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Slices of strawberries bordered by pillowy puffs of pistachio cream. The fluted caramelized crust of custard-y canelés. Tidy layers of dark chocolate ganache, coffee buttercream and almond biscuits in an opera cake. The term “culinary arts” is at its most appropriate when considering the work of a pastry chef. Especially when the pâtisserie is hidden in the back of an art gallery.

Parenthèse Enchantée is the second act for Nathalie Gnaegy. “Cooking was my weekend pastime,” she explains. Nourished by sharing food with her family and coworkers, she “progressively veered towards baked goods, more welcome at the office than a half-eaten whole tuna,” she winks. Her appreciative officemates insisted she should “bake professionally.”

Nathalie was frustrated after 20 years in urbanism, particularly the industry-wide practice of devoting tons of energy into projects that wouldn’t come to fruition. “I needed to do something concrete,” so she applied for a FONGECIF grant (the career change funds offered by socialist France). After studying at the Lycée Hôtelier de Marseille in 2017, she perfected her pastry skills at internships at the 5-star Intercontinental Hotel and a prominent pâtisserie helmed by a MOF (the prestigious Meilleur Ouvrier de France award).

Once she got a taste of mixing pâte à choux, tempering chocolate and creating colorful layer cakes during her training, the budding pastry chef realized she could “never return to her former job.” Nervous about launching a business saddled with high rents, Nathalie asked her husband, Yves, if she could transform a back room of his Galerie Anna-Tschopp into her kitchen. He declined at first, but she used her urbanism savvy – a cost/feasibility study with a builder friend – to convince him.

After renovating the storage space into a tidy kitchen, Parenthèse Enchantée quietly opened at the end of 2019, a time before the coronavirus had entered into the daily lexicon. Nathalie had built up a small clientele through word of mouth. To boost her reach, the new entrepreneuse set up social media accounts with tempting photos of her latest creations. She hosted tastings for bûches de Noel (the edible Yule log that is France’s classic Christmas dessert) and set up tables at office buildings in town to sell galettes des rois and heart-shaped chocolates for the Epiphany and Valentine’s Day, respectively. And, then, the pandemic struck.

When France went into lockdown in mid-March, Nathalie continued to come to her kitchen each day to make chocolate eggs and friture for Easter. She figured if they didn’t sell, she could always melt them down for future use. Then, her parents sent her a link about MARS (Marseille Artisans Solidaires), a local initiative launched amid the Covid-19 crisis to deliver baskets of artisanal Marseillais foodstuffs. They already had lined up chocolatiers, so they suggested she make brioche.

Nathalie was “not made for inventing,” preferring instead to tweak traditional recipes “à sa sauce” (in her style.)

Her buttery, golden loaves were an instant hit, increasing her Instagram following and attracting new clients. To make the confinement sweeter, Nathalie then launched a newsletter highlighting her weekly offerings. Boîtes à douceur (sweet boxes) are filled with a rotating selection of rochers coco (coconut macaroons), financiers (miniature almond cakes) and other cookies. Viennoiseries were particularly popular, with customers ordering cinnamon rolls, brioche and croissants (all butter, no margarine) for their at-home weekend brunches. (My boyfriend’s only complaint about the toothsome treats was that they had an “aftertaste of not enough” – they were so good, he wished I had ordered more.)

They are also Nathalie’s favorite, since she gets to “work the dough with her hands.” For a personal touch, she encloses a printed tip sheet that details how to re-heat and freeze the viennoiseries for long-lasting enjoyment. You’ll also find fanciful cakes, entremets (cream- or mousse-filled desserts) and tarts that brim with seasonal fruit.

Nathalie was “not made for inventing,” preferring instead to tweak traditional recipes “à sa sauce” (in her style.) This means lighter, less sugary versions of millefeuille, lemon tarts and chocolate cakes. As a testament to her talents, her customers praise how her desserts don’t make them feel full after – they just taste good.

The lack of opening hours means that customers can place an order for almost any day of the week. Ideally, Nathalie asks for 48 hours in advance, though if the ingredients are on hand, she can whip something up sooner. Orders are available for pickup at her 6th arrondissement kitchen. During confinement, she kindly delivered them to housebound Marseillais, often accompanied by her 11-year-old son to stretch his home-schooled legs.

A one-woman operation, Nathalie manages all aspects of the business, from taking and fulfilling orders to marketing and accounting. Perhaps the biggest hurdle she faced was finding a name for her new endeavor. Ironically, it came to her in bed, when her friend advised her to “tell your mind to help you while you sleep” just before she tucked in for the night.

“Parentheses” and “enchanted” popped into her head. She instantly loved “Parenthèse Enchantée,” but the creative agency she hired to do her branding was not on board. She stuck with her instincts – one of the perks of owning your own business – and is delighted with the result. Interestingly, her made-to-order bakery has been well timed for the Covid-19 era. The food industry has been hampered by loads of limitations. And, people are sick of waiting in line.

Admittedly, when fetching my croissants and pains au chocolat for my petit dejeuner last weekend, I appreciated that the only people in the art gallery were in paintings on the wall. And that my viennoiseries were piping hot, just plucked from the oven at my 9:30 a.m. pickup time. In these trying post-pandemic times for the food industry, it is good to see there’s a bit of sweet.

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