: | The French Pastry School


Custom bakery opens on Main Street in Downers Grove
Chicago Tribune |
April 24, 2015

Crave a sweet fix? If passion fruit mousse, lava cake or a chocolate chip cookie sound good, then Just Crumbs in Downers Grove is the place to get it.

All three are among the cakes, pies, tarts and other baked sweets available at the custom bakery that opened April 21 at 5151 Main St.

"If you're having a party and you tell me you want something chocolate, I'll make it," said owner and executive pastry chef Maria Gabriela Perez. "If they (customers) need ideas — oh, I've got plenty of those."

While Perez — who goes by Gabi — plans to focus on creating custom orders, she also will keep other treats on hand for walk-in customers. A refrigerator in the pastel-hued space is stocked with small cakes and cake pops. Sugar cookies and chocolate chip cookies are in glass jars near the cash register.

Perez says she welcomes customers who want to call her in the morning to pick up cookies or other sweet treats ordered on short notice. Larger, more complex orders, such as a birthday cake, will take a bit more notice – about a week, she asks.

erez was born in Venezuela and grew up in Boston. She first was interested in working with pastries while employed at a hotel at Disney World. She was working on salad preparation in the kitchen, but a call went out for help in another area.

"They needed help in the bakery," she said. "I was the only one who volunteered. I loved it. I loved the chemistry of it."

Brown sugar, from a chemical perspective, is more than just a sweetener, and an egg is not just an egg.

"For me, brown sugar isn't only a sweetener," she said. "It gives moisture. That's how I see it. And an egg is a binder."

Using the best ingredients is key to providing a superior sweet, she said.

"I use high-quality ingredients that give a much better product."

After getting her first taste of baking as a career, Perez decided to go to school to learn the profession. She attended a French pastry school in Chicago and stayed afterward in the city working for hotels and a country club.

She eventually decided the time was right to go out on her own.

"I know I'm going to have headaches and stuff," she said. "But I'm going to have more control. It's something I love doing, and I was already putting in 18 hours a day."

She also recently moved to Downers Grove and lives just four block away from the store.

One of her favorite tasks as a pastry chef is creating wedding cakes. She likes helping a couple come up with the flavor, colors and other elements of the cake that will mark one of the biggest days in their lives.

One of those customers was Zara Griesemer of West Palm Beach, Fla., who married her husband, Eric, two years ago. Griesemer tasted the cakes and other sweets that Perez made at family gatherings and hired Perez to make her wedding cake.

"She totally got what I wanted even when I was freaking out (about wedding planning)," Griesemer said.

Perez came up with a yellow cake with raspberry cream layers and vanilla crunch.

"It was sweet but with a little bit of extra crunch," Griesemer said.

Creating a wedding cake is a behind-the-scenes role, but it's sweet nonetheless for Perez.

"It's a responsibility," she said. "But how awesome is it to participate in that (a wedding)?"