JEROME – During World War II there were secrets behind the doors in Casablanca. Now some of those secrets from wartime French North Africa live behind doors in Jerome.
But the secrets that have made it from Casablanca to Jerome have nothing to do with war or conspiracy. These secrets have more to do with family tradition.
For one, there is the “Montecao,” a well-guarded family secret at least 130 years old. It has been passed down through several generations of one family, and it is now the signature pastry of Gisele’s Café & Bakery in Jerome.
Coleen and Jeff Hall own and operate Gisele’s at 115 Jerome Ave. They opened the café and bakery in May 2006. Coleen explained how it all came about.
“My family was in North Africa,” she said. “My great-grandmother was a French teacher in French Algiers.
She taught Algerian women and children.”
Coleen said that her great-grandmother learned the recipe for the Montecao cookie from the Algerian women.
“She changed it.” Coleen said. “It’s now an heirloom.”
Coleen’s mother was named Suzanne, but the name she answered to throughout her life was Gisele. Gisele’s father was the harbormaster of the Port of Casablanca, an important position in the politics of wartime French Morocco.
When Gisele was only 4 years old she was pushed in front of a horse-drawn wagon, and she lost a toe in the incident. When she was 12 years old, an Arab sheik approached Gisele’s father and offered to buy her as a wife.
“My grandfather, a very proud Frenchman, said ‘No, I don’t sell my daughters.’”
Through her childhood years, and while her sisters were busy outside playing, Gisele was beside her mother, learning how to bake and cook. “That’s where she learned to do everything,” Coleen said.
Then during WWII when the Allies landed in North Africa, a young U.S. military police soldier named Alfred Cook was stationed in Casablanca, where he would soon meet Gisele Dahan.
“He met my mother and fell absolutely, head-over-heels in love with her,” Coleen said. “My grandfather made him court my mother for more than a year. They were always chaperoned. They’d go to a movie and one of her siblings would sit between them.”
Gisele and Alfred married in 1945, and, while pregnant with the couple’s first child, Gisele moved to the United States while her husband remained at war.
Gisele raised three children, Gary, Dennis and Coleen. Through the years she continued cooking and baking and teaching these things to Coleen. Gisele created new recipes of her own, and supplied her cheesecakes to restaurants in Grand Rapids, Mich.
In the mid-1990s, Coleen’s brother Dennis opened a deli and bakery in Grand Rapids, and Gisele created pastries, cheesecakes and cappuccino. Unfortunately, Gisele was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease in April 1998. She passed away in October of that year.
For a long time, it had been Gisele and Coleen’s dream to open a French bakery. “I thought the dream was dead,” Coleen said.
Coleen and Jeff run the bakery together, and she has even taught Jeff, a 20-year firefighter and current captain with the Jerome Volunteer Fire Department, how to cook and bake.
Before Jerome, Coleen and Jeff met and were married in Michigan.
“I was a volunteer firefighter in a bedroom community,” Jeff explained. “I supervised the 911 center for a sheriff’s department.”
Jerome Fire Chief Rusty Blair said Jeff is a top-notch firefighter. “He’s the most reliable guy I’ve got. He’s all about the fire service, and I’d fight a fire with him any day.”
Jerome businesswoman Donna Chesler thinks visitors to the town are intrigued with the concept of how a fire captain can be such a great right hand to his lovely and talented wife.
“Her wedding cakes, birthday cakes and éclairs are now legend after just six years,” Chesler said. “I have a feeling that Coleen’s cupcakes will be the next really big thing to hit the Verde Valley.”
In 2005, Coleen and Jeff were planning a vacation in Maine, but an acquaintance from Jerome convinced them to take a look at the old mining town on Mingus Mountain.
“We had always talked about retiring in some historic location,” Jeff said. They came to Jerome on the Home Tour weekend and could barely find a place to park.
“Within 20 minutes we looked at each other and said, ‘we’re moving here,’” Jeff said.
They looked around Jerome and realized two things: there was no bakery in town, but also there was no retail space to open one. They went back to Michigan, and two months later found out that the Internet Café was closing.
It is now Gisele’s Café & Bakery.
“My mother is smiling,” Coleen said. “Her recipes live on.”
The Halls are open 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. every day except Wednesday. In addition to serving breakfast (all day) and lunch, Coleen custom makes cakes for weddings, birthdays, graduations, anniversaries and whatever occasion requires something special.
“Everything is made from scratch,” Coleen said. “I make and roll out my own tortillas. We make our own breads. We have a lot of vegan and vegetarian dishes.”
In fact, just about the only non-vegetarian item on the menu is the gravy, which goes with the biscuits and gravy.
Coleen says Jeff has come a long way in learning cooking and baking skills. But he said that never in his wildest dreams did he ever imagine himself doing that professionally.
“It’s fun,” Jeff said. “It’s fun to create different stuff.”
He’s gotten good enough that he runs the café by himself on Thursdays.
And Coleen is still, from time to time, finding notes and recipes written by her mother, Gisele. She calls those special times, “Gisele” moments.
“It’s like she’s here again,” said Coleen.
Call (928) 649-3847.