The first thing chef Franck Oysel bought when he moved to Memphis from France four years ago had nothing to do with food.
"When you're born in France, you have a few things you would love to have one day," says Oysel (pronounced "Wah-ZELL"), 33.
He bought a pair of goat leather Lucchese cowboy boots. "It was my first thing I wanted to have here because I always saw that on TV."
Next on the list was, he says, to "test drive a Mustang. That's what I did, too. Little steps you have in your head and you want to do it."
Oysel, executive pastry chef at Interim restaurant, said moving to Memphis wasn't part of his game plan when he made his first pastry — a croquembouche: a puff pastry with caramelized pastry cream on top — when he was 10 years old. His father, a chef at a fine dining restaurant in Oysel's hometown of Lons-le-Saunier, France, helped him make the mousse for a wedding.
Oysel knew he wanted to be a pastry chef because making pastries was "more artistic."
"I think it's more technical to do pastry than to do food," he says. "I just like the complexity of molecules and all this."
He went to culinary school at Besancon and C.F.A.I. de Gevingey, where he was first in his class all four years. "I graduated in pastries, in chocolate, in ice cream, bakery, and candies.''
After he graduated, Oysel got jobs as a master pastry chef, a master chocolatier, and a baker. "I learned to make bread, brioche, croissants."
Oysel planned to eventually open his own pastry shop in France, but he met his future wife, the former Hanna Kate Gordon, who is from Memphis. "She was an English teacher in my town."
They met when they were exchange students. "She taught us to speak English, and we taught her to make pastries."
Oysel made the first move. He said, "Do you want to drink something with me?"
He proposed six months later. "It was fast because I knew it. I knew she was the right one."
They decided to move to America. "I like challenge, you know? I told Hanna, 'You know, I think it's time for a change.'"
He said, "Let's start a new life in Memphis."
Oysel learned to speak English by watching TV shows — everything from children's programs to police dramas.
He and Hanna were married in Memphis. Oysel made a puff pastry French wedding cake — two hearts shaped like the countries of France and America.
Oysel went to work as a pastry chef for Jose Gutierrez at River Oaks restaurant. He also worked at the same time as pastry chef at Interim.
Working in an American kitchen was "very hard because I needed to learn everything. New product, new atmosphere, humidity."
He was given free rein to make what he wanted. "I could go back to the French pastries, and it made me feel better."
Oysel also made American pastries, including pecan pie and cheesecake, but he made them his way. He substituted honey for corn syrup and changed the quantity of pecans in his pecan pie.
Like he does now, Oysel ordered butter, chocolate, and other ingredients from France instead of in the United States. "It's very hard to find the same quality. It's very expensive, but the quality is awesome."
Oysel and Hanna now are the parents of a seven-month-old daughter, Emelia. Oysel still keeps his house in France, but he doesn't plan on moving back. "I don't think I want to go back to France. I told my wife it's easier here."
He plans to open his own pastry shop in two years or sooner in Memphis. He already has the name — The Sweet Life. And he knows the location, which is in East Memphis. "I would do pastries, a little bit of bread. I would do croissants, chocolate. And I want to do lunch.
"Four years I'm here. Now, I can speak English. I can write. I can do stuff now. I can order my own product. Now, it's time for me to open something."
Oysel doesn't plan on working his way up to opening a chain of pastry shops. "If there are 20 people coming into my shop and 20 people are happy, I'm done. I have enough. I'm not a 2 million-a-day guy. I don't want that. I like quality. I like family. I like a small place. I want to have enough money to have a life, but I don't want to open 20 shops to make $20 million.
"I want to know my people. I want to sit down and talk. And not be stressful."
He likes to make people happy. "When you change your tire on your car, it does not make you happy. When you go to the lawyer, that doesn't make you happy."
Pastries, he says, "make you happy."