“The word got out really quickly,” Babette Odou, the manager and wife of owner and cook, Joel Odou, says, happily reliving the excitement of their business becoming the hot topic of conversation around town.
“Right away people were coming in and saying that they had already heard a lot of great things about us and that was only after a few days.”There was plenty of talk, up and down the streets of Key West, in the days leading up to my first visit to the cute little conch house on the corner of Louisa at the quiet end of Duval. A small set of stairs lead up to a comfortably small dining room and into an even cuter patio area.
At the counter behind a perfectly polished glass display, a single, beautiful, lemon poppy-seed muffin called to me and wouldn’t let me leave without it. Now I’m not sure if I’m supposed to be telling you how much I devoured that little piece of pillowy cake, or that it vaguely reminded me of the homemade pastries that I used to eat in the markets of Germany where I was born, but the café not only has the whole charming thing going on for them, it’s also got all the flavors of a European vacation incorporated into its menu. With a very French flair, of course.That’s because the couple is actually from France. Babette had owned a bakery in her bohemian fishing village hometown along the southern coast of Sète. Many of the recipes for their breakfast, lunch or freshly made treats follow the same neighborhood friendly concept that she utilized back then, except now they make everything exclusively from scratch, from the dressing to the croutons to the pastry cream and the dough.
“We always get the good ingredients,” Babette says. “You can taste the butter. The bread is fresh. You can smell everything that you are eating.”
Standing inside the bakery, while contemplating your choices taking in all of the sugary scents all around you, makes it possible to imagine La Vie en Rose playing somewhere in the background. The real magic, though, happens at an hour that most people associate with sleeping.
The flour starts filling the air sometime in the middle of the night when New York City-skilled baker Amy Chrisogonou arrives to create the daily assortment of goods that includes raspberry danishes, key lime pie and almond croissants. Then the cooks take over to start preparing the daily soups, salads and sandwiches, including a morning “Benedict that is to die for,” as Babette says. If there was one thing that regulars can’t get enough of, it is the egg cups or “little baskets of puff pastry with béchamel sauce, crème fraîche and a cracked egg on top” that they can often sell out of long before the doors close.
There’s a saying framed on the wall that Babette says is the perfect way to describe an experience at La Grignote. It says, “At La Grignote, you buy more than a product or service, you buy hundreds of failures and experiments. You buy days, weeks, months of frustrations and also pure moments of joy and happiness. You do not buy something to eat, you buy a piece of our heart, a piece of our soul, a part of our lives.”
Babette spent almost eight years in the culinary oasis of San Francisco, where she worked as the bakery school manager at the San Francisco Baking Institute. She knew that this is what she really wanted to do since dropping out of the insurance business and finding herself constantly hanging out in the kitchen of one of her friend’s restaurants, where she was hired to work for a short time. When Joel announced that he wanted to move back to Key West after having lived here about 20 years ago, they decided to combine their dreams and follow them together. Hers of running a bakery and his of coming back to the island. Now she brings personality to the front of house and he brings perfectionism to the back of house.
Although they are the engine that runs the show every Tuesday to Sunday from 5:30 a.m. until 5:30 p.m., they continue to be thankful for being blessed with the people who help them make their dreams a reality.
“It’s the entire team working hard along with the support of the customers; it’s the whole thing coming together,” Babette says of the secrets to their humbled success. “It’s a challenge to work in such a small kitchen and try to satisfy everyone, but when people write a nice review or stop you on the street to thank you,” she says as the emotions in her face emphasize how much it means to her that people recognize what they are trying to do. She looks happy. “Besides the fact that we work like crazy, I love Key West,” she finishes.
La Grignote means little bites in French. I realize that yes, it might be a little taboo to tell you exactly whether or not I enjoyed that muffin, but it actually took me six really, really big bites, and that, dear readers, is a fact. ¦
La Grignote 1211 Duval Street 305- 916- 5445 lagrignotecafe.com Tuesday – Sunday 7am- 5pm