Jozef, I need your help -- now," Rene Ball calls out from "his side" of the kitchen at Chef's Corner Cafe & Bakery in Williston. He's wrestling with the metal mold used to make a French delicacy called a "Croque-en-Bouche," which translates as "Crunch in the Mouth." Milk, butter, sugar and flour form the fragile, cream-puff pastry that is piped by hand onto a tray. The doughy baubles are baked to golden perfection and filled with custard. Individual puffs are then hand-dipped in caramel and placed in a well-oiled, cone-shaped mold.
Jozef Harrewyn dusts the bread flour from his hands and rushes over to help his partner. The cake won't budge from the mold -- it's stuck like a filling in an overindulgent sweet tooth. The two pastry chefs work side-by-side, gingerly trying to extract the stubborn confection. When it finally emerges, it shatters into pieces on the stainless-steel counter.
Harrewyn bursts into uncontrollable, nervous laughter. Ball reels him back in with a frustrated, "Come on, we have to do something." It's 10 a.m. and their customer is due to pick up the elaborate cake at 11:30.
Harrewyn pulls himself together, grabs a saute pan, and rushes to the stove to whip up a new batch of caramel. Melted, browned sugar will serve as the mortar to rebuild the structure. Ball surveys the damage with the critical eye of an engineer.
Piece by piece, the chefs reassemble the dessert. Fanciful, strategically placed marzipan roses camouflage the cracks. The customer picks up her towering treat -- the centerpiece for the elaborate French feast she's hosting -- none the wiser.
Whoever said too many cooks spoil the broth has not eaten at Chef's Corner, where Harrewyn and Ball have been whipping up sweets, soups and breads since 1996. The location, nestled among gas stations and chain steakhouses at Taft Corners, is unusual for a cafe with a European accent. Even more surprising: that two French-speaking pastry chefs -- an elite gastronomic fraternity notorious for perfectionist tendencies -- would willingly share spatulas.
The kitchen is designed as if an invisible line separated one fiefdom from the other. "We are like two generals," Ball quips. Harrewyn's duties include making anything with yeast -- croissants, baguettes, honey-oat loafs. Ball focuses on pastry and cakes, from chocolate mousse rounds to mini tartlets topped with glistening slices of strawberry and kiwi.
A talented sous chef rounds out the menu with soups and sandwiches, including panini. There are at least 35 different deli salads, including roasted corn with feta and ratatouille. If you come for weekend brunch, you can eat an authentic Belgian waffle -- the kind made with yeast.
By 6:15 on a recent morning, the warm kitchen at Chef's Corner is redolent of croissants and humming with the clatter of culinary contraptions. The equipment comes from all over the world. An American-made Detecto balance scale measures with old-fashioned accuracy. Harrewyn notes a digital scale "would never last" in the busy kitchen -- too many buttons to push with flour-caked hands. An 80-year-old Hobart chugs along mixing enormous globs of glutinous dough. The French Pavailler oven is hot and ready to transform enormous racks of baguettes into crusty wonders.
Harrewyn is busy flattening lumps of Danish dough -- flour, eggs, salt, sugar, butter, yeast and milk -- into fine, paper-like sheets. Ball is working through his own to-do list of tarts, cookies and biscotti.
Ball and Harrewyn's old-world, make-it-from-scratch mentality demands careful measuring of leavening agents and sweeteners, distinctions between flours, and attention to color, texture and flavor. In the kitchen, their separate-but-equal co-existence proves that chemistry counts, whether you're baking a souffle or choosing a business partner.
Harrewyn has charisma, and lots of it. The 53-year-old Belgian is tall and lean and has a hearty laugh. Despite all the croissants, baguettes and wheat breads he's handled, his white uniform remains pristine.
Harrewyn's initiation to the culinary world came early. "I remember cutting strawberries and making pastry boxes in my father's patisserie outside Antwerp when I was 8 years old," he says. The following year, his family emigrated from Belgium to South Africa, where his father eventually opened two bakeries and a restaurant outside Johannesburg.
Harrewyn considered attending university, but the aromas emanating from his father's pastry kitchen proved irresistible. After apprenticing with his dad for two years, he returned to Belgium to attend culinary school at night, while working under other chefs during the day. At the famed Le Notre Culinary School in Versailles, France, he refined his burgeoning pastry skills. "We were served baguettes, cheese and red wine for lunch," he recalls. "Can you believe that?"
Back home in South Africa, economic sanctions precipitated by apartheid meant Afrikaners had less disposable income, especially for luxuries such as pastries and dining out. Harrewyn's father liquidated his businesses and retired, and Harrewyn, then 25, set out on his own immigrant adventure. He soon found himself in Montreal with a suitcase, a girlfriend (now his wife), $300 and a job offer from the Hyatt Regency. He launched into the demanding career: rising at 4 a.m., working 12-hour days, and creating edible art. From Montreal, he moved to the Four Seasons in Edmonton, Houston and Chicago. By 1990, the New England Culinary Institute had lured him to Vermont.
Asked about career highlights, Harrewyn downplays the four gold medals he won as a member of the South African Team at the World Food Olympics in Frankfurt in 1984. And he glosses over the butter-cream-and-marzipan masterpiece he created with his NECI students for President Clinton's first inaugural. But he doesn't hold back his praise from his father, Gaston. "I was 18 and I'd baked a lemon pie, topped with vast amounts of meringue," Harrewyn recalls. "My dad, he looked at it and said it was 'amazing.'" This was the "a-ha moment" that sealed his fate with pastry flour.
Rene Ball is quieter than his partner, with a charming French accent and a twinkle in his blue eyes. He may be a few years older than Harrewyn, but won't volunteer any specifics. Ball has large hands, which makes his delicate creations seem all the more extraordinary. Those hands are the currency that enabled him to build a transcontinental culinary career.
Ball hails from France's northeast Alsace-Lorraine region. Bordered by the Rhine River and Vosges Mountains, it's been caught in a tug of war between the French and the Germans for centuries. Fairy-tale castles and vineyards dot the landscape. Alsatian white wines -- Riesling and Sylvaner -- pair well with the area's characteristic sauerkraut dishes.
From his post-World War II childhood, Ball recalls the intricately decorated Christmas cookies, influenced by Germanic traditions. He remembers snacking from hazelnut and chestnut trees. In school, he excelled in mathematics, an appropriate foundation for a field requiring precise measurements.
Ball learned to cook in his mother's modest kitchen in Saverne. Odile taught her son to use the bounty of the fertile Alsa- tian soil. Apple and pear tarts and pastries using nutmeats figured prominently. Ball came of age as France was emerging from the trauma of the war. In this era of transformation, he found his direction in dough. "You either have it or you don't," he points out. "You need the hands to tell when a dough is right."
Ball left home at 14 and traveled to Lorraine to apprentice with a cantankerous pastry chef who had a penchant for yelling. Ball held his tongue, worked hard, and honed his skills with croissants, Danish and elaborate puff pastries. In other apprenticeships he mastered confections using chocolate, ice cream and candies. Simultaneously, he attended classes in math, chemistry and drawing -- a pastry chef is as much artist as chemist.
At 17, Ball launched his career at a Paris patisserie, where he spun marvels with butter, sugar and fine French chocolate. He soon landed in one of the city's best pastry shops, the Cluny. But, like Harrewyn, he took his talent on the road, first to Normandy and eventually to Canada. He arrived in Montreal at age 21, with just enough money for a return passage home, in case things didn't work out. They did: he found a job at the Queen Elizabeth Hotel, where he built a reputation in his adopted country. He added lines to his resume with pastry-making stints in Toronto and Cape Breton,
"In 1971, I read an advertisement in a Montreal newspaper looking for a pastry chef in Burlington," Ball recalls. "I saw the lake and knew I wanted to stay." Within three years, he'd become the chef-owner of La Patisserie on Main Street. The bakery-cafe attracted gourmands from around Chittenden County.
By 1988, Ball decided he needed a sabbatical. "I sold La Patis-serie and took a long, 'pre-retirement' trip," he says. "I traveled with my wife to Europe, South America, Hawaii, Mexico, lots of places." During this four-year adventure, Ball reflected on his career and checked out the international pastry scene. He made friends and gathered recipes. He re-entered the workforce in 1992, when he was hired as a chef-instructor at NECI.
That's where Ball and Harrewyn met, and found they worked well together. On off days they played tennis, and in casual conversation discovered a shared desire to launch a new entrepreneurial venture. Three years of talking, planning, and searching for the right venue finally resulted in Chef's Corner.
When the two created their gastronomic field of dreams, customers began to come. They still do. It can be hard to find a seat among lunch patrons diving into plates of black-bean ravioli or mesclun salad, or crunching into a freshly baked baguette.
So what does make this double-chef partnership work? Both use words like friendship, trust and compatibility. Humor also helps. If you're going to cook side-by-side for 50 hours a week, you'd better like your partner.
Harrewyn and Ball have been together for nine years now. They've survived the ups and downs of running a business, and they are still friends. In fact, they make it look like a piece of cake.