Faces in the Crowd: Can-do attitude motivates local pastry chef, business owner Kristen Repa has brought her love of fine pastry and talent and creativity to Dessert Works, the closest thing in Westwood to a European patisserie
By Linda Thomas / correspondent
Posted Feb. 22, 2011 @ 12:01 am
Updated Feb 22, 2011 at 10:17 PM
Morning, noon and night, Rosie greets patrons at Dessert Works.
Determined, stern, sleeve rolled up and muscles flexing, the iconic Rosie the Riveter poster was the wartime inspiration to a generation of women.
She’s still at it today, reminding Kristen Repa what she’s capable of every time she comes into work.
Barely 16 and in high school, Repa, who knew one day she would become a pastry chef and be her own boss, was a tireless and fiercely hard worker – much like Rosie.
Now 35, Repa â€“ the one-time apprentice chef at the Ritz Carlton, executive pastry chef for The Catered Affair and cake decorator for Konditor Meister â€“ has brought her love of fine pastry and talent and creativity to Dessert Works, the closest thing in Westwood to a European patisserie.
The petit pastry patisserie, opened earlier this month on the south end side of Lambert’s Plaza, boasts its classic and specialty European pastries – French vanilla, carrot and Dolce de Leche cakes, triple chocolate torte, mini pastries, tiramisu and fruit tarts.
â€œEverybody wants to be the next big chef, but I’m happy just making people happy,â€ she said. “I don’t need to be rich and famous and be on television. I just need to have a nice balance in my life and enjoy what I do.â€
Rebecca Moesinger, founder and former co-owner of Konditor Meister, remembers the intense desire a 17-year-old Repa demonstrated during the three and a half years she worked at the Braintree pastry shop.
â€œIt was the same ambition I had when I was her age, so I was confident she would learn quickly and become a talented member of our team,â€ Moesinger said. “Kristen was up for the challenge…a take-charge get-it-done kind of gal. But beneath the fierce business exterior is a thoughtful and kind person.â€
Repa learned how to cook and bake from her mother who was born and raised in Europe, and who taught her she could do anything she set her mind to.
Her mother’s talents behind the stove may have suggested an old-fashioned attitude, but she believed in equality as much as Rosie herself would have.
When she was a little girl growing up in Milton and at St. Mary of the Hills and Fontbonne Academy, Repa remembers her mother saying “I can do that.â€ She never forgot those words.
The can-do attitude she inherited from her mother was reinforced by the Girl Scouts. Reading a Scout handbook, she remembers girls can do anything they want for a career â€“ or anything that boys can do.
All through high school, Repa had a flair for painting, drawing and graphics and while her parents offered to send her to Europe her junior year to study the arts, her heart proved closer to the stove.
In her senior year of high school, Repa began her culinary career at Konditor Meister, known for its fine European pastries. Her father, born and raised in Austria, had met the co-owner at a party and asked if they were looking for part-time help.
On her first day, she made bakery boxes for six hours straight.
And after three years of 55-hour weeks and $6-an-hour paychecks, she was still determined to become a pastry chef.
Under Moesinger, Repa evolved.
â€œShe began like most of our young employees by making the boxes and daily setups and simple tasks that could be easily accomplished,â€ Moesinger said.
But Repa had a plan. Again and again, she looked to Moesinger for new techniques â€“ learning to decorate cakes and pastries under Moesinger’s guidance, driving her Volkswagen Beetle – older than she was – just to get into work by 5 a.m., sometimes trudging through snow and braving the darkness.
There wasn’t a job she refused to do, said Moesinger.
â€œThere is a romantic version of the pastry business that you see on television and although it is fun to watch it does not describe the long days and crazy hours,â€ Moesinger said. “On television, you watch them work on one cake at a time. That is a romanticized version of the pastry business. Customers want their cake on time and it has to look great and taste better than it looks.â€
Repa left Konditor Meister, enrolled in classes at Newbury College in Brookline and started her apprenticeship at the Ritz.
Here, she met a Parisan named Bruno Biagianti. Now the co-owner and chef of Café Vanille both on Charles Street in Boston and Chestnut Hill and at French Memories in Sharon and in Duxbury, Biagianti was at the time an executive pastry chef.
He was impressed with her accomplishments at Konditor Meister, particularly the detail of her work on wedding cakes.
â€œKristen is very open to learning new techniques, takes initiative, is very self-motivated and focuses on being the best in her field,â€ he said.
While at the Ritz, she met her future husband, Leonardo Savona, who was working as a cook in the dining room.
As the job at the Ritz got to be old, and she looked for the next experience to build her resume, Biagianti (shared by Leonardo) encouraged her to study in Vienna to experience a European pastry kitchen first hand.Â It was a time in her career, he said, where he felt it was good for her to grow and challenge herself in a new environment.
Since her father was from Austria, Repa made no hesitation. She applied for an Austrian passport and moved to Vienna in April 1996.
The European experience for culinary arts is unmatched, even in Manhattan and Los Angeles, she said.
At Gerstner, the rival to the well-known Cafe Demel, she learned the classic recipes and procedures.
In January 1997, she returned to Boston where soon she was offered a job as assistant pastry chef at The Catered Affair in Hingham â€“ and after 18 months was promoted to executive pastry chef.
But after almost a decade working at her craft, it was time, she said, to be her own boss.
In June 2001, with some savings and a little help from her parents, she bought the existing business in Medfield known as Dessert Works. There, her mother gave her the poster of Rosie the Riveter, which became a fixture at her new pastry shop.
â€œI started off small, just a few employees, mostly part-timers,â€ Repa said. “I was doing it all, answering the phone, washing dishes, baking, decorating – but the response from the customers was great.â€
Repa’s mother took early retirement from her job as secretary at the Boston Globe and came aboard to help out, and Leonardo, who had been working at the time as a sous chef at the Four Seasons Boston, quit his job to become general manager of the business.
Within a few years, she overgrew the space in Medfield and moved to Norwood, more centrally located to Boston, Providence and Newport where many deliveries of wedding cakes took place.
Then came Westwood.
Hilary Repa, who owns and operates the Rug Merchant in Rockland, said her sister is always outdoing herself.
â€œShe’s the hardest worker; she puts everyone to shame,â€ Hilary said, noting her sister baked her own wedding cake.
Repa said she is proud watching her staff complete their jobs with the same quickness and detail she taught them â€“ and listening to them talk to patrons, making every effort to make them happy, just as she would like for them.
â€œI cannot do it alone,â€ she said. “I rely on my family and staff to be there, to be supportive and my employees to do their jobs.
â€œEven the bravest commander is alone without his or her troops behind them.â€
Alessandra Fruci knows first-hand what it’s like to work with Repa and hold onto that “We Can Do Itâ€ attitude.
Fruci, a student studying culinary arts at Johnson & Whales University, started working at Dessert Works in high school. Since 2006, she’s been labeled Repa’s “protégé.â€
â€œShe is an incredible motivator, teacher and leader,â€ Fruci said of Repa.
â€œHer attention to detail has molded her into a consistent pastry machine delivering beautiful works of art. I haven’t seen anybody so devoted and passionate about the work they do. It has given me more motivation to follow in her footsteps â€“ and the love Kristen has for the business is dangerously contagious.â€
Repa is committed to quality and making Dessert Works special.
â€œI like to make as much as we possibly can from scratch,â€ she said. “For me, it’s equally important that my products taste as good as they look.â€