There’s a shortage of great bakeries in the world. I know how silly that sounds especially while walking around a neighborhood like Wicker Park, on Chicago’s West Side. Just hopping off the Blue Line, the first thing you’ll see are two bougie, boutique, upscale and gentry-fried donut shops across the street from each other. These spots are far from the Chicago I was looking to find. Only a few hours before my first steps into Wicker Park, I was walking through Little India, where tandoori smoke hung over the air in a blue cloud.
I was on a search for the old Chicago. I was looking for places that had some sense of history, and some sense of purpose. Yes, Myopic Books is one of the best book stores in the country. Yes, Reckless Records is an unreasonably good shop. But these spots are part of the new Chicago. The steel mill workers, the skyscraper builders, the ones who grew the city from the ground up likely wouldn’t recognize the fifteen coffeeshops in a row. Where were the honest trades that involved getting your hands dirty? I maintained this half-jaded and half-hungover disposition until we came to Alliance Bakery, and I saw their staff covered in flour.
There’s a red neon sign, hanging precariously over the sidewalk on Division, boasting cakes and pastries. I knew, without having heard anything about this place, what I was about to walk into. I grew up with one of these bakeries in my neighborhood. A pressed-tin ceiling, the day’s goods laid out in humble, fluorescent-lit displays, and the smell of batter, flour, sugar, and not-yet-baked-things. I was right at home. The Woodmoor Pastry Shop in Silver Spring is very much of the same cloth. I asked the young lady behind the counter how long the shop had been around, and she told me “Oh, this place has been a bakery for at least a hundred years.”
However, my hometown bakery was never staffed by a world-class pastry chef, who’s worked in some of Chicago’s elite hotels for the past twenty years. Chef Peter Rios, a Chicago native, signed on as owner and manager of Alliance in 2007, after working as executive pastry chef at the Fairmont Hotel. Before the Fairmont, he was at Sofiel and the Art Institute of Chicago. He’s been places and learned things. You’ll notice a couple of medals and awards, high on the walls. These would be for things like 2001’s “Pastry Chef of the Year,” or “Best Taste Award” from Pastrifrance US competition, and other contests I wish I could judge.
You would expect a man with this kind of repertoire and accolades to be strutting around his shop in a toque, and a white apron, yelling at his underlings. Instead, Chef Rios walks calmly around his bakery on a Thursday afternoon, pouring himself a coffee, and taking notes on what cookies will be part of the next day’s arrangements. And the arrangements have to look great. Bakeries like this have two things going for them– regulars and special orders. The special orders are things like wedding cakes, birthday cakes, or the five-dozen macaroons you order for the office party at the last minute because Gary fucked up, and forgot to call them on Tuesday.
The regulars are a different case entirely. The people who once lived in the row houses and apartments nearby weren’t buying cakes with any kind of regularity. They would, however, pass the bakery almost every morning on the way to work, and grab a coffee and pastry. It’s important to remember this. While most of us today do something similar in the mornings, it’s been a long time since we ordered something that wasn’t brought in on a truck, and re-heated. People used to buy food from the folks that baked it.
So, the displays have to look good. You’re not going to go far with the same-old, tired-looking plain/chocolate/almond croissants, or banana-nut/blueberry/bran muffins. If you had hand-iced sugar cookies with R2-D2 in the frosting, though… And in the very front window of the bakery, you can see some of the workshop’s finer cake decorating work. My visit was shortly after Halloween, and there were some season-appropriate cakes out to look at. The displays have to look nice for the special orders, of course. The ultra-detailed cakes can run up to $900. And you never know when someone’s going to ask for a zombie cake.
When Chef Rios saw the ridiculous camera I had slung around my neck, and saw how much I was salivating at the displays and smells, I was offered a little peak into the back of the bakery, into the workshop. What I found, behind the scenes was a team of surprisingly young pastry chefs, working tirelessly at their creations. Their chef gives them room to try out new ideas, and experiment with new techniques. The key here isn’t to just survive in the industry; it’s to thrive, and carry it forward. They even figured out how to use an airbrush on cookies.
Chef Rios has found a way to keep his old-city charm and sense of craftsmanship in this brave, new neighborhood. He’s not looking for the newest cronut-type snack, because the cookies, croissants, eclairs, and hundreds of other pastries he’s learned to make over his career will stand up to trends. Sure, he’s got a row of hip-looking macaroons in a ROYGBIV alignment, but that doesn’t mean he’s going to abandon the more conservative and traditional standbys. The apple fritters are amazing.