Like the food? Buy the place!
If you were stranded on a desert island with only one thing to eat, what would it be?
Questions like that force you to take a serious look at your priorities - and your grocery list.
My choice would be a warm loaf of really, really good bread. It must be fresh out of the oven. (My desert island is equipped with bread ovens. It’s my island. I can do what I want.)
I will also require a stick of unsalted butter. Softly aromatic of yeast, the loaf crackles slightly on the outside, and is creamy on the inside. Why yes, a French baguette would be fine, thank you.
Apparently I’m not the only person who feels that way. Wilmington resident Maya Contractor used to climb into her car every couple of weeks and journey south to Rehoboth Beach. Her quest? The Holy Grail of French baguettes, baked daily by pastry chef Constance Dougat at Café Papillon. Years before, the very French and very talented Ms. Dougat fed vacationers and locals on the Boardwalk from a cart she christened Crepes Suzette.
The area where Penny Lane Mall connects Rehoboth and Wilmington avenues used to be the 50-foot-wide Rehoboth Hotel. At her urging, the narrow building was removed, and in the resulting alley she established Café Papillon. We’re fortunate that she wielded her powers only for the good of mankind.
Maya was also no stranger to European food and baking techniques. She spent every summer in England and France, and when she stayed local, she visited Rehoboth Beach. In spite of her degree in respiratory therapy (she keeps it current - just in case), Maya loved waiting tables and hobnobbing with vacationers and locals.
I couldn’t help but inquire as to her last name, and the story is just as unusual. Her grandfather was so proud of his sons’ education in the construction arts and sciences that he wanted to do something to make their talents stand out from the crowd. So he legally changed their last names to … you guessed it … Contractor. Maya’s father went on to earn a Ph.D. in chemical engineering, lending his talents to chemical giant DuPont.
It eventually began to dawn on Maya that there might be an easier way to enjoy those delicious baguettes, other than driving four hours. So she bought the place! Her fresh-grilled crepes, homemade pastries and bread immediately took off. Her mom, Penny (yes, that’s right: Penny Contractor) served as her business partner and right-hand girl, working elbow to elbow at Café Papillon for 10 years. Like most resort businesses, she also hired European exchange students as summer help, including, in her words, “a French kid” she employed to pour, rake and fold crepes.
After working there for two years, young Jerome Magnan decided to return home. Obviously there was some unfinished business back here in Rehoboth Beach, because during a flight layover in Detroit, he called Maya and asked her to marry him. She’s justly proud of his pastry and crepe-making skills - not because he’s her husband, but because he does it 15 hours a day, every day. Now THAT’s love.
The line at Café Papillon forms early. The magnetic pull of the fragrant croissants, tarts, napoleons, éclairs, coffees and baked-to-order crepes keeps it stretching well into the afternoon. Four steaming griddles turn out the impossibly thin pancakes, making the perfect breakfast drizzled with Grand Marnier, Nutella, fresh fruit, or chocolate and almonds.
Lunchtime savories include fillings such as egg, ham, cheese and tomato, or maybe smoked salmon, sour cream and chives.
Maya describes herself as the creative force in their little family, with Jerome tending to frivolous things like the rent, food bills and payroll taxes. I pushed a bit about that respiratory therapy degree, and Maya admits that she still loves the field and dreams of one day doing it professionally. I cloud over a bit, but she pats my hand and reassures me, “Oh, don’t worry, I’ll always make baguettes.”