How sweet it is
Paula Stadtmiller and Philip Duquette on thirty years of baking cakes together
Paula Stadtmiller and Philip Duquette met by chance in 1987. The duo, owners of Premier Pastry on South Avenue in Rochester, both happened to have jobs at what was once a fixture for premium desserts, Crème de la Crème on Alexander Street.
Classically trained chef Stadtmiller—hired as the café’s pastry chef—and Duquette—an optical engineer looking for a new line of work—realized there was promise in working together.
It was less than a year later that the two talked about going off on their own. When Crème de la Crème was sold, café clients were looking for a bake shop that could create wedding and special occasion cakes. In 1989, with a roster of ready-made clients, Premier Pastry was founded, in spirit.
“We baked in the kitchen of our apartment in the early days,” says Stadtmiller, who took on Duquette as an apprentice of sorts.
Stadtmiller said she didn’t think twice about teaching someone who had little prior baking experience. “I could see that Philip brought a different set of skills to our enterprise. He also had an eye for cake making. With an engineering background, he could build cakes.”
Stadtmiller trained to be a chef at the Culinary Institute of America. She pursued work as a pastry chef after graduation. With prior experience as both a chef and pastry chef in four- and five-star restaurants, she stepped back from her career to be closer to family here in Rochester.
Growing up with seven brothers as the only girl in the family, her mother enlisted her help in the kitchen at three years old. “My mother made everything from scratch. I remember she’d tie me to a chair with my father’s necktie so I wouldn’t fall off. I had an early start in the kitchen. I tell people I’ve been in a kitchen my whole life.”
Duquette’s route to baking was more far more direct. “If someone asks about my training, I say I’m either self-taught or ‘Paula-taught.’ ”
In a partnership that’s thrived for years, the two complement each other well. Paula, whose style tends toward classical—she refers to herself as“Old School”—and Philip, who likes to create theme-based cakes, each admit that working together is lots of fun.
“We have a very different way of approaching cakemaking. We each have our own point of view yet, it’s worked really, really well.”
With cakes comprising about 70 to 80 percent of their business, Paula says there’s really no secret to making a delicious cake.
“You have to start with quality ingredients: butter, eggs, cream. Everything is butter, butter, and a little more butter. We use Belgian chocolate; only the best ingredients. People come into the shop and say, ‘It smells so good in here.’ Of course, you have to know what you’re doing, but it’s the ingredients that make a cake memorable.”
Stadtmiller and Duquette are constantly innovating to meet the requests of their customers. “When the well-known baker Gruttadauria’s closed, customers asked for their rum cake. We experimented with recipes until we came up with something we both liked. It wasn’t an exact replica, but our customers were happy with the results.”
They’ve also developed a gluten-free cake that meets the pair’s high standards. “To make a tasty cake that has good texture and is gluten free can be tricky. We’ve created a white cake made with almond flour that’s gluten free, which we fill with gluten free fillings, and it’s quite good.”
For the customer who comes in to order a wedding cake, prepare to feast your eyes on opulent, ornate, three- and four-tiered creations on display. “We like to sit down, talk about design and flavors, then write a proposal. Our inspiration comes from the bride herself. A bride will often show us a photo of her dress or images she’s found on Pinterest as a starting point for a cake. We try to guide a customer who’s planning a wedding. Yes, this will work and look good; this may not,” says Stadtmiller.
With cake selections such as raspberry almond torte—a white cake layered with Amaretto buttercream, crunchy almond pastry, and raspberry preserve—or their traditional white wedding cake with buttercream layered with strawberry, apricot or raspberry preserves or the mocha walnut torte made with caramelized walnuts and mocha buttercream sandwiched between layers of chocolate and white butter cake brushed with espresso, flavor choices are seemingly endless. Wedding cakes are finished with buttercream, rolled fondant, or ganache.
One thing that’s kept their partnership strong is that each knows the other’s strengths. “I leave the whimsical decorating to Philip; I do the piping and flowers, the more traditional detailing,” she says.
They also counsel brides and party planners on how to judge the number of desserts needed for an event. “Our standard answer: if they’re serving a wedding cake and want a dessert table, we recommend three pastries per person or two pastries and two cookies per person. Knowing how desserts will be displayed and served is another aspect to consider,” notes Duquette.
What kind of reactions do their cakes get? “Brides cry all the time when they see their cakes for the first time. They look at the cake, they cry. They squeal,” Duquette says.
It’s not just brides who cry either. “I wound up delivering a cake on a Sunday recently. It was a Where the Wild Things Are–themed cake for a first birthday party. I also surprised our customer with a second smaller cake. She looked at the cakes and admitted her first thought was to give me a big hug. It’s reactions like this that make my job worthwhile.”
Both Stadtmiller and Duquette say they could work around the clock to fulfill orders. They try to begin their days at the shop around 5 a.m. and on a typical day hope to leave by 6 or 7 p.m. Stadtmiller admits it definitely depends upon the day. “Sometimes there are deadlines every hour, certainly daily. You can’t just say, I’m tired, I’m going home now.”
And they’re busy year-round. “Spring is probably our busiest season with showers, graduations, and weddings. Summer is slightly more even-keeled. Fall has become a big season for weddings, and then we have the holidays.”
“Demand for our buche de noël, a traditional French holiday dessert available in hazelnut sponge cake filled with praline buttercream or a chocolate sponge cake made with Belgian chocolate mousse that’s flavored with espresso, is brisk. Both are decorated with edible meringue mushrooms, chocolate holly leaves and berries, and delicate sugar snowflakes. It’s a unique seasonal specialty that keeps us very busy.”
Stadtmiller and Duquette take pride in the fact that they’ve made wedding cakes for the parents of some of the young brides and grooms they bake for today.
Would they do anything other than bake in the shop they’ve owned together for so many years? Philip says if he weren’t a bake shop owner, he’d probably manage a hotel and investigate medical mysteries. As for Paula, she’d travel the world. Once she tired of travel, she’d probably operate her own food truck.
Let’s hope the pair will be baking their deliciously light, fluffy, and moist cakes and pastries for several years to come. You never know when you might want to pop in for a chiffon cheesecake, lemon meringue tart, or apricot petit four. They suggest you call first, though. While they have a case of assorted cupcakes and pastries available daily, they prefer to take custom orders by phone or in person and in advance.
Donna De Palma is a freelance writer based in Rochester.