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Tout Sweet

May 18, 1997|Emory Holmes II

In an unprepossessing red-brick building on the eastern edge of Santa Monica is one of the more remarkable studios in the city. That the artist, Jean-Louis Kippelen, produces pastries instead of paintings seems beside the point. Walk into Caprice, the patisserie that has done a brisk retail and wholesale business since he founded it 12 years ago, and it's as if you are in a Diderot engraving: the spectral creams from alabaster to blond; the hillocks of strawberries, almonds and graham cracker crumbs; the great and small cylinders of cake, brown, yellow and white, and the varieties of chocolate, chipped and shaved, painted on cakes in impasto strokes or lightly glazing the half-assembled confections.

"I knew from the age of 11 or 12 that I wanted to learn about pastries," says Kippelen. With brown curly hair ringing his toque, a prankster's grin and athlete's build, Kippelen appears much younger than 48. "We had a big house in Alsace, about 20 minutes from the Swiss border. The best chocolate in the world comes from that region. My mother baked cookies every single day. Everything fresh--the best ingredients. My uncle owns an inn which is quite famous. He knew I wanted to learn about pastries, and at the age of 14 he arranged for me to make my apprenticeship with probably the best pastry shop in Alsace."

Kippelen's journey from apprentice to master took him to Colmar in Alsace, the French Riviera, the Caribbean and finally to America, first to Atlanta and then to Indianapolis, where he became head pastry chef in 1975 at the prestigious La Tour Restaurant, where Wolfgang Puck first cooked in America. Nine years later, he moved to Los Angeles, opening Caprice in 1985.

"The greatest pleasure is when you give the chef carte blanche," Kippelen says. "There was a party of about 100 people that I did. They wanted a Southwestern dinner, so I created for them a blue-corn tulipe [a delicate, flower-shaped pastry] with a tequila and lime mousse." He also once created what amounted to an edible Matisse: a monumental raspberry mousse cake garnished with pale green orchids enclosed in chocolate tulip leaves.

In Caprice's large, crammed kitchen, eight pastry makers stand at seven stainless steel tables that serve as assembly stations. Dressed all in white, they tilt over their work like jewelers. Surrounding them are stacks of butter or Callebaut chocolates ("the Rolex of chocolates," says Kippelen). Midway along a wall of the kitchen stands an antique Vulcan oven; beside it are mobile shelves of finished pastries. Clipboard in hand, Kippelen inspects the oven, a pencil stuck behind his ear, his double-breasted chef's jacket faintly spotted with sugar and raspberry. Removing a cloth from his waistband, he slides a sheet of sticky rolls, burnished brown and fat as melons, out of the oven. Studded with black raisins, they sit in a lake of butter and honey. Kippelen pokes them lightly. "Terrible, terrible," he says with a grin, and then flips them over into the honey once again.

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