Baking Up a Business

Pam George

Pam George

, Food & Drink

After two decades at the Hotel du Pont, pastry chef Michele Mitchell is on her own—and doing just fine, thank you

If the cake at a local wedding is as captivating as the happy couple, chances are it was made by Michele Mitchell, a pastry princess with an impressive pedigree.

For nearly 20 years, Mitchell reigned over the bake shop at the Hotel du Pont, which in its heyday had a staff of 24. Her departure in February signaled the end of an era for the hotel, which Buccini/Pollin Group purchased from the DuPont Co. last year.

The hotel’s loss is the public’s gain. Shortly after leaving, Mitchell began offering private instruction and afternoon group classes at Tonic Bar and Grille in Wilmington. Topics have included cake decorating and petite fours.

She’s also starting Michele Mitchell Pastry Designs, which means more people will have access to her sweet creations—if, that is, they schedule ahead. Her work is in high demand, and Karen Miller knows why.

“Chef Michele created an absolutely perfect interpretation of a French pastry shop for my wedding, as well as a traditional French wedding cake, a croquembouche [a tower of cream-filled, puff-pastry balls],” says Miller, who lives in the Trolley Square neighborhood. “She gave us a memorable sweet fest that I will forever cherish in my wedding memories.”

Mitchell’s expertise makes an impression on even the most meticulous chefs.

“Simply put, there are very few individuals like Michele who execute with precision whatever they put their hands on,” says Chef Robert Lhulier, who has cooked at the James Beard House in New York. “Her creativity is surpassed only by her commitment to technique, and if it’s not perfection, it’s not good enough for Chef.”

Mitchell’s path to success wasn’t all sugar and spice. She worked grueling hours in the male-dominated casino kitchens and hotel banquet facilities. But she built a reputation for excellence that extends far beyond Delaware’s borders.

From Clarinet to Cakes

Some Mitchell-created wedding cakes. Photo courtesy of Michele Mitchell

To know Mitchell is to understand that she’s an unabashed Anglophile. She was recently seen wearing ballet flats with the British flag on them. She comes by this devotion naturally. Her mother was born in Scarborough, England.

Her father, from Absecon, N.J., held jobs in technology and electronics during the fast-paced 1960s and 1970s. That kept the family on the move, from the East Coast to the West Coast and back again. 

When Mitchell’s father worked for NASA, the family lived for a year in Bermuda. Eventually, her parents joined a startup making high-end British wool sweaters on Prince Edward Island in Canada, where Mitchell went to high school.

Mitchell and her three sisters gravitated toward the sciences. She excelled at math, and she also wanted to take art and French, but the classes conflicted with band practice.  In fact, in high school, she had the clarinet, not cooking, on her mind. She was accepted into a prestigious music college in Halifax, but her gut instinct got in the way. “I couldn’t put my finger on why, but I didn’t want to do it,” she says.

After graduation, she got a job in an eyeglasses factory, but when her parents sold their business and moved to New Jersey to care for her grandmother, Mitchell went with them. She worked at a bank, where the cakes she made for coworker birthdays were so popular that they crowned her the company cake-maker.

Mitchell’s aptitude prompted a family friend to recommend the pastry program at Johnson & Wales University in Rhode Island. During a visit, she liked what she saw, and at 22, she enrolled. There, she found that culinary students’ view of their pastry colleagues was less than sweet. When famous chefs visited the school, pastry students were relegated to the back rows.

Exceeding Expectations

Fresh out of school in 1990 with a degree in baking and pastry arts, she began working at Trump Castle in Atlantic City, which was renamed Trump Marina in 1997.

“Atlantic City was booming then,” she recalls. The bake shop was a 24-7 operation with three shifts of up to seven people. There were seven restaurants, including a steakhouse and Italian eatery, and a cafeteria.

“My first job was making 40 10-inch-round cheesecakes,” she says. “It was so daunting. In school, you’re taught how to make one.”

She quickly graduated to making such intricate items as a carousel centerpiece—complete with hand-blown sugar horses— and white chocolate castles. On any given shift, she made up to eight different cakes. She was promoted to assistant pastry chef.

Seeking an executive pastry chef role, Mitchell moved to Washington, D.C., to work at the Sheraton, which had a banquet and exhibit venue. Her team made and plated desserts for 4,000 people during President Clinton’s inauguration weekend.

“It took a lot of purchasing, planning and organization,” she says of successfully pulling off the events.

Between her casino and banquet experience, Mitchell was more than ready for the Hotel du Pont in 1998. She interviewed with Tom Hannum, the executive chef.

“We were certainly impressed with her work in Washington and Atlantic City,” says Hannum, now the executive chef at Buckley’s Tavern. “We’d gone through a couple of candidates and had not found the right fit.”

Earning Accolades

Mitchell felt the weight of the public’s expectations. “The hotel was known for pastries before it was known for its food,” she says. “I was walking into a long tradition of people coming there for desserts.”

The Brandywine Room was open five days a week. The Green Room was open two nights a week and every day for brunch and lunch. On weekends, there might be weddings in multiple rooms, including the casual Grill.

She ably kept guests happy with artful confections, both to eat and to see. In 1998, she spent four days creating replicas of House of Faberge eggs using white chocolate and marzipan.

The sculpture, which earned national press, was for “Nicholas and Alexandra: The Last Imperial Family of Tsarist Russia” exhibit in Wilmington. A photo of the sculpture is in the book Cuisine and Culture.

In 2000, Mitchell appeared on a segment of the Food Network’s show The Best of… The next year, when the James Beard House asked the Hotel du Pont to participate in a dinner featuring multiple chefs, Hannum recommended Mitchell and served as her assistant.

“What other executive chef known to man would step aside when the James Beard House came calling?” says Mitchell, who made a chocolate-hazelnut Napoleon.

A producer for the “Chef on a Shoestring” segment of CBS’ The Saturday Early Show happened to be at the dinner. Captivated by the friendly banter between Mitchell and Hannum, she booked them for an appearance on the show.

Like Hannum, Mitchell became the face of fine dining at the Hotel du Pont.

People, Passions and Pastries

When Mitchell started at the hotel, the DuPont Co. had already been through layoffs, and more were on the way. What’s more, MBNA’s shiny new headquarters attracted the hotel’s kitchen workers, and their jobs often were not filled.

By the time she left, the pastry department had gone from 24 employees to eight. Still, Mitchell made an impression on many of them, including Rebecca Stachecki, now the pastry chef at The Station on Kings in Lewes.

“Michele was the very first chef I worked for out of school,” Stachecki recalls. “She was so eager to teach me and show me things that she has perfected over the years. She helped me refine my plated desserts, taught me a lot about chocolates and pastries. Michele was always ready to answer any questions or help troubleshoot. I can still text or call her today and she’s there, willing to help.”

Mitchell also made an impression on Chuck Lewis, who handled procurement for the DuPont Country Club’s kitchen. He met her when he picked up baked goods from the hotel. A week later, a mutual coworker told Mitchell that Lewis had told his colleagues about the beautiful new pastry chef.

When he asked her to dinner, he selected the funky Queen Bean, a tiny coffee shop/diner in Claymont that was filled with antiques and flea market finds. He was somewhat nervous, and hoped the atmosphere would inspire conversation.

Halfway through dinner, she looked at him and said: “What are we doing here?” The nonplussed Lewis answered: “Having dinner?” It was “classic Michele,” he says now. “She’s always been a straight-to-the-point person.”

Lewis needn’t have worried about conversation. The couple, who wed in Bermuda in 2005, have both had long careers in the industry. Lewis, a New Castle native, is a graduate of the Baltimore International Culinary College. Both understand the demands and unconventional hours of the profession they have chosen.

By the time they married, he was also working at the Hotel du Pont. The couple also share a talent for numbers—Lewis became the property’s comptroller.

And, of course, they were DuPont employees, which added a strong corporate element to their jobs. Safety comes first. Even today, Mitchell will fetch a step stool instead of clambering onto the kitchen counter to reach a top shelf.

Mitchell made this birthday cake in the shape of a bottle of Oban scotch. Photo courtesy of Michele Mitchell

As DuPont employees, they witnessed the changes as the company downsized and grew lean for what became the merger with Dow Chemical.

Lewis left to become the general manager of Buckley’s Tavern. For Mitchell the number of jobs that would suit her skill and experience are limited.

“When Michele started and what she developed in the early 2000s was doing almost everything from scratch,” Lewis says. “There aren’t many places that still do that stuff. They’ll buy something three-quarters done, doctor it up and finish it. It’s cheaper, and it’s tough finding skilled labor.”

Mitchell can go it alone for another reason: Those-in-the-know want her services.

“Michele made a wonderful cake for my husband’s birthday in February in the shape of a bottle of Oban scotch,” says Jane Goldberg of Wilmington. “The cake was 2 feet tall, a perfect copy, completely edible and delicious.”

Goldberg shares a sentiment common among Mitchell’s clients.

“She is,” Goldberg concludes, “an artist.”

So, what do you think? Please comment below.