This article appears in the Grand Rapids Magazine November 2018 issue. Available on newsstands now or via subscription. You can find VandenBerg’s recipes for Melt-In-Your-Mouth Chocolate Teacakes, Crunchy chocolate fruit/nut clusters and Espresso cocoa nib shortbread cookies accompanying the article in the print magazine.
At French-trained pastry chef Susan VandenBerg’s kitchen table, she might present you with a petite dessert plate of raspberry pistachio tartlet, browned-butter almond cake crowned with Michigan blueberries and sliced almonds, and two delectable versions of buttery shortbread cookies — one lemon-pistachio-sesame, the other rosemary-pecan. The exquisite quartet captivates the senses at once.
Through The French Tarte, her small artisanal pastry business, VandenBerg beautifully creates French-style pastries, tarts and more that make you feel as though you’ve just stepped out of a Parisian pâtisserie.
Known for her croissants, shortbread and tarts, VandenBerg’s baking exhibits an exhilarating terroir, bringing in the plentiful bounty grown along Lake Michigan’s fruit belt. In her small yet efficient workspace, she produces an array of delights — tart cherry turnovers glistening ruby-red; pecan sugar and spice buns of spiraling croissant dough; apricot-raspberry financier cakes with pistachio crumble; and Breton blueberry jam tarts, just to name a few.
Through the colder months, she continues to bake with Michigan fruit turning to apples, pears and dried berries. “I’ve found that these simply make everything taste that much better,” said VandenBerg, who eschews artificial flavoring, preferring the natural route.
She’s also partial to pure vanilla extract from Beanilla, a mail-order company based in Rockford, and often orders her gourmet spices from Beanilla’s subsidiary Spice Jungle. “It’s an amazing West Michigan company — truly a gold mine,” said VandenBerg, a Fremont native.
VandenBerg, a Fremont native, shares her passion and expertise through her blog “Baking with the French Tarte,” accepts orders for her French-style baked goods, offers small group hands-on classes at Nonna’s Pantry in Ada and is available to come to your home for private or small group sessions.
“Baking has an energy all its own — the feel of the dough, the aromas wafting from the kitchen, creating and sharing delicious baked goods,” she said.
VandenBerg’s passion for baking really took off during a West Coast trip. “The mango tart at Stars restaurant in San Francisco was heavenly, presented in such wonderful simplicity,” she recalled. “The pastry chef was a woman named Emily Luchetti, who had just written her first book, ‘Stars Desserts.’ I ended up buying that book, immersing myself in the recipes and dreaming every now and again that I might one day go to pastry school.”
At the time, VandenBerg, who has earned degrees from Calvin College and Wayne State University’s School of Medicine, was an emergency room doctor starting her medical career with a residency in general surgery at Spectrum Health Butterworth Hospital. She went on to work as an emergency medicine physician in Virginia, Michigan and Vermont for 21 years, “before I decided I’d had enough,” she said.
Taking advice from her husband, she enrolled and earned her Diplôme dePâtisserieat Le Cordon Bleu in Paris in 2005. She didn’t speak French at first, but lucky for VandenBerg, her partner in the practical kitchen was a Parisian woman who had lived in Las Vegas and helped her connect the vernacular dots. The language slowly came, followed by two stints as a stagiaire at Paris’ Pâtisserie Pascal Pinaud.
“It was wonderful, frustrating, draining and emotional, and it was the best thing I could have done,” Vandenberg said.
In 2007, Vandenberg returned to the States and spent a summer baking at J.M. Gerrish Café in Winter Harbor, Maine, then moved onto Gracie’s, an upmarket restaurant in Providence, Rhode Island. In 2012, she launched The French Tarte in an old mill building in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, and gave free rein to her hands-on edible poetry. “I wanted to do everything myself,” Vandenberg said.
Three years ago, Vandenberg returned to her native Michigan, where she now lives right across the street from her 91-year-old mother. She introduced West Michigan to her beloved baby, The French Tarte, and immediately found herself baking almond croissants, Italian cookies, shortbread and tarts for Nonna’s Pantry, as well as Patricia’s Chocolate and Aldea Coffee in Grand Haven.
She’s committed to single-handedly teaching West Michigan to bake as the French do, by presenting, teaching and demonstrating at Kent District Libraries, OLLI at Aquinas College, Grand Rapids Downtown Market, Sur la Table Grand Rapids and retirement communities.
*Photo by Michael Buck