Detroit is used to upstart success stories. It’s a tough town, but if you have the will and the skill, something you can break through into the big time. We see it happen mostly in the world of music, but recently in the realm of food and drink, with local chefs competing on national television, or being named as people to watch by national tastemakers.
One of the latest Detroit success stories is Chloe Sabatier. She’s a 25-year-old baker from Paris. No, not from Paris Township or Paris, Texas. She’s from the big European city they’re named for — Eiffel Tower, Arc de Triomphe, and everything.
And, yes, she’s used to people reminding her that most people would choose the cosmopolitan French capital. But to a native, France can seem staid and conventional. She says, “There are a lot of opportunities for businesses in the city of Detroit right now. I think there’s more happening here in Detroit right now than in Paris. Paris is an old city. It’s beautiful, it’s amazing. Every time I go, I’m like, ‘Compared to Detroit, this is way different.’ But it’s an old country.”
How did Sabatier find Detroit? She fell in love with a Detroiter, Jordan Wolfe. The young couple gutted out a long-distance relationship for a couple years until, in 2013, after graduating from business school, Sabatier came to Detroit to live with Wolfe in downtown Detroit and pursue a career.
Baking just came naturally. Her biggest hit, her “lava cakes,” were adapted from a family recipe. She says, “I’ve always baked my entire life. In France, we bake a lot instead of buying cakes at supermarkets. And so I learned to bake with my grandmother, especially the lava cake, which I’ve baked for friends, family. Before moving here, I was with my boyfriend just for a couple weeks and we had parties. I was making this cake and everyone was like, ‘This is unreal. You should start selling these.’ And then when I moved here, actually I worked out a business plan to start my company.”
Starting that business would have been impossible, she says, without the helpful suggestions, and the enthusiastic welcome she got from Eastern Market, where officials ensured she got space to sell at the popular Saturday market. She gives particular credit to Devita Davison of FoodLab Detroit, saying, “She was my savior. She helped me get the license and filled it out for me and everything — because my English was way worse when I moved here, and filling all those administrative papers was a nightmare.”
But it all paid off. With the proper licenses and access to approved kitchens, Sabatier now makes lava cakes at Treat Dreams, sells them there and at 13 other places, and even got connected with Air France, which serves her cakes on the nonstop Detroit-to-Paris flight. She also sells online, and does a brisk catering business. And that’s in addition to her sales gigs at the markets, where she chats up customers with her abundant Gallic charm.
So what is a lava cake, exactly? They’re personal chocolate cakes about the size of a large cupcake. As for the “lava,” that comes from the way they melt in the center after being warmed in a microwave. Sabatier imports the chocolate she uses from Belgium. She says using the very best chocolate means she doesn’t have to add a great deal of sugar, just half a cup for every 24 cakes. (That's roughly a half-teaspoon of sugar per cake.) She says, “It’s a high-quality chocolate, and you can taste it.”
Every month brings a new flavor. She has done cakes filled with white chocolate, Nutella, Ferrero Rocher candies, salted caramel, and even fresh raspberries. For Mother’s Day, she did a special mixed-berry lava cake. This week, for Father’s Day, she’s doing a special bourbon lava cake. Most lava cakes from Chez Chloe cost $5. This week’s bourbon-infused cakes will be a bit pricier: $7.
There’s a reason the cakes are keyed to holidays, vacations on Air France, and the parties Sabatier caters. She brings a very French perspective to her treats. They are not health food, of course, but they are made with whole ingredients and needn’t inspire the same pangs of guilt an American might feel after eating an entire bumpy cake alone in the kitchen at 2 a.m. “I want to tell them it’s for a celebration, for a special event, a special moment. And actually, the chocolate itself is not sweet. There is no cream. There’s almost no sugar. And I use dark chocolate, so it’s the taste of chocolate first instead of sugar. And this is also something I’m trying to educate Americans with is that a chocolate cake — it tastes like chocolate, it doesn’t taste like sugar or cream, you know? So mine is not too bad for you, and dark chocolate is very good for you.”
As a caterer, Sabatier does it all, custom cakes, custom flavors, and delivery. Sabatier will even prepare her special cakes gluten-free if a special order is placed for one.
Not only has opening a business in Detroit been a whirlwind of business activity, Sabatier has been swept up by the crowd, in that phenomenon often summed up by locals as “America’s biggest small town.” You begin to see how somebody could trade the actual Paris for the “Paris of the Midwest.” She laughs about it and tells us, “Yeah: Now, everywhere I go, I know people. Every restaurant, every bar. It’s a small community and I love it.”
You can get Chez Chloe’s special bourbon-infused Father’s Day lava cakes ($7) at Treat Dreams in Ferndale or at her stall in Shed 2 at Eastern Market this Saturday.
For more information and to place orders with Chez Chloe, see chez-chloe.com.