Instagram and Pastry Genius Antonio Bachour Builds an Empire

Time stops when Antonio Bachour steps into his Brickell bakery. It's just before 9 a.m., and the din of construction and rush-hour traffic is audible even inside. A line of leggy, pencil-skirted women and suited men with strong jaws and pocket squares stretches across the dining room, past the ivory, chest-high tables and nearly out onto the sidewalk abutting SE Seventh Street.

Barely anyone pays attention to the staccato buzz of the kitchen's ticket machine as it screams out order after order. The hiss of the espresso milk foamer might as well echo into the vacuum of space. It doesn't matter that breakfast is at full tilt — the staff is fixated on the boss.

They hold their breath in fear, nervously watching as Miami's best-known baker and confectioner surveys his domain. In a pale-beige Polo, thick-framed glasses, and yesterday's 5 o'clock shadow, Bachour steps through the heavy glass doors bearing his name and takes a few swift strides to inspect an array of pastries displayed behind a chest-high pane of glass. He leans down, peering through the window to assess the gold-crusted croissants and glistening brioche buns filled with sweet cream and topped with apples.

But then he stops and furrows his brow when he notices a smudge on the glass. After receiving a signal, a white-aproned baker rushes out of the kitchen to polish away the blemish.

Then it's back to inspecting the rows of croissants swollen with ham and cheese and the hazelnut-chocolate amalgam called gianduja. Some are out of line. "Straighten them up," Bachour orders in a flat, unflinching tone.

"I almost went crazy dreaming about becoming a chef."

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He points out that some tarts covered with fans of Granny Smith apples and shredded coconut are asymmetrical and too brown. In a flash, another white-clad baker swaps them out for picture-perfect versions waiting on a nearby rack.

After several tense minutes, Bachour indicates his satisfaction to no one in particular by sticking out his bottom lip and nodding slightly. Then he turns to yet another adjacent glass case sporting a technicolor rainbow of desserts. He leans forward and notices that one of the milk-chocolate rounds bearing the bakery's logo — a wispy, golden capital B — is cockeyed on top of an Oreo cake pop. Out it goes. And the cocoa-powder-dusted marshmallows sitting atop a salted caramel éclair are out of line. Yet another white-clad chef grabs a pair of needle-nose tweezers and rights them.

That relentless obsession with perfection, along with an uncanny knack for social media, has helped make Bachour, age 40, one of the city's most prominent chefs. Although he can't boast as many awards or as large an empire as contemporaries such as Michael Schwartz and Michelle Bernstein, he's better traveled and, to judge by social media, is even better known.

Bachour commands a rabid 338,000 Instagram followers, which is nearly as many as Italian superchef Mario Batali and greater than Tom Colicchio, Emeril Lagasse, and French pastry demigod Pierre Hermé combined. He has parlayed it all into a life even successful chefs might envy. He has published three books over the past three years selling more than 150,000 volumes total. Some used copies of the out-of-print ones go for $1,800 on Amazon. Over the past ten months, he has traveled 180,000 miles to more than 30 countries to lead three-day classes in chocolate-making, pastries, and dessert, for which he receives $1,500 a day. There's also a waiting list hundreds of names long for internships at his Brickell bakery. Next year, he plans to expand his local empire to Coral Gables and Little Haiti.

"He's one of those chefs that in the baking and pastry world is really putting Miami on the map," says Bruce Ozga, the longtime dean of culinary education at Johnson & Wales University. "The guy goes nonstop. I don't know how he does it."

Bachour was bred for this. In the mid-1960s, his Lebanese parents settled in Río Grande, Puerto Rico, after briefly living in Brazil, Colombia, and New York City. On the island, his father opened a string of businesses, including a bakery selling the buttery, citrus-infused cakes called sobao alongside flan and Spanish-style creations adorned with colorful meringues made with pastry cream.

Bachour's love affair with sweets began with his mother, Sara. Not a dinner of his youth passed without a homemade dessert. Some nights, there was cheesecake or flan. On others, there were freshly fried doughnuts or rice pudding whipped with grated coconut. "My mother was always in the kitchen and so hard-working," Bachour says. "She was very influential for me."

By the age of 14, he couldn't wait to start working after school in his family's bakery. Though he was a strong student, Bachour washed dishes, took out the garbage, and did other odd jobs. The reward was seeing bakers whip up cake batters, roll out croissant dough, and help pipe sugary meringues and creams onto finished confections.

A year later, he was hooked. "I almost went crazy dreaming about becoming a chef," he recalls.

When Bachour was 17 years old, his father gave him a small space next to a grocery store to start a bakery. What followed were "the worst two years of my life," he says. He overspent on kitchen equipment. Employees stole from him. And he clashed with an older generation of bakers. They were incensed by the outlandish ways he dressed up desserts with fresh fruit, herbs, and delicate chocolate molds. "They were stuck in tradition," Bachour says. "I was always asking why we couldn't do more."

After two years of rising at 3 a.m. to prepare the day's pastries and often working until midnight, he swore off bakeries for good. He handed off the operation for free to one of his brothers and relocated to Tain-l'Hermitage, a small town on the Rhône river in southeast France. There, he enrolled in L'École Valrhona, eventually becoming an acolyte of chef Philippe Givre, who for nearly a decade was the pastry chef at the legendary La Maison Troisgros about an hour's drive northwest of Lyon.

This is where Bachour began developing his unmistakable style. He traded Puerto Rico's cloying meringues for the French method of glazing cakes in tempered, colored chocolate — which turned his creations into crimson or polished black mirrors.

"I was crazy about glazing but had no idea how to do it until I went to France to learn," Bachour says. "Valrhona changed me."

Upon returning home, he eventually worked his way up to pastry sous-chef at the Ritz-Carlton in San Juan. By 2002, he was looking to get out of hotel kitchens. A brother living in Miami lured him to town for what Bachour believed would be a short stint. Besides a few bright spots such as Chef Allen's, the city's dining scene was mostly defined by the mediocre yet pricey restaurants that dominated South Beach, he says. "I didn't think it was a serious place."

He applied for and easily landed his first job at Andrea Curto-Randazzo's now-shuttered Talula in Miami Beach. There, he turned out a lineup of classic desserts with a twist. One example: Chocolate cakes spiced with chili peppers.

In 2007, he became the corporate chef for KNR Restaurant Group, overseeing desserts in the W South Beach and Trump SoHo. In New York City, Bachour says, he regularly crossed paths with Donald Trump, whose favorite way to end a meal was with a scoop of hazelnut ice cream. "He would always come into the kitchen to say hi to everyone, to see how everyone was doing," Bachour says. Today he's confused by the memory of the affable developer who remembered cooks' names and the Trump running a scorched-earth campaign for president. "I think what he's doing now is a kind of marketing hoax to get elected."

This was Bachour's first position requiring constant travel. He spent more time on airplanes and in hotel rooms than in kitchens or at home in Miami. By 2011, he couldn't take the stress and constant travel. So he took up an offer to become the St. Regis Bal Harbour's executive pastry chef. Part of his fiefdom was the hotel's J&G Grill, an elegant spot named for culinary titan Jean-Georges Vongerichten.

This was the job that would catapult Bachour to stardom.

Around that time, he set up accounts on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Though he had long disdained social media, soon he was posting a dozen or more photos a day. He reveled in shooting pictures of the glistening glazed cakes called entremets and desserts dreamed up moments before their creation.

"At the time, I said, 'I don't have time to do all this,'?" Bachour remembers. "Today I'm up at 2 or 3 o'clock in the morning answering people who send me messages."

It didn't take long for the world to begin noticing the eye-popping presentations emerging from his pastry kitchen. Only a slim number of desserts were set in stone. The rest changed weekly.

"Sometimes it's a seasonal ingredient or a new technique," Bachour says. "Or sometimes while traveling I'll see something I like, like a fruit in Peru, or some new flavor combination, and I want to see how to make it better."

One dessert begins by piping a swirl of yogurt cremeaux at the bottom of a wide bowl followed by dots of basil syrup, glistening strawberries, and plum wedges. Then comes a bouquet of edible flowers, delicately placed across the plate with a pair of tweezers before a quenelle of plum sorbet is rested atop it all.

Another plate includes squiggles of rosewater-perfumed white-chocolate ganache meandering through bite-size dollops of strawberry foam and snow-white meringue surrounding a ruby-red football of strawberry sorbet.

"When I do things, I want them to be perfect," Bachour says. "You can't play around."

It's just after 4:30 a.m., and the sky over Bachour Bakery + Bistro, nestled on the west side of Brickell Avenue at SE Seventh Street, is as black as a cast-iron pan. Inside, Sandra Marrou tosses strawberries, raspberries, and blackberries in a glaze, readying them to be set atop cheesecake trapezoids.

The 29-year-old is bundled up in a white chef's coat covered by a black apron. Only a wisp or two of her long brown hair is visible from under the cap where it's bunched. Her big brown eyes and oval face remain pointed downward, leaving little more than that black cap and her thick eyebrows visible while she prepares pastries and explains how she ended up here six days a week in the wee hours of the morning. After earning a law degree and practicing for four years in her native Peru, she grew restless.

"It wasn't for me," she says. "I wanted to do something, to make something." In 2013, she packed her bags and left Peru to attend the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York. The first year was difficult. She missed Lima and her family and friends. The homesickness, along with the culture shock of moving from Peru's bustling capital to suburban New York, nearly drove her out. But her mother pushed her to stay. Eventually, she landed in Manhattan, working for nearly a year as a pastry chef for French culinary icon Daniel Boulud. Then it was Miami and an unpaid internship with Bachour.

"I thought a bakery would be a slower pace, easier than a restaurant. I didn't realize what I was getting myself into."

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As Marrou talks, she finishes decorating the cheesecakes and moves on to filling terra-cotta-tinged cups with layers of pastry cream, tissues of buttery pastry dough, and coffee crème brûlée. While she works, a tray of croissants comes out of the oven, and another intern whisks it across the kitchen to a cooling rack behind her. "Watch out," Marrou barks as hot metal moves across the kitchen.

Then she's on to the seemingly impossible task of balancing a half-dozen pieces of caramel popcorn on a salted caramel éclair.

"I thought a bakery would be a slower pace, easier than a restaurant," Marrou says. "I didn't realize what I was getting myself into."

Each day, the place offers at least a dozen kinds of macarons and chocolate bonbons. One goes for $3, eight for $20, and 16 for $39. Most days, no fewer than a dozen miniaturized cakes sell for $8 apiece and come in varieties ranging from piña colada — with coconut rice pudding, piña colada cremeux, and coconut streusel — to one called the xocoline, with chocolate mousse, banana cream, and cake, all bound with a passionfruit curd. There are five kinds of cookies, seven iterations of croissants available for about $3.50 each, and four varieties of individually sized cake bars for $3 apiece.

All of this, with the exception of the classic croissants Bachour provides to Wynwood's Miam Café, can be found only in his Brickell bakery. Bachour refuses to supply any other operation because his bakery doesn't have the capacity to put out more and because, he says, "I want people to come to the shop."

The bakery's success is owed in large part to Marrou and an endless stream of apprentices. Some even up show up unannounced, hoping for a spot in what seems to have become an unofficial culinary school.

Bachour began planning the place two and a half years ago with two partners. Javier Ramirez is also a partner in two new Wynwood restaurants: the high-end Alter, which began operation in May 2015, and Cake Thai Kitchen, slated to open early next year.

The other partner, Henry Hané, runs the bistro at Bachour. Tall and built like a linebacker, with a sandy-blond beard that matches his hair, he was born in Lima and moved to Miami at the age of 4. He grew up bouncing from Florida to Costa Rica, where his family owned a string of restaurants. After graduating from high school and studying at the North Miami campus of Johnson & Wales University, he planned to spend two months working at Miramar, a Michelin two-star restaurant in Llançà, on Spain's Mediterranean coast. Those two months soon turned into two years. After returning home, he met Bachour while cooking at Eating House in Coral Gables.

The pair immediately hit it off. Soon they saw an opportunity in Brickell, where high rents helped flood the neighborhood with mostly mediocre chain eateries. The plan was to do simple food that combined Hané's Peruvian background with what he had picked up abroad.

"The Brickell crowd was searching for something modern, healthy, chef-driven," Hané says. "I'm not reinventing the wheel, but I don't cook with a lot of fat, butter, or oil. I'm Peruvian — I cook with acid."

The trio's eatery, which they dubbed Bachour Bakery + Bistro to capitalize on Bachour's prodigious reputation, opened this past March. And in a matter of days, it was inundated.

The place opens shortly after the crack of dawn and is immediately swarmed by a breakfast rush that doesn't slow for hours. As 11 a.m. nears, the place becomes Hané's show. At first, a slow, steady progression of orders buzzes into the kitchen. There are a few requests for the avocado tartine — a gussied-up version of the ubiquitous toast that comes on a thin slice of house-made sourdough. It's punched up with jalapeño crema, cotija cheese, lima, and pickled Fresno chilies that give it a zingy spice.

Then comes a hailstorm of orders for the house favorite: a heavily modified butifarra sandwich, a nod to Hané's Peruvian heritage. Instead of pork belly, the kitchen deploys thick slices of roast turkey marinated in cilantro, roasted, grilled, and then piled onto a spongy bun with an anticucho aioli, whipped sweet potato, and the beloved pickled Peruvian salad known as salsa criolla.

"In Peru, there's a sandwich cart on every corner, especially at night when people are drinking at bars," Hané says. "We tried to refine that a bit."

Every day here provides a new drama. As lunch kicks into gear and busy office types begin heckling the manager for tables, problems crop up. No one can locate the reserve of house-made butifarra buns. The kitchen's stash was smaller than everyone thought, and with requests for the sandwich pouring in, the supply dwindles into the single digits.

Hané tells servers to buy him some time and steer guests toward any other dish. Suddenly, the entire bakery drops what it's doing and begins rolling out dozens of buns and ferrying them to the sole oven.

As lunch finally tapers off around 1:30 p.m., line cooks run outside for a quick cigarette. Afternoons are dedicated to the following day's preparations, so the thinning crowd doesn't mean things slow down. On the bakery side, the buttery, laminated dough that will become croissants is cut into narrow triangles and rolled up. Back in the kitchen, chicken is marinated in an anticucho sauce, tucked into plastic bags that are vacuum-sealed, and then dropped into an immersion circulator. A massive steel bowl is loaded with potatoes, spiked with butter and cream, and whipped into oblivion.

"At the end of the day, this place is a monster, no way around it," Hané says. "We do 400 people for brunch on a Sunday, but we still do all our prep from scratch."

Bachour's Instagram account could send you into diabetic shock. Some days, it features croissants and close-up shots of the tiny sugar flowers on a miniature cake made with almond-orange cake, orange compote, and white-chocolate mousse. Then there are quick glimpses into his kitchen and cooking classes. There are erotic, looping videos of chocolate glazes cascading over mousse cakes and croissant half-sections opening to spidery, flaky interiors. Then there are the airline tickets, fliers for upcoming cooking classes, and a selfie with a gleeful admirer and one of his books.

Some nights, Bachour stays awake until 2 or 3 a.m. trying to answer the countless messages he receives on Instagram. The bakery and bistro have swollen his ranks of admirers, and some days his phone buzzes nonstop.

"We do 400 people for brunch on a Sunday, but we still do all our prep from scratch."

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Before opening the bakery, fans would travel from as far as Russia and Dubai to sample his creations at the St. Regis. His dessert tasting, a seven-course affair hosted in his pastry kitchen, became one of the hotel's most sought-after reservations. Each day brought a new flood of requests from budding pastry chefs hoping for an internship. "It was so crazy, it made me realize I couldn't do everything I wanted in a hotel," Bachour explains.

"People were freaking out for his stuff, but no one could get it," Hané says. "That's how I knew [our place] would be successful."

And indeed, the 65-seat restaurant hosts as many as 250 customers during a weekday and up to 400 on weekends. Each day, they gobble up more than 400 croissants and 150 miniaturized cakes.

Young pastry chefs are just as eager to learn how Bachour pulls it all off. Each year, from places ranging from kitchen equipment makers to culinary schools and nonprofit institutions, he receives about 200 requests to teach dessert classes. In 2016 alone, he has traveled to more than two dozen countries, from Bahrain to Colombia and Thailand, to teach $2,000-per-person, three-day classes on chocolate and macaron production, plated desserts like the ones served at the St. Regis J&G Grill, and those stunning glazed entremets.

Unlike chefs who keep their techniques and recipes under lock and key, Bachour is happy to share, as long as he flies business class.

"I worked for two years to figure out the perfect glaze recipe," he says. "Now the chefs from Valrhona call me with questions."

That combination of relentless dedication and eagerness to share is what's made him so magnetic for so many young pastry chefs. "He can be intimidating when he walks into the bakery, but he'll ask you what you want to learn, and you'll do it nonstop for a week," Marrou the intern says.

And though he never planned to have dozens of unpaid interns rotating through his shop, he now considers it one of his greatest roles. "This is real life, and the things they do here, they'd never see in culinary school," he says.

But with so many moving parts to Bachour's booming empire — cookbooks, classes around the world, and plans for more bakeries — it seems that insane attention to detail would be the first victim. Keeping it up requires an almost unthinkable amount of time and money. "I want things to be perfect," Bachour says. "If it's not perfect, I tell everyone to throw it in the garbage. We've done it plenty of times."

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Zachary Fagenson became the New Times Broward-Palm Beach restaurant critic in 2012 before taking up the post for Miami in 2014. He also works as a correspondent for Reuters.
Contact: Zachary Fagenson