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Robert St. John

Restaurateur, author, enthusiastic traveler, & world-class eater.

Janusz of 3000 Days— A Bakery Like A Sitcom

September 11, 2017

It’s the end of an era and a sorrow-filled day for many in my hometown of Hattiesburg, Mississippi. Chef Janusz at C’est la Vie Bakery closed his doors for the final time last week. It’s certainly a sad day for this columnist and the dozen or so other regulars who visited that place almost every morning.

I ate breakfast at C’est la Vie at least three times a week, sometimes more, sometimes less. There are many who were once-a-weekers, and a lot came in for freshly baked croissants and pastries once a month. There were also the hard-core devotees who were there every morning.

My son and I ate there every Friday morning before last season’s football games— same table, same seats, same order, at the same time— and made it through an undefeated regular season slate. I ate at C’est la Vie every Saturday morning with my mother, again same table, same seats, same order, at the same time, 7a.m.

It wasn’t a typical business. It was run by a French chef in the French style with a French business sensibility. He might close shop for a week and go to visit his daughter in Florida, or pack it up for 10 days and head back over to France to see his family. He never took credit cards, and closed at odd times. Some people said, “He was swamped and doing all of the business he could.” Others stated, “He was doing more business than he wanted.” Whatever their opinion might be, they stated it with their mouths full of some of the best baked goods this side of Lille.

When the bakery opened 10 years ago I wrote about how lucky I was to be 127 steps away from a French pastry chef who baked fresh croissants and pastries on a daily basis. I have written several columns about the C’est la Vie Bakery since. That small shop was a huge part of many people’s lives. I ate over 1,000 breakfasts there. Others ate more.

The pastries were first rate. I have stated countless times that I have eaten pastries and breads all over France, and none— seriously— none have been better than the ones I ate here in Hattiesburg, Mississippi across the street from my office. Some as good, none better.

I’ll miss those pastries and the morning comradery that was shared in that cramped space. But I have also lost one of my go-to Hattiesburg bragging points. Often in New York or Los Angeles in book meetings or marketing sessions, I have been able to shut down haughty individuals who base their opinions on broad stereotypes who sought to denigrate Mississippi, and the town from which I hail, by making snide comments such as, “Hattiesburg, Mississippi? Hmm. What is there to do in in Hattiesburg, Mississippi?” I always mention seeing YoYo Ma and Itzhak Perlman, each perform with our local orchestra, several other select highlights, and end with world-class pastries from a classically trained French pastry chef 127 steps from my office. C’est la Vie gave me bragging rights, but it also was a quality of life thing for me.

The Area Development Partnership (our local chamber of commerce) would serve the community well if they took a few weeks off from recruiting manufacturing plants and focused all efforts on recruiting a real French pastry chef to set up shop in town (ADP, if you’re reading, please make it within the 127-step office radius). We have other bakeries, and they are good. Though this place checked all of the boxes for me— all breads made from scratch, check. French pastries, check, and close to work, check.

C’est la Vie Bakery always reminded me of a television sitcom— like Cheers in reverse. Bizarro Cheers. Instead of an 5 p.m. afternoon happy hour like the Cheers bar, it was a 7 a.m. before-work gathering place. Instead of drinking mugs of beer we were eating croissants and breakfast sandwiches. We had a Norm and a Cliff, they just had different names and occupations. It was a breakfast place where everybody knew your name.

During that final week, it became like the final episode of Seinfeld— all of the characters over the years began to show up for one last pastry, that last croissant. The morning crew was all there. There was a strange energy in the air that entire week. I have seen many businesses close. I have even closed a few myself. Though I have never seen a closing quite as unique as this one.

That little bakery did what great foodservice businesses are supposed to do— it brought people together. Our morning crew was a diverse group of people who typically wouldn’t be together (at least all together), but it worked, over good coffee and great baked goods. There were some on the left and some on the right, former college professors, a couple of doctors, several businessmen, former military, a retired salesman, a local politician, and a burger-flipper from across the street. We talked too loud and we talked too long.

The final morning was a Saturday, and I arrived at 7 a.m. as usual to eat with my mother. I had requested a custard-raisin croissant, which was the first item I ever ate there, and one pastry that clued me into the fact that this place was different and on another level. Janusz baked a batch. He had stopped adding those into the daily pastry offerings and it had been a while since I had eaten one. It was as good as that first day.

He set a sales record on the final day he was open, which speaks volumes to the upcoming void people knew was coming.

There was an official, “announced” last day of business, and then there was the real last day which was on Sunday. On that day it was only the hardcore C’est la Vites. It was a little surreal. We had been eating great pastries for 10 years, and just an hour or two remained. One by one, the regulars moved on with their morning and bid farewell to their beloved breakfast spot. One of our number left with damp eyes. The local politician and I stayed the longest. It was around 11:00 a.m. when I walked out of there for the last time.

I felt a little like Alan Alda in the final episode of MASH. He said his goodbyes and then got on a helicopter and flew away. Though I wasn’t Alda in this scenario. No one spelled out “goodbye” in cinnamon rolls. I was just a bit player, one of the extras in the cafeteria tent or an obscure surgery nurse in the back of the MASH operating room. The other guys were the main players.

I will miss the croissants, the quiche, the custard-raisin pastries, the king cakes during carnival season, and the eggnog cakes during the holidays. I will miss the egg sandwiches on croissants and that crazy bacon-filled pastry with the cheese on top that never made sense, but would always be gone if you didn’t get there before 7:30 a.m. Most of all I will miss the comradery and the conversation. We might all join up somewhere else, a few might dwindle off to this morning place or that one, but it probably won’t be the same.

I have eaten croissants overlooking the Seine and enjoyed pastries in two of Paul Bocuse’s restaurants in Lyon, I have eaten croissants on top of a hotel in Athens while looking at the Acropolis and the Temple of Zeus, I’ve eaten them in the foothills of Tuscany and all across America. But none were better than the ones I used to eat 127 steps from my office in Hattiesburg, Mississippi.

Goodbye, Farewell, and Amen.

View today’s recipe: Amaretto Brulee Breakfast Bread

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