How an Idaho baker fought through tragedy to achieve pastry royalty
Moshit Mizrachi-Gabbitas, owner of Janjou Patisserie in Boise, is a James Beard Awards semifinalist for the second time.
February 2016, Boise, Idaho. Moshit Mizrachi-Gabbitas had been running the popular Janjou Patisserie, a French-style bakery and cafe, for three years. She's a (mostly) self-taught master craftswoman of croissants, tarts and cookies.
"What's that?" she asked.
The Israel-born Mizrachi-Gabbitas sheepishly admitted she hadn't heard of the James Beard Awards. She learned, quickly, that it's widely considered the Academy Awards of the food world, and that she'd been chosen as one of 20 top bakers around the country. "Suddenly I had [Israeli media] calling me," she told From The Grapevine. "Me! I couldn't believe it. It was shocking."
Without even knowing it, she had achieved celebrity chef status. The next few months were surreal.
And then, in August that year, it all came crashing down. Her only child, Ilai, drowned in a swimming pool at a friend's house. He was 5 years old.
Suddenly, it wasn't pastries and awards that would define her life. It was tragedy.
The genesis of Janjou
The bakery was a second act for Moshit, who met her husband, Chuck, while working in the semiconductor industry. She was used to working hard; they both were. It's one reason they got along so well.
"I get it from my mother," she told us on a recent Monday. The shop was closed when we spoke to her, but she was still working, doing some financial housekeeping. "She was a seamstress, but really, she was a fashion designer. She could look at a piece of fabric and see exactly how it's going to look at the end. She had an eye for detail, and she was a perfectionist."
That inherited perfectionism carried Moshit, now 49, through the big leap of turning her passion into a career. She graduated from Estella Kitat Oman, a leading baking school in Israel, and completed her internship at Mazzarrine, a high-end French pâtisserie near Tel Aviv. She and Chuck, a lifelong Idahoan, founded Janjou Patisserie (named after her mother, Jan) in 2008 as a wholesale bakery selling cookies to local merchants. She opened her shop in 2013, in a modern, sleek space in Boise's North End.
Moshit is the artist, the one who gets up at 4 a.m. to start rolling out the many flaky layers necessary to achieve the perfect croissant. Chuck is the businessman, handling purchasing and inventory needs. They're rounded out by a tireless team of bakers and baristas who keep Moshit's dream alive. "I wake up every day excited to go to work," she told us.
Ilai Mizrachi-Gabbitas didn't know how to swim, but he was excited to go to a pool party. His dad, Chuck, accompanied him there, and he told Ilai, firmly: "Don't go in the pool because we don't know the pool. Wait for Daddy."
There were adults and kids around, but they didn't see Ilai go in. It only took a couple seconds for him to disappear under the water. No one heard a sound. By the time paramedics arrived, it was too late.
The little boy, wise beyond his years, who would often help his parents in the kitchen at Janjou, who felt right at home, who delighted customers with his witty demeanor and polite disposition. Her only child was gone, just two weeks shy of his 6th birthday.
Moshit went back to work pretty quickly. She threw herself into the craft, the art, the creation. She rolled, she kneaded, she mixed, she baked, she decorated. She didn't stop to think, or breathe, or grieve. "It was all I knew how to do at the time," she recalled. "The first year was very, very difficult. I was there physically, but mentally I was somewhere else."
A relative encouraged her to take a vacation, and she finally agreed, just last year. She and Chuck went to the south of France, where she was able to at least partially reignite the passion from which Janjou was born.
Upon returning home, she decided it was time to make a little space in her life. She and Chuck changed Janjou's hours. They'd now be closed Monday and Tuesday. Those two days off would be slower and simpler. They would be tearful. They would be painful. But they would be what they needed. For Moshit, they would keep her family together.
Another chance at a Beard
Moshit didn't make it to the finals in the Beard awards in 2016. The honor went to Joanne Chang of Flour Bakery in Massachusetts. But Janjou Patisserie remains one of Boise's crown jewels, having amassed a fiercely loyal following of people who swear her pastries are better than they make in Paris. "I don't know about that, but I'm grateful," she said.
And now, four years later, she's been named a semifinalist again. Naturally, some of the sheen of the previous round has faded. She's hopeful that she advances, that the hard work and long hours of her team are duly recognized. But now, in everything she does, there is a tinge of sorrow, of knowing that she can no longer share these joyous moments with her only son.
She decided that this time, she's dedicating the honor to Ilai. No matter what happens.
'Life is more important than death'
Moshit doesn't like to focus on the circumstances of Ilai's death, but the family has spoken about the tragedy as a cautionary tale to parents with swimming pools and young children. A year after Ilai died, Moshit held an event at the bakery called "Pastries with a Paramedic" that gave first responders an opportunity to meet and interact with the community.
There, she stressed the need for parents to designate an adult to supervise the pool at all times, and to know exactly who will be visiting – and whether or not they can swim. "Don't think it's not going to happen to you because it can happen to anyone in the split of a second," Moshit said. "That's all it took for us."
The family is also working with the local community to dedicate a children's library in a community center to Ilai. “They just wanted to transform this into something positive," Rabbi Mendel Lifshitz, director of the community center, said of the couple.
"There's a saying in Jewish custom that 'life is more important than death,'" Moshit said. "I am just trying to get through each day and do the best I can to make him proud. I know he wouldn’t want me to just give up."
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Related Topics: Chefs & Restaurants