Both the language Edwige Fils-Aime grew up with in Haiti and the art of patisserie he learned in New York are second nature now to “The Little Chef.”
Paris is known for its patisseries; Princeton, not so much. But Edwige Fils-Aimé, a Princeton pastry chef from Haiti via New York, is quietly changing that. At 5 feet 8 inches tall and 140 pounds soaking wet, he embodies the name of his narrow, two-table shop at 8 South Tulane Street: the Little Chef. Step inside and you are likely to hear customers conversing with the chef in French, or amongst themselves in Italian. “The French and Italian departments?” Fils-Aimé says with a chuckle. “I’ve got them. Professors come for a cappuccino, they stay for three hours.”
“His pastries are better than the ones I have in Europe,” says Sarah Materniak, an aspiring opera singer who divides her time between New Jersey and Italy. John Edwards, a 2008 Princeton grad who majored in French and Italian, is fond of the Little Chef’s croissants. “It’s the butter that makes them so good—not greasy, but flaky and tender,” he says. “They’re always warm from the oven. They might be a little browner one day than the next. Since he makes each one by hand, he makes sure each one is perfect.”
On a recent Saturday morning, a young girl ogled the colorful cakes on display, hardly hearing her parents calling her in French and English. A Frenchwoman sauntered in for coffee—and seven chocolate macaroons. Fils-Aimé, 43, who goes by the common Haitian nickname Pouchon (cute guy), spread currants on a tart as he chatted with its buyer—a pastry chef trained at the CIA. He added a gooseberry garnish and raised both fists in victory. “Beautiful!”
Clad in a T-shirt and flour-streaked baseball cap, the good-humored Pouchon works the counter with easy authority, often to the beat of island music pulsing from his stereo. He came to America in 1986 at age 21 and learned his craft at the Manhattan bakery La Boulange and then at Princeton’s Chez Alice. He launched the Little Chef Pastry Shop (609-924-5335) in 2003. While he takes on the occasional teenage apprentice, Pouchon is a one-man show, rising before 6 am to bake the hundred or so croissants, plus scones and other goodies, that vanish, inevitably, before noon.
Pouchon says his secret is nothing more than top-quality ingredients (like French Cacao Noel chocolate), French technique, and a Panimatic convection oven. “I’ve used them for fifteen years,” he says. “The prices have gone up; it’s been difficult. But I don’t compromise.”
Pictures of his 17-month-old son, Teighen, the Little Chef’s little chef, look down from the walls. “My quality control,” jokes the proud father. Tough critic? “He won’t even eat a pastry!” Pouchon laughs. “But he’ll learn.”