By Todd Stone
UPPER WEST SIDE — The owner of a popular French bakery on Amsterdam Avenue died suddenly this week, shocking loyal patrons who had forged a bond with him over the years.
Jean-Francois Gatorze, 45, passed away late Monday night from a heart attack, according to his wife and the city's medical examiner.
Gatorze opened La Toulousaine at 942 Amsterdam Ave., between West 106th and 107th streets, with his wife, Nora Salazar, in January 2012, earning praise from patrons for his croissants.
"He was the maker, the master. I was the seller," Salazar said of her late husband. "All you see here, this was all his idea. This is his creation."
She described Gatorze as a "very happy man" who loved rock 'n' roll and was a accomplished piano player, as well as an award-winning rugby player in France.
“He was a real artist,” said Melody Rubie, a patron of the bakery who lives a few blocks away. “He was like Picasso. You don’t bug the guy when he’s painting. He was the artist in the kitchen, doing his art.”
Gatorze grew up in Toulouse, France, where he operated his first bakery before moving to New York City and meeting Salazar, who hails from Nicaragua, in Harlem.
"It's the dream," Salazar said in a 2012 interview. "He had it in his own country. Why not make it here?”
One regular patron said that even though the bakery opened at 6:30 a.m., she and her friend would often arrive a little early — with Gatorze always welcoming them with coffee, saying, “Don’t worry. Come in, come in."
“I’m in shock,” said the customer, Lia Sanfilippo, who spoke with Gatorze at the bakery Monday and learned about his death Wednesday from a sign in the window.
“He was about connections, not transactions,” added Sanfilippo, who bought croissants from La Toulousaine at least three days a week.
“I personally felt he made the best croissant on this side of the ocean,” added patron and neighborhood resident Terrence Hanrahan.
But wasn’t only Gatorze’s croissants that were popular. A few customers noted that the bakery's French baguettes were often sold out by 9 a.m.
“I always wished he made more of them,” Rubie said.
Salazar noted that the bakery would remain open.
“We will continue here, and we will honor him,” she said, adding that funeral information would be posted in the bakery's window.