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Robert Bennett

KING BEE: Robert Bennett extends his empire of excellence with the debut of seasonal creations and the prospective opening of a third Miel.

Virginian Robert Bennett honors the arts of French pastry and confectionery daily at Miel Patisserie shops in Cherry Hill, N.J. and in Philadelphia through his specialty chocolates, wedding cakes, ice creams, gelati, tarts, pastries, artisan breads, preserves and cakes. He recently rolled out a new seasonal line of cakes, sweets and artisanal ice creams, sorbets and gelati.

The New England Culinary Institute grad and faculty member starred for 14 years as executive pastry chef at Le Bec-Fin in Philadelphia and at its sister restaurant, Brasserie Perrier. He sits on the board of directors of the North American Pastry Chefs Association, co-founded the Philadelphia Pastry Society, and has represented the U.S in the World Cup Pastry Competition in Lyon, France.

Married to a fellow NECI graduate, Bennett reports that only the youngest of their brood of four has not caught the culinary bug—yet.

RH: You originally trained as a chef. How did you get hooked on pastry?

Bennett: I've always had a sweet tooth, so I guess it was always there. My father was head chemist for Chap Stick, and I was fascinated by watching him work and come up with something beautiful.

I've always enjoyed working with my hands, and as a kid, I was always hungry. When I went to New England Culinary Institute, I spent all my extra time in the pastry department, and I dabbled in confectionery.

RH: Which do you prefer, pastry or confectionery?

Bennett: I love all of it! There's a whole world in pastry-making: The more you work in it, the more you realize that there's so much more that you need to learn.

RH: You've studied in France, and you return there from time to time, don't you? Is France your chief source of inspiration?

Bennett: Yes, actually, but not directly. I gravitate to traditional French pastry. The past is always in my present, in the good old classics.

RH: Your symbol is the Napoleonic bee. It's on the steel gate of your shop, on the boxes and ribbons of your confections, on Miel's website, and you've extended it to include the honeycomb. Why did you choose that symbol for Miel?

Bennett: Napoleon hated the fleur de lis—and I've never liked it, either. His choice of the bee as the symbol for the Republic is my choice, too, because I share that philosophy: the striving for perfection, the tireless efforts of workers, the focus on the old way of doing things...and I wanted a name that was short and sweet. Miel is French for “honey”.

RH: You've been gaining quite a following from your exquisite wedding cakes. Is bridal work an area in which you want to expand?

Bennett: We do only custom chocolates and cakes. The cakes are designed one by one, so every cake is unique.

It usually takes two meetings with the couple, in which I try to draw out of them their favorite flavors and textures so their cake will be the true representation of them. We take it very seriously.

RH: You certainly are serious about your art, right down to the ingredients. For example, your chocolates have a satiny finish and the flavor is so intense that a single piece is completely satisfying....

Bennett (laughing): That's because the ingredients are intense. The chocolate I use is 71% pure cocoa. I use Tahitian vanilla beans at—What are they now?—$257 per pound wholesale. I cannot do without them! While I may sometimes use Bourbon vanilla from Madagascar, the Tahitian vanilla is indispensable: fruity, flowery, and flavorful.

RH: Is there any ingredient you absolutely don't like?

Bennett: Margarine! When I was a kid, it was what we could afford. One day my mother brought home a couple of sticks of butter, and the first time I tasted it, I thought it was incredible! I love Plugra....

Of course, margarine has very different properties from butter, and different butters have different properties. For croissants, I use one part Plugra to two parts regular AA unsalted butter: You get the flavor of Plugra and the stability of regular butter. The water content determines stability.

RH: You're definitely a chemist's son! Speaking of which, you've created a remarkable kitchen in Cherry Hill. Your Pastry Laboratory is equipped with climate control, a Dutch Koma blast chiller, a pasteurizing machine that cools so rapidly that it prevents microbial growth, a high-volume European gelato machine, a Swiss Artofex grinder and a French enrobing machine that can coat 3,000 pieces per hour. It really is a laboratory.

Bennett: We strive for perfection, and you need the right tools to achieve that. I want my staff to have the best tools available and I want them to be comfortable as they work.

SHORT AND SWEET: Bennett adopted the emblem of Imperial France, a bee surrounded by a laurel wreath, for Miel to symbolize the tireless quest for perfection and to honor traditional ways.

RH: As scientifically precise as pastry and confectionery work is, you seem to like to experiment. Have there been some culinary experiments that surprised you?

Bennett: Actually, there was one where the idea came to me almost as if in a dream.

The idea was to take hard caramel and make super-thin transparent wafers. I pulverized the caramel in the Robot Coupe, sifted it over a template, then slid it into the oven and let it re-form into a wafer.

We use it in desserts: millefeuille of caramel wafers with ice cream in between. I like to do that when I'm a guest chef at special events.

RH: You've been involved in some very special events lately, haven't you?

Bennett: Share Our Strength is a big one. So is Chef-AID, and I have an opportunity to come up with some special things for events at the art museum, such as when a new exhibit opens. So far, I've done the Cezanne, Monet, and the Degas openings, and there's a Dali exhibit coming up. It's always something fun. A few weeks ago, I was asked to do a special piece for the Duke of Gloucester's charity auction, so I offered a day at Miel as my assistant. The winner can do anything— make ice cream or gelato, work with chocolates or pastry—and I get another assistant for the day.

RH: You've also done a lot of celebrity birthday cakes, pastry orders, and the like.

When you're not rubbing elbows with the Queen of England or Sigourney Weaver, how do you kick back?

Bennett: We don't entertain much. Our days are so full and we have four small children, so I'll bring home some ice cream or chocolates or cinnamon pecan coffee cake to have on hand.

Other than that, I'm in a dart club—I'm pretty good—and tonight I have a beer club meeting.

At home I like to sit down to a full meal and then walk away. Later, I'll come back and eat dessert.

RH: What's a favorite meal?

Bennett: Sweetbreads are the dish of choice, with morels, or caviar or smoked salmon. For dessert, cinnamon pecan sour cream coffee cake.

RH: Hold on. You're a classically trained patissier, but your dessert of choice is coffee cake?

Bennett: That's right. I met my wife in culinary school and she made it for me. It was unbelieveable; it's really my favorite dessert.

When I worked at Le Bec-Fin, we had two French chefs who didn't understand what a coffee cake was, so I made one for each of them.

The cakes were cooling on the rack, and one of the servers came back and thought they were for the dining room, so he ran them out and served them. He came back into the kitchen with a plate of crumbs to find out if there was more because we'd sold out of it immediately. From that day, it's been on the menu at Le Bec-Fin, and, of course, we serve it at Miel.

RH: You're clearly in love with your art, but have you ever thought about what you'd do if you didn't do this?

Bennett (instantly): I'd be a carpenter! I enjoy working with wood, spending as much time as needed to create something beautiful and useful that will last forever.

I enjoy working with tools and utensils, looking at the variety of grains and textures in wood. I have a woodworking shop at home, but I never get much time in it, although I did get to make the high-edge frames I use for drying vanilla beans and I made the cooling racks at Le Bec-Fin. I just never have time to spend in the shop.

RH: We hear you're about to have even less time to play.

Bennett: I'm looking into a third Miel location in a retail area of Princeton (N.J.) I think it would do well.

RH: Sweet! —Pat Fernberg

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