Imagine the perfect sweet snack. It’d be size of a cupcake, but lighter than air. Just enough sugar to make it a dessert, but not enough to worry a dentist. Equal parts creamy and crunchy. Available in a variety of flavors. And of course, eminently Instagrammable.
Thanks to Bastien Ornano, the 27-year-old Marseilles native opening J’aime French Bakery at 12th and Locust next month, that exact pastry is about to make its debut in Philadelphia.
Called a merveilleux (translation: marvelous), the treat is made by layering puffs of whipped cream between discs of meringue, then covering them with more cream and coating the whole thing in shaved chocolate or cookie crumbs. It originated in Belgium and Northern France, but in the past couple years it’s taken NYC by storm — and it’s the menu item Ornano is most excited about introducing to Philly.
“I don’t think anyone has them here,” he said, noting that he plans to offer the merveilleux in flavors of chocolate and Speculoos, to start. “At least, I haven’t found them.”
Other sweets he’s pumped about at J’aime — which has a fresh white interior that stands in sharp contrast with the dark clutter of its predecessor, Cafe Twelve — include chouquettes (sugar-studded puff pastries filled with Nutella cream), classic eclairs, made-to-order crepes, and little lemon and chocolate tarts. There’s also a selection of mini “meringue chips” in various flavors, offered in a rainbow array as a tip of the hat to his Gayborhood surroundings.
Everything will be baked fresh daily in the glass-enclosed kitchen, and come out as it’s ready, starting when the doors open at 7 a.m.
He’ll also offer a small selection of sandwiches, on baguettes from Hudson Bakery in North Jersey, plus croissants and various other vienoisserie (palmiers, turnovers, danishes, etc.). There’s a selection of dry goods from France on offer at the front of the shop, next to a pale blue vintage bicycle.
Drinks include fresh fruit juices from a small company in Florida, tea from Kusmi in France and coffee from La Colombe. In addition to hot beverages, he’ll pour La Colombe’s Pure Black cold brew and Draft Latte on tap, another unique touch he’s proud of.
“Not a lot of places offer this, from what I understand,” he said.
Ornano has done quite a bit of research on Philly’s cafe landscape. His determination that the French pastry scene was undersaturated — combined with a generally flourishing restaurant culture — was one of the main reasons he chose this city for his decade-in-the-works bakery.
Yep, Ornano was only 17 when he decided his future lay not in his home country, but in the US. He spent his last year of high school in Corona, Calif., and was wowed by how the students were encouraged to do things outside of the academic grind.
“In France, it’s just about studying and homework,” he explained. “In America, students go to class, but then also spend a few hours doing sports or whatever makes them happy.”
What made Ornano happy, he realized early on, was baking.
Eating crepes on Saturday was a family tradition, and by age 12 he’d taken over home creperie duties from his father. He spent a few months post-high school attempting to convince an assortment of California universities to let him set up a food truck-like bakery operation on their campuses, but with no experience or financial backing, got nowhere.
Pragmatism won out, and he attended business school in Nice and Paris instead — on his dad’s dime — with a secret plan to make enough money that he could eventually send himself to culinary school. MBA in hand, he scored a lucrative job in IT consulting, and spent two years saving up cash to execute his scheme.
When he told his father he was quitting his high-paying, high-profile position to enroll at expensive Lenotre pastry school for a year, the elder Ornano didn’t speak to his son for a good six months.
“But then I baked him a birthday cake,” Bastien said. “He tasted it — and loved it. He said, ‘Maybe I was wrong.’”
Jean-Paul Ornano didn’t just forgive his son, he became a 50 percent investor in J’aime. He was also the one who helped lead Bastien to Philly.
“He saw a documentary about Philadelphia,” Ornano recalled, “talking about the renaissance here, and how people were leaving New York to come down.” Two weeks later, Ornano was flirting with a woman in a bar, a foreigner. Lo and behold, it turned out she was from Philly. He booked a flight to PHL to check out potential locations. One of the first he looked at was the 12th Street spot — and it was repped by a Frenchman.
“It had to be a sign!” Ornano said. He signed a five-year lease and moved to the States. As he helped design his new storefront and navigated the difficult licensing and permitting process of opening a food establishment, he continued to explore the city.
“I know Philadelphia better than my girlfriend,” he said proudly, “and she’s from here.”
J’aime (translation: “I love”) French Bakery opens Thursday, Sept. 7, at 212 S. 12th St. Hours will be 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily.