Photo Credits: Cristine Hutchinson left, Jie Lan top right ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
Sometimes we find our true passion in our second act. Catherine Seisson found hers after a 23-year corporate career. Her story is inspiring; her bread is truly magic. She’s a prime example of what it means to do what you love and love what you do, and be willing to do the hard work to make that happen. French by birth, she’s adopted our local small town with big personality West Chester, Pennsylvania. There she bakes up a plethora of outrageously tasty breads and pastries for a hungry audience. We visited the bakery last week and brought home a small cache of goodies which were rapidly devoured. We loved it all, but the baguette generously addressed with sweet cream butter was out of this world delicious. We’re thrilled to share Catherine’s inspiring story. It’s never too late to make magic happen.
Life was telling me to do something else. Rewind.
You had a 23-year career in the Pharmaceutical industry, yet you switched gears to study baking in Paris. You took the time to hone your craft. What fueled this bold move? What did it take to turn that dream into a reality?
As a former project Leader for a big Pharmaceutical Company, I spent 2 years in Toronto and was in numerous occasions invited at our US plant, located in Pennsylvania where I would stay up to 2 months. I liked the people who warmly welcomed me when I spent time working there, appreciated the work relationships and could be proud of our accomplishments. I enjoyed the various places we went to and the diversity that PA can offer (beautiful countryside, history & culture, people’s open mindedness.) Although I have always enjoyed traveling with my 2 kids and being exposed to other cultures (from Colombia, to Mongolia, China, India, Mali, Lebanon, Venezuela or Guatemela where I adopted my son), I have known for quite some time that the place where I would love to settle down is Pennsylvania. As you mentioned in your email, the world changes every day, so I changed along with it. I had turned a certain age and asked myself, ‘What do I want to do with the rest of my life?’
I could not envision staying an extra 15 years with a group that had become so big. I had lost my meaning. I needed more direct interaction with people, and I knew I wanted to bake. I spoke with my kids and my husband, in order for them to be ready for the change, too, one that involved moving to another country as well. Life was telling me to do something else. Rewind.
I love the name of the restaurant, La Baguette Magique. Baking really is a big of magic. You measure and mix a few things together with care, add heat, and they become these marvelous, delicious, nourishing treats. Good fresh baked breads and pastries have a lot of love baked into them. It’s not easy, though, because so many things can go wrong if you aren’t careful and even sometimes when you are. Why bread? Why pastries? What is the ‘magique’ for you?
Baking is simple…and complex at the same time. There are four ingredients to bread: water, flour, yeast and salt. But you need to understand several parameters, such as temperature, fermentation, and shaping. I needed to master all of this simplicity, to be able to become capable of organizing our production. When I had the opportunity to come to the States for internships, I could measure all the differences and get adjusted to ingredients, equipment, units of measure. There was a lot to learn. The smell of a just-baked loaf is medicine for the mind and body. When that bread is truly crafted, with the most delicate touch and sweetest intent by magical hands, golden-brown love is born. The baking powerhouse comes from a culinary family, with chef dad and chef brother influencing the genteel flour maven. It’s in my blood. I wanted to make bread and enjoy the very hourly and silent hours preparing, shaping, baking. This is the magic, every day. 4 ingredients, love, time and here we are breaking our warm bread.
This is the magic, every day. 4 ingredients, love, time and here we are breaking our warm bread.
Is this a passion project and if so, what drives that passion?
When I started baking at school, it was a difficult time. My father was dying of cancer. My oldest child was going through a difficult time with several conditions. I went to baking school. I found it so therapeutic. Even now, I enjoy being here at night, where everything is quiet and peaceful, being focused on what I need to do. In baking, the entire body needs to be used and focused. You work, and you wait. You divide and you wait, then you shape and you wait. You need to wait. Time and observation are important factors in baking. You can see the results. You can smell the results. You have to feel it. All senses are contributing. You have no instrument — no knife, no spoon. It’s your hands. Not every job takes you through your entire body the way baking does. And then, at the end, you eat. You nourish. You share. I would love to open classes, to build bridges/partnerships with rehab centers, hospitals. I am deeply convinced that bread baking is more than what most people think.
When I was a child, I cannot count the various attempts that my parents would kindly let me try and then taste. However, when time came to decide for my career orientation and studies, the same parents -they owned a caterer & delicatessen retail- told me ‘you will go to University’. Which I did, and am today grateful. I learned a lot both at University and then during my professional career (23 years) with a big Pharmaceutical Company. I learned English and project leadership, team management, budget supervision, communication tools and techniques. My Dad, an inspiration: As a kid, I was asked quite often to help my parents. I would love being with my father, early in the morning — just with him — in his kitchen, and enjoy the smell of everything he was chopping. Ground herbs, parsley, onions. Every Wednesday, he and I would climb in his truck at three in the morning — because there was no school on Wednesdays in France — and go to see this huge marketplace of flowers, vegetables and foods, where he would do his shopping for the week. I have such great memories of those moments. He passed away before I moved here. I’m sure he can see where I am now. I owe him a lot. He loved what he was doing, being in his kitchen — touching and feeling — with the smells and the noises. He inspired me. In motion.
You have to feel it. All senses are contributing. You have no instrument — no knife, no spoon. It’s your hands.
Cocktails Cupcakes Crafts is about making, baking, cocktail shaking, but more than that it’s about celebrating people who have opted out of the normal 9-5 reality. The economy has changed. The world has changed. The internet has been created a sense of hyper connection, but also a feeling of isolation and disconnection. There’s a growing movement in cities and small towns towards local, handcrafted, sustainable businesses. Your approach to baking is rooted in traditions, it takes time. That sort of flies in the face of the digital instant gratification reality. What are the challenges and the gifts of running a hands on business like a traditional bakery?
It took some time, preparation. Time to raise my kids, time to think about the feasibility of my project that would marry my child’s dream and the place where I wanted to live. Supported by my husband, Patrick who created a subsidiary of his French-owned company in PA (Fall 2012), the decision was made back in the Summer 2012. I had just received a positive answer from the French Baking School I applied to, and decided to take a year off from Sanofi to go back to school and learn how to bake. The same Summer, the whole family was in PA (supported and helped by Invest PA, Select Greater Philadelphia) to fine-tune our project and identify a location where we could live, work and invest. West Chester was selected unanimously: vibrant town, food-lovers…and no bread bakery!
June 2013 : Graduation as a baker and decision to move forward with my project. Last and final preparation, the move, the selection of the current location, the ‘good-byes’.
It took a lot of time, advice from local sources on the business and financial plans (UPenn Wharton, Kutztown University, architects & contractors, bank and insurance, equipment vendors) to fine tune, finance and build what the bakery is today. The challenge was even greater since I was still in France when it all started since it needed to be started for me to get my visa! When you have a plan, you can adjust easily, so I was able to fine tune it. I came prepared. I guess it took a lot of thinking and preparation, quite a significant amount of work and adjustments, a little bit of craziness, a lot of perseverance and faith, and the support of my family, friends, here and there, bakers and others.
La Baguette Magique is located at 202 West Market Street in West Chester, Pennsylvania. They are open Tuesdays-Sundays. Visit their website for directions and hours. Get the latest news on what’s happening at the bakery on their Facebook page.