French Pastry School founders Jacquy Pfeiffer (l.) and Sebastien Canonne (r.) celebrate Canonne's Legion of Honor award with Susan Morrison, executive pastry chef at the White House. [Paul Strabbing]
THE LOOP — The email had to be fake.
That was what decorated pastry chef Sebastien Canonne thought when he read the message from the executive chef for the French president back in the spring, congratulating him for receiving the Legion of Honor — France's highest accolade.
"I was like, 'Is that a joke?' One of those spam emails, like someone's lost in Africa and you need to send money?" said Canonne, co-founder of the French Pastry School of Chicago, 226 W. Jackson Blvd.
Canonne's compatriot did jump the gun a bit, but it was no joke. In a ceremony at the school in late August, Canonne was knighted in the Order of the Legion of Honor and given the red-ribboned medal by Alliance Francaise de Chicago president Herve de la Vauvre.
And what timing. The French Pastry School, started by Canonne and fellow Frenchman and pastry savant Jacquy Pfeiffer, turns 20 this year.
The presidential Legion of Honor, founded by Napoleon Bonaparte (yes, that Napoleon), recognizes a person's "outstanding merit" and contributions to French culture.
The honor isn't limited to French citizens. Famous Americans who've been given the award include Toni Morrison, Bob Dylan and Elie Wiesel.
More recently, the three young Americans who tackled the gunman on a French train were named "Chevaliers" of the Legion, the same rank as Canonne. There are five levels to the award, with Chevalier or Knight being the lowest.
French Pastry School founder Sebastien Canonne (r.) accepts the Legion of Honor medal from Alliance Francaise de Chicago president Herve de la Vauvre. [Paul Strabbing]
Canonne is no stranger to big awards. In 2004, he earned the title of Meilleur Ouvrier de France — Best Craftsman of France — joining a highly elite group. It's the highest distinction for an artisan in France, determined through a rigorous contest held every four years. (The 2009 film "Kings of Pastry" documented Pfeiffer's attempt at the "M.O.F" title.)
"What's funny is when you strive to get titles, obviously you have to like to compete. And it's years and years and years of work," Canonne said. "And once you get it, it's super exciting, and then you actually realize the next day, it's just the beginning. You've got to do more. You've got to continue and give back a lot more than what you've got so it can go full circle."
Canonne and Pfeiffer, who have worked for royalty and in some of the world's most renowned kitchens, started the school in 1995 to address the void they saw in culinary training.
It was then, and still is, the only school of its kind in North America dedicated to pastry arts.
"We took the best of what we were lucky to have in France and tweaked that European mentorship-apprenticeship model to what would work in America," Canonne said.
That means a shorter, more intense, academically structured experience for those pursuing careers in pastry. There are certificate programs in pastry, cake decorating and artisanal bread baking as well as continuing education for professionals and enthusiast classes for home cooks.
The French Pastry School of Chicago, the only school in the nation dedicated to pastry arts, turns 20 this year. [French Pastry School/Facebook]
The school enrolls about 200 full-time students a year, many of whom are career-changers, and nearly 700 for its continuing education courses. The class sizes are small, enabling instructors to "be on each student, know their name, kick their butt," Canonne said.
Graduates have gone on to open more than 100 businesses nationwide, more than half of those in Illinois. Chicago alumni include Amy Hansen of Amy's Candy Bar in Ravenswood, Uzma Sharif of Chocolat Uzma Sharif in Pilsen and Sophie Evanoff of Vanille Patisserie in Lincoln Park and the Loop. Evanoff is opening her third location in Lakeview.
"It's very cool to be able to send our students to work for entrepreneurs who 12 or 15 years ago were our students themselves," Canonne said.
The school has been affiliated with the City Colleges of Chicago since 1999. With one year left on that contract, Canonne said it is currently negotiating a renewal.
Refinement, more than expansion, drives Canonne as he and Pfeiffer look ahead.
"Our focus has always been making sure that our students will get more than they wished for when they first enrolled with us," he said.
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