As Salem bakery-owner Malita Fiore will testify, the life of a pastry chef is no piece of cake. At 2 AM while most people are tucked snugly beneath the sheets, Fiore is already in the kitchen wrestling with endless layers of croissant dough. She has endured painful blisters while shaping sculptures out of boiling hot sugar. And she’ll be the first to admit that she’s spent much of her adult life working in restaurant kitchens where stressed-out cooks hurdle curse words as sharp as kitchen knives. Still, she carries on – and blissfully so. How does she do it?
“It’s in my DNA,” the energetic thirty-something smiles. “My father is Sicilian and he’s very intense and passionate about food. We used to make pasta from scratch so there was a natural transition for me into restaurants where they were like “Oh my God, we must get the ravioli done!”
After ten years working as a restaurant pastry chef, these days Fiore is channeling her creative energy into Malita Fiore: a French-style patisserie that opened shop in downtown Salem in September. The bakery boasts everything from individually sized hazelnut mousse tortes and eclairs to towering custom-designed wedding cakes whose life-like sugar roses seem to have sprung from a bride’s delicate bouquet.
On a recent morning, the smell of apple tarts drifts from behind a glass pastry case where brightly colored French macaroons beckon like pastel candies. Fiore is dressed in a white chef’s coat, her dark hair pulled up in a no-fuss ponytail. She leaves the warmth of the kitchen and settles down at a café table to share her story. A Salem-native, fresh out of Northeastern, in her early twenties Fiore was determined to become a lawyer. Her younger sister Athena helped to change her path. In 2002, Athena, who was in high school at the time, enlisted her big sister’s help working on a school fundraiser. Malita’s job? To cook and serve food to three hundred people. At first, Fiore, who was working in an office at the time, was terrified. But she succeeded in creating a menu and serving the large group, and afterwards realized she liked cooking “a lot better than sitting behind a computer screen.”
“It was the most exhausting and rewarding thing I ever did,” she says.
Weeks later, high school menu in hand, Fiore walked into (now defunct) Strega restaurant in Salem and asked for a job in the kitchen. The executive chef Arnold Rossman took a liking to her and decided to bring her on. Rossman, who now works as general manager for restaurateur Keith McNally in New York City, recalls, “Malita had never worked in a kitchen before, but she was a natural; very intuitive and very eager. She also knew how to work on a timeline. She was organized and focused.”
Long afternoons of intense training followed with Fiore often putting in extra unpaid time. The restaurant owner, impressed with her passion, paid for classes with French pastry chef Delphin Gomes (who later went on to work at The Cambridge Culinary Institute). Then, just three months after she’d started working there, Rossman left Strega for New York City and Fiore was promoted to head pastry chef. Eager to expand her knowledge, she signed up for six more months of classes with Gomes. “Delphin opened up this whole new world to me of sophisticated French pastry,” she recalls. “I discovered these French competitions where pastry chefs created whole cities out of sugar.” After two years at Strega, Fiore left for an opportunity at Chillingsworth, an upscale restaurant on Cape Cod. Here she got a chance to embrace her playful side. “The goal was to surprise and entertain the customer. I would make these fancy deserts like towers with caramel spires that had acid in them that made them bounce like Slinkies.”
Later, time spent working in Tokyo at the Imperial Palace Hotel, helped to inform both her palette and her recipes. “I tasted all these new things and I had all these experiences I bring to the American cake.”
Recent custom-designed wedding cake flavors have included orange cardamom with candied rose petal buttercream and green tea with wild cherry buttercream.
Finally four months ago, after years dreaming of owning her own business, Fiore opened up shop at 83 Washington Street in Salem. Like her father, whose tastes run from raising chickens to listening to Vivaldi, Fiore seems to effortlessly balance her sophisticated taste for French pastries with a girl-next-door’s sensibility. Although the bakery with its elegant white tables can seem a bit frou-frou at first glance, it has already attracted a fair share of regulars content to hunker down with a cappuccino and a book. Fiore’s sister Athena, dressed in a black and white ruffled apron, is a cheerful presence behind the counter, alternately helping her sister with baking and assisting customers. And the girls’ father, it seems, has also left his mark, both on the menu, and in spirit. On the pastry case, above a wide array of American cupcakes and French pastries, sits a jar of fresh cannoli shells, ready to be filled with sweet ricotta. “These are here because my father was belligerent about it,” Fiore smiles. “He was like ‘you must have cannoli.’”
Mr. Fiore, it seems, stops in a few times a day to check in on his two daughters. “He’s very gregarious,” Fiore says. “Invariably one of the customers says ‘I’m here because of your father.’”
“Salem Bakery Provides Sweet Retreat” originally appeared in the Boston Globe, December 2013