The kitchen at Le Bec-Fin cycled through hundreds of workers in its four decades. It was Robert Bennett who cooked for Georges Perrier the longest: fourteen years as executive pastry chef, propelling the French landmark through its glory days from 1987 through 2001.
Nowadays, while many of his contemporaries are kicking back, Bennett, 55, helms a pastry department that dwarfs his old shop on the third floor of 1523 Walnut. He is executive pastry chef at Classic Cake Co., shuttling among the massive bakery in lower Northeast Philadelphia, its retail store in Cherry Hill, and the new cafe/bakery at One Penn Center (1617 JFK Blvd.).
With more than 8,000 cheesecakes a day headed all over the world, including Kroger and ShopRite supermarkets, and tons of cookies and pastries headed to retail bakeries and restaurants, it is quite possible that Bennett and his staff had a hand in your dessert.
Bakers live by the clock, and Bennett credits timing for his early success. Right out of school, after helping to bake a cake for Ronald Reagan’s second inauguration, he met the White House’s pastry chef, who helped train him for the World Cup Pastry Championships in 1989, where his team placed fifth in the world. That coup put him on Perrier’s radar.
Wanting to try his own thing, Bennett left Le Bec-Fin in 2001 to open the Cherry Hill-based Miel Patisserie, which he left in mid-2005. He then joined Barry Kratchman and his partners, who were running American Harvest Baking, a bread bakery, in Mount Laurel. When American Harvest bought Classic Cake out of bankruptcy in 2006, Bennett found himself working for a former competitor.
C’est la guerre.
First off: You’re always billed as “Robert Bennett.” But everyone calls you Bobby. What do you prefer?
I like Bobby, because Chef Perrier starting calling me that. He was the first person since my kindergarten teacher to call me Bobby, so it’s very endearing. When someone calls and asks for Bobby, they’ll know it’s someone in Philly.
I grew up in Lynchburg, Va. Went to school at the New England Culinary Institute in Montpelier, Vt., Class of ’84. Returned immediately and taught for three semesters, during which time I was promoted to executive pastry chef instructor. Perfect timing. We got a call from the White House to do the inauguration cake for President Reagan, so I made his inauguration cake for his second inauguration in January ’85. That cake was for 44,000 people. Came to Philadelphia in 1986 and worked for the Locust Club before I got the call from Chef Perrier.
How did he find out about you?
I think he had found out about my inauguration cake. The story I hear is that Mimi Sheraton had wrote a glowing review one time of Le Bec [in the New York Times], and then she said, “But the desserts were a little lacking,” so he said that, “I’m never going to get a review like that ever again.” It was just perfect timing, once again. He asked me to come on board, and I just took that brass ring and ran with it. There was three of us in the pastry department when I started. After my 14 years there, there were 12 of us in the pastry department, but that same size restaurant.
Tell me about the early days.
It was a lot of mousse cakes, which we toned down. Chef just pretty much let me take the ball and run with it. We perfected things like the rum baba and tarte Tatin, and went back to a lot of the classics. Then, funny story, while I was there, Gerard [Billebault, the original baker] asked me, “We’re reading about coffee cake but we see recipes and we don’t see coffee in it,” so I explained it to him.
My [first] wife had just made me this cinnamon pecan coffee cake, which I loved. I said, “I’m going to show it to you.” So I made two cakes. I put one on the rack to cool and one on the table for us to taste. A waiter came down and grabbed that cinnamon coffee cake and took it up and put it on the cart and came back minutes later with crumbs. I was horrified because it was so American, so I had to go to Chef Perrier and admit it to him. He said, “Bobby, if that’s what the customers want, then that’s what they get.”
I had an epiphany. I was like, “Oh, my God. Here we are, a very expensive restaurant, and most of the only people that can afford it are older people, so it was something that was relatable to them.” The cinnamon pecan coffee cake was on that cart for at least 20 years.
When the owners of American Harvest approached you, what was your reaction?
I said, “I don’t want to do breads.” Barry Kratchman said, “Well, what do you want to do?” I said, “I want to do pastries,” so we immediately built the gelato division. We called that Bellissimo and started supplying Bassetts Ice Cream wholesale. Then, he said, “We’re going to build a pastry factory,” so we did all the blueprints for that. Then, they sat me down and said, “Guess what? We’re going to buy Classic Cake out of bankruptcy,” and my heart sank because I was busy nailing the nails in their coffin.
What helps drive a lot of local wholesale business at Classic?
We pretty much tell [restaurateurs], “We will be your pastry chefs.” We make custom desserts for these restaurants, hotels, and caterers all day long. It is a lot more cost-efficient to outsource it, with labor and insurances and taxes and whatnot. We can help them out because we do such volume. Many times, I have hired pastry chefs formerly of restaurants or hotels that come on board here. They know their menus very well already. I think we’re over $2 million a year just in labor [costs].
How do you keep abreast of what’s going on in the pastry world?
Sometimes I don’t feel like I’m abreast. I feel I’m up here in Siberia. I read a lot and I see a lot of things, but you’ll see in my pastries, I still keep it very simple. I like the classics. Then, being here at Classic Cake, we’re very American, but I’ve introduced some pastries that we did at Le Bec, like that cinnamon pecan coffee cake. We make it in bundts; we make it in gigantic sheets. It sells very well.
The business these days is not necessarily deviating away from anything else, but we are expanding our repertoire. We are getting a lot of requests for gluten free and all natural. There’s an all-natural cheesecake. They check all the paperwork, so even the graham coming in has to be completely GMO-free.
We’re pretty well-versed in all degrees of dietary concerns. We’re also circle-K kosher. We make a wonderful potato sponge cake that can be translated into anything from strawberry shortcake to you name it.
Who else does Classic bake for?
Mainly hotels, restaurants, caterers, and casinos.
Can you give me names?
Not many. We supply Foxwoods with some of their desserts. Tropicana is a very good customer of ours. Caesars. Ocean Resort.
We do a lot of cheesecakes — a minimum of 8,000 a day. They go all over the world. We supply some major chains in the United States, and we do ship to Korea. I went to Korea last year and I did their version of QVC. The big night for them is on Sundays, and I was on Sunday night during prime time with these two young hosts. They were dressed up like cowboys because that’s what everyone thinks about the United States.
You were in a cowboy outfit?
No, no. I was in my chef’s uniform.