Just desserts for a backwoods boy-turned master chef

Even his school counselor laughed at Marshall Faye's dream of baking. Now the master chef has the last laugh.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

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    Haute pastry: Master chef Marshall Faye unloads a batch of cookies at the Trapp Family Lodge. He and his staff serve up to 1,200 people a day with more than 75 different breads and sweets, like the fresh berry parfait made with white chocolate mousse.
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    Master chef Marshall Faye and his staff at the Trapp Family Lodge, serves up to 1,200 people a day with more than 75 different breads and sweets, like the fresh berry parfait made with white chocolate mousse.
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By the time he was 12 he could hunt, skin, and butcher dinner for his family. But what Marshall Faye really wanted to do was knead, roll, and bake sweet treats.

"When I told my friends I wanted to be a pastry chef, they told me baking was for girls, and laughed," Mr. Faye recalls with his trademark burly exuberance. "My high school guidance counselor told me to stop joking around."

Cooking and baking weren't considered appropriate for boys of the 1950s, especially sons of Vermont's Northeast Kingdom, a wild region so named because once upon a time the locals yearned to form their own nation. It was a rugged place where children brought their deer hunting rifles to school. Faye was no exception.

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But it's Faye who has the last laugh now. He's reached the gooey heights of pastry perfection – royalty of sorts in the world of haute cuisine. Gourmet magazine, Bon Appétit, Saveur, and Country Journal have all featured him. And once, on a home shopping network he sold, in mere minutes, hundreds of his linzertortes – his signature creation for the Trapp Family Lodge here, where he's been the executive pastry chef for the past three decades.

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All eyes are on Faye as he leads his Wednesday class for would-be bakers at the lodge. The master chef still looks as if he'd be just as comfortable pursuing bear through dense Vermont forests, or snagging smallmouth bass in Lake Champlain as he plunges his large hands into a crumbly concoction that will become cranberry and white chocolate chip cookies.

"My grandmother made the best brownies, fudge, and cookies," he says, explaining the provenance of his talent. "It wasn't unusual to make things all fresh. You couldn't just go down to the store and buy a candy bar."

And people certainly didn't just go buy a pound of hamburger meat to pound into meatloaf, he says. Dinner had to be caught. Faye remembers how he and other children would skip school during deer season because families relied on what they could hunt.

That kind of upbringing made it all the more unlikely Faye would ultimately spend his days turning out tea cookies and maple cream pies. But he'd spent years by his mother's side, absorbing little tricks that now allow him to know with just a glance whether bread dough will rise or fall.

Faye grew up close to the earth and close to his parents. The ninth-generation Vermonter inhabited the kitchen with equal fervor as he inhabited the outdoors. "My mother and grandmother were bakers, and I sort of picked it up that way," Faye says. "My mother was in a wheelchair and, so, I did all the cooking."

Faye has his mentor and friend the late Fred Mould to thank for turning his passion into a profession. Faye spent a lot of time in the Fairbanks Museum in St. Johnsbury, where Mr. Mould was a curator. It was Mould who told the boy to reach for the pie in the sky.

While attending the Culinary Institute of America in New Haven, Conn. (now in Hyde Park, N.Y.), Faye scraped together tuition by washing glasses in a bar, peddling milk for a dairy, and even clocking in time as a security guard. Although he did train as a pastry chef, landing such a job upon graduation was difficult in the 1960s. "At the time, it was deemed women's work," Faye says.

Instead, he worked as a chef in various restaurants in the high pressure atmosphere of cooking to order. When he wanted to relax, he flourished a rolling pin and shuffled cookie sheets, relishing the slower rhythms of baking.

He might have been content to continue in that vein if it wasn't for the von Trapps, the singing Austrians portrayed in "The Sound of Music" and who, after escaping the Nazis, founded the lodge. Johannes von Trapp and his mother, Maria, who died in 1987, begged Faye to work at the bakery and tearoom of their hotel, near Mt. Mansfield, Vermont's highest peak.

Soon Faye began teaching classes to guests who constantly requested his recipes. Now his classes are seasoned with tricks of the trade (forget the KitchenAid ... just use your hands!) and based with his rich tales of Vermont life.

One of the most famous stories concerns the birth of the Von Trapp Linzertorte. As Faye tells it, Maria von Trapp adored linzertorte, a jam-filled cinnamon walnut crust. But she didn't much care for Faye's version, which he made with raspberry jam. Refusing to be beaten, Faye made a new linzertorte every day, tweaking the recipe for her. Every time, he'd climb the stairs to her apartment in the lodge only to hear her declare it wasn't quite right.

He was stumped until Johannes mentioned that currants grew in the part of Austria they were from. Faye decided to mix red currant jelly with raspberry jam, and – voilà – Maria cried, "Now that's a linzertorte!" That's the title of Faye's cookbook.

The musical matriarch had a sweet tooth, Faye says. She relished fresh pastry. And though she was frail and on a strictly supervised diet, she'd sneak down each morning at 5 to Faye's cozy kitchen, eat one or two pastries hot from the oven, and drink freshly brewed coffee heavily dosed with sugar. Then she'd crawl back under the covers until her nurse woke her up to her breakfast of dry toast, tea, and one poached egg.

Faye's high school reunion is in a few months. His teasing classmates have been dining on humble pie, but are quite happy he pursued his passion: Many stop by the bakery to load up on apricot frangipani and homemade granola.

This backwoods boy is more than a baker. He and his late wife, Bonnie, raised two children and had 44 foster children over the years. They raised their own food to feed the family. And Faye continues to devote time to civic programs – including volunteering to help ex-cons keep up the terms of their probation.

Nor is the Yankee baker stingy – or vain when it comes to sharing recipes. "I'll share recipes with everyone," he says. "I could give 10 people a recipe and it will come out 10 different ways."

There have been many changes in the world of food since Faye began. Artisanal bakeries are back in vogue, and celebrity chefs open restaurants with the fanfare of rock stars. The Food Network is one of the most watched TV channels.

None of this seems to faze Faye: "I'm delighted that this business no one wanted to talk about has grown to people having an interest in how food is produced. Of course a lot of it isn't the real world and a lot of it is for entertainment."

With his stories and tricks it's easy to picture Faye in a studio kitchen whipping up maple cream pie.

But it will have to remain just that, a picture. "Shows have approached me, but I've always said no. It's not for me. I'm a Vermont boy."

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