Salt Lake City is often referred to as “Small Lake City,” but the flavors at Les Madeleines are anything but small. Inspired by European travels and cross-continental flavors, the pastries—made entirely from scratch—come from the world-sized imagination of chef and owner Romina Rasmussen.
After training at the French Culinary Institute in New York, NY, Chef Romina perfected her skills working at Mesa Grill in New York City and the Mandarin Oriental Miami’s fine dining restaurant, Azul, before coming back to her hometown, Salt Lake City, and opening Les Madeleines in 2003. After living and traveling the world, Chef Romina found it easy to come back to her hometown. She jokes that her training technique might have been French learned, but her love of the kitchen goes all the way back home. “No one else in the family baked. I was always making a mess in the kitchen.” Now she gets to do it for a living.
She may be home, but Chef Rominia’s world travels can be tasted in every bite of her delectibles. Her palate is a flavor passport that regularly takes her on culinary adventures to try new things. “I was in Orvieto, Italy, and tried a cookie made with chocolate, hazelnuts and pistachios. When I got home I tried to get as close to the original flavor profile as I could because I wanted to keep eating it.”
In Dordogne, France, Chef Romina tracked down a man who made poppy blossom-flavored ice cream. “We drove 30 kilometers to find this alleged ice cream shop, which turned out to be a 7-Eleven-like store that just happened to sell the ice cream,” she says. “We then had to drive all over to find his garden to actually try his flavors.”
Chef Romina is a bit of a pastry chef vanguard. Les Madeleines’ pièce de résistance, as she likes to refer to it, is the kouing aman (named 2012 Pastry of the Year by Food & Wine). “I read about it. It looked interesting. So I made it.” If you’ve never had it—it’s a rich buttery pastry from Brittany, France, with layers of dough, and caramelized sugar on the outside. If you have eaten a Les Madeleines kouing aman—you have tasted history. Les Madeleines was the first bakery west of the Mississippi to offer the Breton pastry.
When Chef Romina first opened her cafe no one locally was using or had heard of Meyer lemons (a hybrid between lemons and oranges). “I had to fight tooth and nail to get them when I started and now you can buy them at Costco.” She jokes that in the beginning when the bakery ran out of the lemons, she feared there would be pastry uprisings. A joke maybe, but she always keeps the cafe stocked.
Les Madeleines was also one of the first bakeries to offer a variety of unique, gourmet cupcake flavors and French macarons (or “buttons”) in Utah. The macarons became so popular the shop no longer makes cupcakes.
At Les Madeleines, everything is made from scratch. “We don’t use any mixes or ready-made ingredients. We make seven kinds of bread. And we make our own toffee bits for our shortbread.” She might not work the 18-20 hour days she did when first opening the shop, but Chef Romina still can be found at the bakery helping out in the kitchen or coming up with new concoctions.
If you settle for unimaginative sweets, Les Madeleines may not be for you. “You won’t find a single chocolate chip cookie,” she says. Though inventive and adventurous, Chef Romina wouldn’t consider herself a mad-scientist of baking because to her baking is still a science, but due to her culinary curiosity she does like to experiment with flavor profiles. “I’m not wild and crazy. I did more extreme flavors at the beginning, but this market didn’t quite embrace it. So I have to find a balance between crazy and what people will buy.”
That’s why Chef Romina used ever-popular cupcakes to introduce some of the more unfamiliar flavors. “When we opened, no one knew what a passion fruit was. Since we’ve opened, Salt Lakers have become more familiar with flavors they have never had the opportunity to try before.” Some of her craziest combinations include cardamon and orange, passion fruit and coconut, and bourbon pecan—flavors often used in other cuisines, but seldom seen in American pastry shops. She even pairs lychee, pistachio, raspberry and rose water. “At first it might be off-putting, but once you try it, you love it.”
If you’re craving something more savory, Les Madeleines also serves breakfast and lunch daily. The soup de jour and pommes frites—french fries to most—are hard to resist. So is Chef Romina’s macaroni and cheese.
In 2007, she was named Best Pastry Chef by Salt Lake magazine and both she and Les Madeleines continue to amass accolades and recognition from both regional and national media including: The Food Network’s Road Tasted with the Neelys and The Best Thing I Ever Ate, O The Oprah Magazine, Food & Wine, Better Homes & Gardens and Sunset Magazine.
Valentines Day specials:
Creamy heart shape covered pastries with rose petals and real gold leaf.
written by: Andrea Peterson
photos provided by: Les Madeleines