“The first time I went to my bank they were all like, ‘Wow, you’re a chef at The Grand America.’ Everybody stopped working and looked at me like I was the President of the United States. It’s something. It’s a name.”
Chef Xavier Baudinet is the Executive Pastry Chef for The Grand America. He’s the kind of person who seems to have their purpose draped about them, physically apparent. As we speak in early October, he’s stepped away from slicing huge sheets of cake into small rectangles with precision and speed, to talk about another project he is in the middle of masterminding—the annual Gingerbread House display. The giant gingerbread house is a wonder to behold. Comprised of roughly 2,000 eggs, 1,600 pounds of flour, 500 pounds of sugar, among other ingredients, constructing it is serious business and not for the faint of heart.
And, on the topic of all things presidential, this year, the Gingerbread House has some historic inspiration. “I’m following White House History on Instagram,” says Chef Baudinet, “and I saw a blueprint from 1889… The White House was supposed to be bigger, with wings…It looks like a palace. Almost like a castle. So, the gingerbread house is going to be The White House as it was meant to be in 1889.”
While Chef Baudinet may often experience presidential-type reverence, he sees himself as anything but a figurehead. “Without a team, you are nobody…Like I say, for example, with our dishwashers—everyone is as important as the chef. For me, everyone is on the same level.”
Never Trust a Skinny Chef
Perhaps not a president, but Chef could possibly be mistaken for a diplomat. Walking behind him on a quick pass through one of The Grand’s kitchens, we run into a tour of new employees. Chef is stopped and introduced to the group. In this brief interaction, it is clear both how and why he is a cornerstone of this operation. There’s something special about the reaction he elicits. It’s in the way he pauses and turns back to the group to punctuate the encounter with one of his signature sayings—“Never trust a skinny chef!”—spoken with a pat to his belly. Watching him, you feel you are watching a living, breathing emblem of the inviting warmth of The Grand’s reputation.
The passion Chef exudes is more than a little appealing. He has the ability to make you believe in a mission. Like a coach, or, as he would say, the conductor of an orchestra. “And that’s why I tell the new staff how lucky they are to be working here,” he says, “—especially if it’s their first job.” This passion for The Grand extends to his passion for patisserie. “I love dessert. I love my job. Every day when I wake up, I feel inspired. Especially here.”
The History of You
As for the things that inspire Chef outside of the pastry kitchen? “I’m a painter. I like to paint, yeah. I do abstract work…When I have time—when my brain is free—I am painting.” A few years ago, a portion of these paintings were shown and sold at auction. Chef speaks about art as only an artist could, with the utmost seriousness. When asked
about his favorite painters, he begins to speak on one particular artist, but then stops himself, and says with conviction, “…really, any artist—coming with some aspiration—because art, it’s the same as when you’re working on pastry or in the kitchen, it’s an expression of yourself. It’s the history of you. You give. Art. Food. Anything. It’s you. It’s your identity.”
Time as a Slice of Melting Cheese
“—time,” Chef quickly responds when asked to pinpoint the biggest obstacle to completing the massive gingerbread project each year. “We only have 12 days, which is going to be challenging.” While the “bricks” of gingerbread are prepared ahead of time, the assembling of the intricately-designed structure must happen quickly, outside of normal kitchen responsibilities. “I have to have some of my team come after their shifts to help me. So, most of all, it’s the time.”
Towards the end of our conversation, Chef speaks about his admiration of Salvador Dali, and his artistic relationship to time. “Like the melting clock, right? He was in Spain, in the sun. There was cheese starting to melt. That’s time. That’s why he did the clock melting. Because he had this experience with cheese melting in the sun.”
Like a slice of quite melted cheese, a lot of time has passed since Chef Baudinet first took up his craft. “I have been working for 40 years in the food industry.” Growing up in Metz, in the Northeast of France, Chef was introduced to patisserie arts at a young age. “We had a bakery…we lived upstairs and smelled croissants and pastries every morning. My dad raised me right away to help him. To see what was going on behind the scenes in a bakery.” Now, all these years later, Chef works with his own son in The Grand America’s pastry kitchen. Though, he assures—with a charmingly cartoonish gesture that indicates some sort of kick in the pants—that no preferential treatment is shown.
In the case of his work at The Grand America, time is on Chef’s side. “I have been working here 9 years now. And every morning when I come in and see that hotel—it’s beautiful. It makes me feel,” he pauses, taking a deep breath, “you know what I mean—like, today is going to be a good day.”
Come see Chef Xavier Baudinet’s Gingerbread House in person, which Chef and his team spent more than 950 hours baking and assembling, on display at The Grand America until early January 2023. The Gingerbread House is featured alongside the 2022 Window Stroll, “Celebrate the World,” which is also on display and free to the public throughout the holiday season.