During a trip to San Francisco last year, my friends and I stopped into a late-night cafe in the Dogpatch to wrap up the evening with fancy dessert and drinks—something we'd be hard-pressed to do in Houston, which has long suffered a lack of bakeries open past 5 p.m. and which serve wine. Oh, how we've suffered. A little over 12 months later, and that Dogpatch cafe is now gone (or rather, transformed into theLab, a private dining space), and Houston is now set to have something San Francisco (or rather, one neighborhood in San Francisco, the one in which wild fennel grows from cracks in the sidewalks) does not.
Rebecca Masson, native Houstonian and the so-called "Sugar Hooker" of Top Chef: Just Desserts fame, is thisclose to opening her long-awaited bakery, Fluff Bake Bar. When last Houstonia caught up with Masson, she was in the midst of raising funds for the bricks-and-mortar bakery via Kickstarter—a campaign that was ultimately successful in meeting (and exceeding by $3,580) its $50,000 goal. That was in February 2014. Since then, Masson has battled setbacks—her original lease in Montrose fell through unexpectedly—and the city's notoriously sluggish permitting department as she's continued baking Moon Pies and Fluffernutters for her wholesale and special order business in a small corner of the kitchen at Kraftsmen Bakery, where Fluff Bake Bar first got its start in 2011.
When I catch Masson by phone, she is waiting on yet another small piece of the puzzle to come together inside the soon-to-open bakery at 314 Gray. "Stained concrete," she says. "When they stained the dining room floor for the second time, they didn't stain the kitchen." Masson chuckles, "It's just a comedy of errors sometimes." But barring any additional errors, Fluff Bake Bar is set to finally open a week from tomorrow on May 28. The bakery-by-day/dessert-bar-by-night with charming courtyard seating and a location in a highly desirable, highly walkable part of Houston has the potential to turn Midtown into a pastry destination much the same way that Common Bond has made its mark in Montrose.
"I was ecstatic for Common Bond to come to Houston because it's what I'm used to," says Masson, who earned her Diplôme de Pâtisserie from Le Cordon Bleu in 1999, where she reveled in the easy access to perfect croissants and macarons throughout Paris. "The lack of really good pastry in this town is kinda sad," Masson reflects. Indeed, pastry chefs in Houston have been in short supply for years; the position is often considered extraneous at most local restaurants, barring notable exceptions such as Samantha Mendoza's work at Triniti, making thoughtful dessert menus and pastry programs increasingly rare.
One of the things Masson hopes to accomplish in her new space is filling in that deficit with young talent, including the pastry assistants she's hired so far. "Each week, I want to give them time to work on something, come up with an idea, present it to the team—and if it flies, it goes on the menu," she says. "There's not a lot of opportunity for pastry chefs to learn in Houston," and learning is what Masson hopes is accomplished in her kitchen, behind the scenes, where patrons turning up for Fluffernutters or cake cups may never even know what's being thrown at the wall to see if it sticks. There will also be regular guest chef rotations, starting with former Uchi whiz Philip Speer, who's heading here from Austin in the next couple of weeks—another opportunity for young pastry chefs to learn from talent beyond the Bayou City.
"I hope we have some amazing kids come out of here and change Houston desserts," she adds with a signature cheeky giggle. "I don't want to eat Aunt Edna's chocolate cake for the rest of my life."
Fans of her Fluffernutters should rest assured that neither they nor any other of Masson's signature desserts are going anywhere once the storefront opens. "I always said the Fluffernutter would put my kids through college if I ever have them," Masson laughs. When Fluff Bake Bar first started, she recalls, she was lucky to go through four tubs of the cookie sandwich's marshmallow fluff each week. These days, she's ordering those tubs of marshmallow fluff four crates at a time and delivering nigh-endless batches of cookies to wholesale accounts like Revival Market even as she prepares for next week's grand opening. "Even though we're doing the dessert service at night," she promises, "you can still get a Moon Pie or a Fluffernutter any time you come in."
About that dessert service: Evenings at Fluff Bake Bar will bring more than just the slices of cake and trays of cookies that will dominate the 1,200-square-foot shop by day. At night, Masson will offer plated desserts that harken back to her early days in Houston after returning from her extensive education in Paris and New York City, when she consulted on the terrific dessert menu at the now-closed Stella Sola (her pistachio pound cake with mascarpone and sour cherries was a personal favorite) in 2009. Some desserts will even trace back to her early days as a pastry chef. Such as? "Risotto zeppoli with ginger blueberries and a honey semifreddo," she says. "That got me the job at Red Cat in New York City in 2005."
It's this return to her roots that has Masson most excited of all. "Honestly, I built this so I could start making plated desserts again," she says. "I love cookies and Moon Pies and cakes—they've got me this far and they're really good, but God I miss making plated desserts." To further drive the point home that these desserts are more than just a cupcake hastily grabbed on run, Fluff Bake Bar will offer wine pairings with each plated dish, courtesy of sommelier Antonio Gianola, whom Masson first met when they were both employed at Catalan.
"I like his train of thought and he's a super-awesome guy," she says of Gianola. "When I was thinking about pairings, I called Antonio, and he was completely game." In addition to the nightly wine pairings, look for local craft beer as well as wine selections that are deeper cuts than you'd expect at a dessert bar. "There were some things I made him put on there because I love them," says Masson. Such as? Bordelat cider made from centuries-old heirloom apple and pear trees on an estate just south of Normandy, France, or Billecart-Salmon rosé, often called one of the best bottles of pink bubbly on the market. "It's not a cheap bottle," laughs Masson, "but goddamn it's good."
For now, those bottles sit waiting to be popped on opening night next week, while Masson and her longtime assistant, Kimberly Margioni, the quiet and swift presence whom Masson lovingly refers to as her "Ninja," settle in. After so many years spent working in other kitchens, borrowing small corners from bakeries or consulting with chefs, it's still sinking in that Fluff Bake Bar will soon have a space of its very own. "Ninja's one of those people who doesn't believe that things are happening until they actually happen," says Masson. "Ninja's the yin to my yang; we finish each others' sandwiches. She's the logical one, I'm the emotional one."
The two women were hard at work on an order earlier this week, using the brand-new kitchen for the first time, when Masson says that Margioni turned to her and smiled, saying: "You know what? We have a home."
"I just started crying," says Masson, before giggling: "And then we went and took a selfie in the bathroom."