Sam Chappelle and his husband Yerman Carrasquero own Vicente Bistro in South End, where they make — right here in Charlotte, North Carolina, more than 4,000 miles from Paris — the best croissants in the world.
And that’s probably the least kind thing you could say about them.
In my opinion, they are the platonic ideal of the croissant. Other more quotidian varieties are mere shadows of the ones at Vicente — layered, golden, flaky, puffy — which exist as perfect and eternal in a realm forever outside the reach of other more quotidian bakers. With croissants, one should be able to smell the butter. At Vicente, you can smell it from down the block.
However, despite what some might argue — in particular Paula Deen, the silver-maned matron of Southern comfort for whom wisdom comes out in between mouthfuls of biscuits, seasoned with her trademark wit and aphorisms straight from the plantation — butter, our birthright, is at odds with Southern living. Conventional wisdom suggests that in Charlotte, croissants should not exist.
Indeed, thanks to the heat and humidity that take up shop for the majority of the year, we are not supposed to have nice pastries, let alone nice croissants, as when butter starts to melt it fails to remain in distinct layers. It will instead get absorbed into the dough, creating something brioche-like that doesn’t rise very well. It’s against all odds, therefore, that Vicente’s croissants are such faultless exemplars.
Sam is 31 and is the closest thing any of us will ever get to meeting Dolly Parton’s character Truvy from Steel Magnolias in real life, but he is perpetually tired. The 3 a.m. bakery life will do that to anyone, and it was a miracle I had even gotten him out to dinner in the first place.
“I would rather go to bed,” he had said to me one night, almost dismissively, and I had only asked him what kind of tacos he wanted for dinner; but there was more to it than that. He looked up from his hands, and the overhead lights of the taqueria made his glossy eyes look as though they were on fire.
Was his exhaustion due merely to waking up early everyday, or because he had committed himself to the impossible task of making croissants in the South?
“I had really wanted a space that was, like, light and bright and airy,” he said, “because most kitchens I’ve worked in are like dungeons.”
With Vicente, he got just that, but along with it, he and Yerman also got 18-foot-high windows that face northeast, blasting them and their butter all morning, even after installing heat-resistant films on the windows. “And it still feels like we’re under a magnifying glass.”
To add insult to serious injury, shortly after Vicente opened in May 2023, their air-conditioner broke and the inside temperature would soar as high as 88 degrees. “That hot is really bad for croissants,” he said, “so we had to close because we couldn’t even, like, work in those conditions.” But Sam had a solution.
Not for nothing, Sam Chappelle is one of the most brilliant people I have ever met. In Excel terms, he goes from Column A to Column ZZZ in a mere click. He is hilarious, insightful and acutely attuned to both geopolitics and petty social drama.
A lot of that couldn’t be helped. Originally from Massachusetts and the child of STEM parents, he traveled the world with his family from a very young age. As a result, among other things, he is so preternaturally gifted with languages that he is indifferent to praise. “How on earth did you become so fluent in Spanish?” I had asked him.
“Oh whatever,” he had said. “My mom made me learn Italian when I was young, and they’re practically the same thing.”
Sam followed the family path into STEM after college — his brother is a biostatistician, and his sister works in mental health – taking jobs in finance in Chicago, mathing the days away. At some point, however, he saw a version of his life unfolding that would have ended far too soon.
“I just thought I would graduate college and get a good job, and that I would be happy,” he said. The sight of my office security badge, which I had inadvertently left on for dinner, was enough to trigger him.
“The reason why I’m, like, vague and squirrelly about everything back then is that basically one day I just quit my job and stopped talking to a bunch of people who were, like, really very nice to me,” he said. “I had to.”
Sam escaped Chicago and started over from scratch. He enrolled in the Culinary Institute of America, the California campus, and spent a summer internship in Argentina, where he worked for a caterer making pastries for embassies.
Somewhere later that summer in Buenos Aires, in between batches of diplomats (and other pastry puns), Sam met Yerman.
Yerman, 33, is tall, lanky, bespectacled — a cross between Harry Potter and Jimmy Olsen cosplaying as Clark Kent. When he greets customers at Vicente with a “Hello! How are you!” — less question than it is declaration — it’s because he genuinely wants to know.
An accountant by trade, Yerman left his home in Venezuela to go to Argentina for culinary school. Not necessarily because he wanted to become a chef or anything, but because, as he likes to say, the situation in Venezuela is such that everyone goes somewhere else for something else. A week after starting classes, Yerman was back working as an accountant in Buenos Aires.
Around this time — Sept. 15, 2017, to be exact (“Of course I remember the exact day,” Yerman said) — fate intervened in the form of a friend from Venezuela who happened to know a guy he thought Yerman should meet from a Tumblr page dedicated to snowboarding. (“As one does,” I had said to Sam later recounting this detail, to which he replied, “Duh, this was 2017, we didn’t have international texting; we had Tumblr.”)
Yerman met Sam for coffee and spent the rest of the day walking through the city, talking about family, friends and goals while searching for trinkets in Chinatown.
A week later, a second date. A year later, after Sam finished culinary school and returned to Argentina, the two moved in together — first in Mendoza, Argentina’s answer to Napa where Sam had gotten a pastry job, and then back in Buenos Aires, where fate once again intervened — this time in the form of the pandemic.
During quarantine, when the two could never venture more than 100 meters from their apartment for more than 30 minutes at a time while under the close watch of machine gun-armed guards, the two instead stayed inside and dreamed of life far away.
“Sam needed his own café,” Yerman said. “He loves the kitchen, he loves cooking. He made chocolate cake for my sister once, and everyone who saw the cake thought it was amazing! But all Sam could do was complain about the quality of ingredients in Argentina.”
Not just the ingredients, of course. “The economy, too,” Yerman said. “It’s difficult to start a business, buy a car or a house. I think Argentina is a beautiful country, but we never would have reached our goals there. Sam would never have his café.”
Which is how — conceived in the throes of the pandemic by Sam and Yerman as a way to escape and have the opportunity for the best life together, there in their quarantine apartment in Buenos Aires, along a street called Vicente Lopez — Vicente Bistro in South End came to be.
Sam Chappelle’s solution to the bistro’s temperature crisis involved complex and immutable laws of geometry. “Once a STEM, always a STEM, am I right?” I asked, and he shot me a look of death.
The only way to beat the heat, as it were, was to invent an entirely new way to laminate the croissant dough.
“It’s geometry more than anything,” he said, “and it also helps to minimize waste, like how you cut out the dough into the shapes you need.”
At Vicente, Sam has taught his team to cut and stack sections of dough, folding them together like pages in a book. When it was really hot, he explained, they started splitting up the dough and butter into a few pieces to start, stacking them from there which allowed them to do all of the lamination at one go, keeping the time the dough was exposed to the heat at a bare minimum.
“I certainly didn’t learn this in culinary school,” he said, “but this method is so efficient that we use it almost exclusively now.”
Such innovation and ingenuity in the face of insurmountable odds could also explain why Sam is always tired.
Yerman, for his part, has enough energy for them both. “I moved to the US for my husband,” he told me, and it’s impossible not to see the love in his eyes every time he turns around to watch Sam pull yet another tray of pastries out of the ovens. Yerman is Vicente’s business manager and accountant extraordinaire, charged with keeping track of the costs of the hundreds of pounds of butter they go through every week.
Because there are laws that govern the folds of croissants, you see, and even in Charlotte, North Carolina they must be followed.
The New Yorker, as is wont of the New Yorker, has even gone so far as to suggest the Universal Law of Croissants extends to a croissant’s shape. Croissants (née “crescent”) that are in the actual shape of a crescent tend to be made with margarine, oils or other substitute fats. A “straight” croissant is made of the real thing.
(To get Sam’s spin on a Southern “I do declare,” mention the British versions, which are flat, and commiserate how the British lost their right to an opinion back when they added cake frosting to hot dog buns and called it “iced fingers.”)
But at Vicente, they are very much the real buttered thing.
It seems that whether for life or for pastries, according to the Universe and to the New Yorker-reading French who exist within it, what it really all comes down to is butter.
I realized this that night with Sam at the taqueria, staring up at the overhead lights that made my dry eyes burn — when I imagined that I saw the narrative strands of this story coalescing — Sam, STEM, Yerman, Argentina, Tumblr, COVID-19, marriage and geometry — folding themselves together layer by layer into a croissant that’s just impossible to behold.
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