How French Baking Was Brought to Virginia - OZY | A Modern Media Company

How French Baking Was Brought to Virginia

How French Baking Was Brought to Virginia

By Jason Becton

SourceMarieBette Café & Bakery

WHY YOU SHOULD CARE

Because there’s more to Charlottesville than tiki torches and street fights.

By Jason Becton

Today on The Carlos Watson Show, we’re celebrating a Brighter Financial Friday sponsored by Discover. Discover created the Eat It Forward Program to give local Black-owned restaurants chances to win $25,000 and has thus far given $5 million to Black-owned restaurants across the country. Recent recipient Jason Becton, who works alongside his husband, Patrick Evans, as co-owners of MarieBette Café & Bakery in Charlottesville, Virginia, shares his story below.

After my husband and I had kids, we decided we wanted to move somewhere a little more quiet. Both of us were working New York hours, and we really wanted something quieter. That’s how we ended up in Virginia.

I worked at the Four Seasons Hotel. I started out as a prep cook there and then moved my way up to being one of the chefs in the main restaurant. Along the way, I was the chef for the bar and the lounge, and then worked at the Joël Robuchon restaurant briefly. And before that, in another life, I worked in advertising for nine years. The cooking thing was a second career.

My mom was a good cook. My grandmother was a great cook and she only let me and my cousin Patricia help her. And when she passed away, that torch got passed to me, and I was the person who was making Thanksgiving dinner and Christmas dinner and meals for gatherings. 

After what happened on Aug. 12 a couple of years ago, this community has this odd kind of stigma attached to it. But it’s not what we’re about.

My grandmother was of Eastern European descent, and there were a lot of potatoes and cabbage and noodles and things like that. But she tried a bunch of different things. She was born in Elizabeth, New Jersey, and her adult life was mostly in Hoboken, and at the time, it was a lot of Italian, Polish and Spanish families. She did a lot of Italian food even though we weren’t Italian, and a lot of Spanish food as well. But I grew up with a very lower-class, lower-middle-class upbringing, and there wasn’t the availability of a lot of the ingredients that we have today.

I went through a lot of different phases in my life, trying to figure out what I wanted to do. At one point I wanted to be a vet. I went to college and was pre-med. The semester I spent abroad in Paris kind of changed all that and I decided I didn’t want to do pre-med anymore, but I wanted to find a way to get back to Paris. It was like a culinary awakening for me, all the fresh markets and the importance of ingredients.

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Jason Becton

Source MarieBette Café & Bakery

I had no money when I was there. Most of my meals were soups and baguettes and crepes and things like that. But it still was pretty incredible. It was inspiring, and I really wanted to find a way to get back there. Going to a four-year liberal arts college and leaving that and becoming a cook just was not something that I felt was the right thing to do, especially with a lot of student loan debt. So advertising, oddly, was what I ended up doing. It was a bit random.

But the agency I worked for had an office in Paris. That’s kind of how I ended up in advertising. And after nine years there, I just decided that it was not for me and that I really needed to be my own boss. The corporate thing just wasn’t going to fulfill me. And quite frankly, it’s a lot harder for people who look like me to get ahead in those environments.

I really wanted to have my own business and be my own boss. And I didn’t want to open up an advertising agency, so I kind of fell back on my love of cooking. I had worked in restaurants throughout college to make extra money. And like a lot of people who’ve never had a restaurant before, I thought it would be a great idea to have a restaurant: It would be fun, and I’d get to see my friends come and do the social thing.

So I went to culinary school part time in New York City, to what was then called the French Culinary Institute. That’s actually where I met my husband, and I took the leap and left a pretty decent salary. I left it all and I became a prep cook and worked my way up. And eventually, when the time seemed right, we sold our house in New Jersey, moved down here and started the business. It was scary. 

When I was in advertising, there were lots of layoffs. The  economy wasn’t doing that great. And through every round of layoffs, I thought that I was going to be next. And I just thought, if I get laid off, am I going to try and find another advertising job and do something that I really don’t want to keep doing? So I made the decision to jump. My husband was kind of on board with wanting to have a business, so we also had to figure out a way to have a business where we’re able to work together but separately, so that we can stay happily married.

Another thing that really was a big driving force was having our kids. New York is a hard place to raise kids. When we adopted our first daughter, Patrick found a job at a bakery and was working. He’d go to work at 3 in the morning and not be home until like 1 or 2 p.m. I would wake up with Marion and get her ready for day care, spend the morning with her, dropping her off around 11, go to work.

Patrick would get off work and take a nap, pick Marion up, get her fed and ready for bed, and then go to sleep. I wouldn’t be home until after midnight. By the time I came home, they were both asleep and then we would do the same thing over and over again. We were tag-team parenting for a lot longer than we wanted to. And that was a big motivator: We needed to get off the hamster wheel and take our lives back.

The concept of our restaurant right now is that we’re only open for breakfast and lunch, not dinner. It’s really important for us to be able to have dinner together as a family. Both of us have our family traditions growing up where everybody has dinner together, and that was something we were not doing in New Jersey.

When we moved down here, we weren’t sure when we would start the restaurant, and the difference between Patrick and me is that I’m generally more risk-averse and he’s more of a risk-taker, which I think balances us out pretty well. But when we decided to take all of the money that we had from the sale of this house … the idea was that if we spend this and it doesn’t work, we’ll never be able to have enough money to do this again.

I had a difficult time telling my friends that we were opening up a restaurant, because … in my mind, I was like, until the doors open and there’s a flow of business, this really isn’t happening. So, yeah, it was hard to take that leap.

The brioche feuilletée was something that put us on the map in Charlottesville, and then outside the Charlottesville area. It’s a pretty classic French pastry, but it’s not done very often, and it became super popular. A local food writer wrote about it — this was our first summer open, I believe, six years ago. It got picked up by Eater and by Business Insider and the Food & Wine blog.

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Brioche feuilletée

Source MarieBette Café & Bakery

For probably a good month, we could not make enough of them. They just were flying off the shelves. They’re also pretty wonderful. The other thing I think we’ve gotten right is to try and use a lot of local ingredients. Not only is it something that people really want but it’s also a good way to support the community.

But the pandemic? Well, February last year was one of the strongest months we’ve had, and then COVID hit. I felt like it was looming over our heads for quite a while. And then came the announcement that UVA students weren’t coming back after spring break. That news landed on a Thursday, and by the weekend we started to see a drop in business. We began to ask: What are we going to do? How are we going to tackle this?

That weekend, we started by removing some tables in our dining room, and then it just didn’t feel right. I remember one morning I walked in and there was an older couple sitting, not very close, but next to a group of young UVA students. I didn’t want our business to be a place where people can get sick, so we made the decision to close the dining room. And then, me, my husband and our business partner for our second location met and put a game plan together for what we were going to do.

We decided we would only do takeout. Now it’s a very popular curbside pickup. We got a new POS [point of sale] system to handle online ordering. But I would say for the first three weeks, it was really, really touch-and-go. But we made the decision that no matter what, if we were allowed to stay open, that we were going to figure out a way to keep open.

People were buying big amounts of gift cards from us to keep cash flow coming in. There were some organizations in town that were buying gift cards from us and giving them to front-line workers. They were giving it to nurses and hospital staff and doctors and police officers and firefighters, and they were spending thousands of dollars buying gift cards from us to give to them. That was a big push that helped us a lot, and it also helped a lot of these people who were putting their lives on the line every day.

We’ve just hired a bunch of new people, which is great because we’ve been able to grow back. Before the pandemic, we were about 50, and then we had to lay people off, which was surreal. Our business was doing so well. I never thought that we would ever have to lay anybody off. But now we have about 30 people working for us again.

I think people — and this really touched my heart — I think people in this community really appreciate what we’ve contributed. This business has become a place where people take their kids after school to get a hot chocolate and a chocolate chip cookie. They come here to celebrate  anniversaries and birthdays. They have their tutoring sessions here. They see that we are involved in the local Pride celebration. They see that we’re involved in the homeless shelter. They see all the things that we’re involved in. I think that they appreciate what we do, and they wanted to see us stick around.

After what happened on Aug. 12 a couple of years ago, this community has this odd kind of stigma attached to it. But it’s not what we’re about.

For me, it was a little bit scary, but this is a really awesome community. It has a lot of things that could be worked on, but I feel like people in this community really are trying to figure out ways to be better.

— as told to Eugene S. Robinson

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