Ave., and La Catrina Cafe, 1011 W. 18th St., just down the street from Beurrage's future home.
TimeOut Chicago put the Beurrage croissant on its list of "100 best things we ate and drank in 2012." "How did no one tell us about these flaky, buttery, astoundingly well-made croissants, sold at the Pilsen farmers market, until the end of summer? Luckily, they’re also available online," the magazine said.
Hallenbeck left his job at FIG early this year to bake solo, though he still uses their kitchen at 1850 S. Blue Island Ave. His workday begins around 9 p.m. and ends at dawn.
He keeps things as small and local as possible, making one batch — 20 croissants — at a time. He uses eggs from Ellis Family Farms in Benton Harbor, Mich., and dairy from Kilgus Farmstead in downstate Fairbury. His boyfriend, Isaiah Simpson, a software programmer by day, handles the business end. College friends double as delivery drivers, in iGo cars.
Hallenbeck recently started making his own butter. "Which is just crazy — who does that?" said Duncan.
"I guess it's about taking control of as much of the process as we can," Hallenbeck said. "It's about obsessively studying the components and making things better."
On a recent weeknight, Hallenbeck laminated croissant dough, then mixed a batch of bread dough dotted with black and white sesame seeds. It was a test batch; a delivery mixup left him with an excess of durum flour, a high-protein, low-gluten flour typically used in pasta.
"We'll see what happens," he said with a smile.
He recently hired another baker, Molly Svec, formerly of Hoosier Mama Pie Co. With her on board, he is able to experiment more with bread, which begins with a naturally-leavened sourdough starter.
Hallenbeck aims to have commercial production up and running in the new space by mid-summer, and the retail portion by late summer or early fall. He said he might even move into an apartment above the space when his lease is up in July.
In the meantime, he and his pastries will return for another summer at the Pilsen market. It starts back up on May 26.