King of Croissants: Marc Heu’s University Avenue patisserie sells paradise by the slice

Marc Heu at his patisserie on Unniversity Ave in St Paul, MN // Photo by Tj Turner

There is often a line to get into Marc Heu Patisserie Paris. The pastry shop occupies a wonky split level space that has hosted a rotating cast of short-lived restaurants, and it sits on a stretch of University Avenue that’s laden with businesses that pack a bit less sex appeal: a mortuary, social services offices, and lo-fi independent eateries, packed into buildings that face the light rail and the day-to-day commuter traffic that fills the street.

But none of that matters to the people standing in line. They are mostly young, but beyond that, they’re a fairly even mix of genders and races, a polyglot pilgrimage. They’ve come here to gaze at the radiantly decorated treats that sit displayed like museum pieces, guarded by glass domes and then packed away in logo-bedecked cardboard boxes looped with fancy ribbon. There is the mini Fraisier, replete with strawberries and cream. There is the elegant and classic Paris Brest. There are the croissants, ranging from the divinely flakey “plain” variety to a pain au chocolat to one of the best almond croissants we’ve ever tasted. And there are the show-stoppers, $50 cakes like the Vanilla Saint Honore, a breathtaking assemblage of puff pastry, pâte à choux cream puffs, creme pat, and gold leaf.

Marc Heu Patisserie Paris’ signature domed pastries // Photo by Tj Turner

Marc Heu Patisserie Paris sits smack in the heart of Little Mekong, St. Paul’s informally organized southeast Asian business district. It’s not the heart of Paris or a major coastal city, but Heu is proud of what he’s doing, no qualifiers needed. “[The Minnesota pastry scene] might be behind compared to New York, but we’re getting there slowly—we’re not pretentious,” says the owner, 30-year-old Marc Heu. “I use a French product, and we do everything from scratch, and we do everything fresh every morning. You can ask my staff, they come here at 2am sometimes.” 

Despite all the cross-cultural currents—Heu is of Hmong heritage and French upbringing, and now lives in Minnesota—the business is passionately and whole-heartedly not fusing anything. “I want to do pure French, because that’s what I love doing,” Heu says. “I want to be careful because I don’t want people to call me a fusion place. When you come in here we have French music too,” he laughs. The music, he says, helps drive home the point: when you step through his doors, you may as well be stepping through the doors of a pastry shop in Paris.

From Versailles to Western Avenue

Or maybe it’s Versailles, not Paris, that is conjured up when you join the queue at Heu. As the seat of power for royal France, Versailles hosted baker Nicolas Stohrer in the early 18th century. Stohrer tended to the needs of the family of King Louis XV until he left the palace and founded his shop in Paris in 1730. It is now, by many accounts, France’s oldest continually run pastry shop. 

Marc Heu tapped directly into that nearly 300-year-old pedigree when preparing to open his own place on University Avenue in St. Paul. In 2018, after studying pastry at the acclaimed Ecole Lenôtre in Paris, he apprenticed with Jeffrey Cagnes. Cagnes is the executive pastry chef of Stohrer and the man who has helped make Heu the baker that he has become today.

Heu went to Stohrer and spotted Cagnes in the back of the shop, and asked to speak to the chef. “I didn’t know what to tell him, just that I was a big fan of his work. And he asked me, what do I do in life? And I said, ‘Oh, I’m in pastry school right now, I want to become a pastry chef just like you.’ And he was like, ‘Okay! So when you’re done, how about you come here to do an internship?’

“It’s like if you take a kid to Toys ‘R’ Us and say: ‘You can get whatever you want!’  […] When I talk about it now, I just want to cry. It’s so nice of him!”

Cagnes, says Heu, upended everything he expected about learning from one of the world’s top patisserie experts. “When he teaches you something, he will not be over your shoulder making sure you’re doing it right,” says Heu of his mentor. “Most of the time, that’s how you mess up, because you feel that pressure when there’s someone famous behind you watching.” Cagnes, Heu recalls, was also very open about what he knew. “He shared everything, all his knowledge, all his recipes,” says Heu. While working at Stohrer, Heu sometimes took photos of the shop’s recipe book so he could consult those recipes in other rooms. 

“One time I took a photo and he said, ‘Oh, what are you doing?’” recalls Heu. “And I kind of got scared, I thought I was going to be in trouble. I said, ‘I just took a photo in order to make the recipe at the ice cream place.’ He was like, ‘Oh, that’s okay. But if you want a recipe, let me know. I can just print you the whole book and you can have it.’ And I was just like ‘Whoa!’”

Before his Parisian education in the art of pastry, Heu was studying in France to be a doctor. “When I was 14, I told my parents I wanted to become a pastry chef and they told me, ‘No, there’s no way you’re doing that. You’re going to be a doctor,” says Heu. “Probably because I was the kid of immigrants and my parents wanted to prove to society, yeah, as an immigrant, my kids can also make it to the top. I don’t think doctors are necessarily the top, but society made them at the top.”

Old childhood memories, says Heu, ended up guiding him back to pastry. When he was three, his family moved from France to French Guiana (a territory of France that happens to be located in South America). “We were low income, so when it was time to celebrate a birthday, we wouldn’t go buy a cake at the pastry shop or store, we’d just make it from scratch,” says Heu. “My sisters—I was the last one of six—they’d make the cakes and I’d be helping, and I think that’s how I got into it. The thing I loved the most was to whip the egg whites. I just fell in love with baking at that time.”

As for the cake itself? “It was just a sponge cake,” recalls Heu. “At the time we didn’t have the Internet, so it was just in a book. It was just flour, eggs, milk, butter—that was it, and we’d make a huge sponge cake and it’d make everyone so happy.“

Marc Heu’s Croissant with a simple syrup glaze // Photo by Tj Turner

Don’t call them Cronuts

The one visible concession to modern, cosmopolitan pastry at Marc Heu Patisserie Paris might be the shop’s weekend treats, Croissant Doughnuts. These buttery fried rings of croissant dough filled with silken, housemade patisserie cream are one of the key reasons that you (happily) wait in line on a Saturday or Sunday morning. If you’ve had a croissant doughnut in the past and been underwhelmed, try again—these are vividly delicious and worth every penny of their $7 purchase price.

“I don’t call them Cronuts, because that’s trademarked,” says Heu. He worked briefly for Cronut creator Dominique Ansel in New York City and didn’t much enjoy the experience. Where his mentor Jeffrey Cagnes ran a fairly open and egalitarian workplace, Ansel presided over something closer to a traditional culinary brigade system, with a strict hierarchy and locked down recipes, according to Heu. He does add: “I didn’t learn anything in terms of pastry from [working at Dominique Ansel Bakery], but I learned a lot about business.” UPDATE: A representative of the Dominique Ansel Bakery contacted the Growler to add that its production recipes are, in fact, freely accessible to its cooks, but that Heu likely hadn’t accessed them because he hadn’t been fully on-boarded and oriented during his short tenure at the business.

Heu’s system at his business on University Avenue may have the pomp and drama of a Paris pastry shop, but, he says, he’s tried to take the lessons from Cagnes forward with him as he hires and trains his staff, sharing recipes as he goes. Amid all the Instagram love for his photogenic product and growing media attention, “the thing that makes me most proud is the jobs I created,” Heu says.

Family ties brought Heu to St. Paul in 2012, but it was meeting his wife, Gaosong V. Heu, that anchored him here and gave him the opportunity to launch his patisserie on University Avenue. It wouldn’t have worked in Paris, he says. “There’s too much competition! I like to say if I was in Paris, I’d open a Five Guys or Famous Dave’s. We have a Five Guys on the [Avenue des] Champs-Élysées in Paris, and it’s packed.”

Light competition notwithstanding, when asked about local pastry that inspired him, Heu had a ready answer. “Patisserie 46 is one of the places that made me want to go pursue my dream to become a pastry chef,” he says. His wife surprised him for his 24th birthday, he recalls, with a couple of pastries from Patisserie 46, a spot he’d never tried before.

“I ate them and was like: ‘Wow! Where did you get that, it tastes just like in France!’ And we started going to that place every weekend and I was like ‘Okay, I want to become a pastry chef, there’s no way I’m going back to medical school.’”

Recipe for Cream Puffs with Caramel Glaze

These delicious filled and dipped cream puffs are the basic building blocks of Marc Heu’s epic Vanilla Saint Honore cake, a painstaking, 24K gold leaf-adorned masterpiece that is best left to the masters. If you’re willing to roll up your sleeves, however, you can enjoy crafting one of the tastiest parts of this edible work of art in your own kitchen.

Pate a Choux Dough (cream puff dough)

100 grams water 
100 grams milk
100 grams butter 
4 grams salt
5 grams sugar
120 grams flour
230 grams whole eggs

Vanilla Pastry Cream (filling for cream puffs)

50 grams egg yolk (about 3)
50 grams sugar 
12 grams flour 
16 grams corn starch 
200 grams milk
1 whole vanilla bean 

Caramel Glaze

50 grams water 
200 grams sugar 
40 grams glucose syrup 

For Pastry Cream:

Place egg yolks into a mixing bowl. Add sugar, corn starch, and flour. Whisk together completely until mixture turns from yellow to a pale creamy color and is slightly thickened, 5 to 8 minutes.

Place milk in a saucepan. Split vanilla bean lengthwise. Scrape the cut side with a knife to extract the paste. Add vanilla paste to the milk. Heat over medium-high, stirring, until milk just barely starts to simmer. Remove from heat. Whisk hot milk into egg mixture, starting with a small splash then incorporating the rest. Pour mixture back into saucepan.

Place pan over medium-low heat and whisk until mixture thickens, about 4 minutes. Remove from heat and let it cool. Pass mixture through a fine-mesh strainer. Cover surface with plastic to keep it from discoloring; refrigerate until thoroughly chilled, 2 to 3 hours.

For Pate a Choux Dough:

Put water, milk, butter, salt, and sugar into a pot and bring to a boil. Once boiling, stop the heat, add flour and stir until combined. Cool the mixture by stirring, then add the eggs. Place batter into a piping bag and pipe small circles onto a buttered or parchment-lined tray. The puffs should be about 1 inch wide and half an inch in height. Bake at 325° F for 45 minutes, or until golden brown.

Once cooked, take the trays out of the oven and allow the puffs to rest for 20–30 minutes before filling with pastry cream. The key is to poke a hole in the flat part of the puff in order to fill the puffs more easily. Use a pointy piping tip to make the incision. Fill your puffs with the vanilla pastry cream. 

For Caramel:

Measure water, sugar, and glucose syrup together in a pot. Heat up your mixture until caramel forms. Immediately transfer into a glass/heat-safe container and allow to cool. Before use, heat up caramel in microwave for 30 seconds then stir. Repeat 3–4 times until the caramel is liquid again.

Take the round end of your puff and dip it into the caramel, making sure all of the extra caramel has dripped off. Repeat for all of your puffs. You can place the puff into a small round silicone mold to get a sleeker, caramelized puff.

Enjoy!


Read more chef profiles and get other great recipes in The Growler’s Minnesota Spoon column here.