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Paola's path: Bakery owner left medical career to pursue pastries

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Maria Paola Chapparo displays some of the pastries that await customers at her downtown Grand Forks store, "Paola's Pastries." Helping her are her sister, Maria F. Chapparo and her father, Jose Chapparo. photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald2 / 3
Maria Paola Chapparo learned baking skills from her mother and grandmother in her native Venezuala and brings that experience to her downtown bakery, "Paola's Pastries." Photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald3 / 3

Maria Chapparo may be a scientist by training, but she's become an artist, of sorts, by following her heart into the bakery business.

Since opening her shop, Paola's Pastries at 110 N. Third St. in downtown Grand Forks in May 2017, she's been steadily building a loyal clientele who appreciate her talent for making familiar—and not-so-familiar—baked goods.

Chapparo and her assistants, mostly family members, bake "loaf cakes, cupcakes and muffins every day—some savory, some sweet," she said.

Along with traditional baked goods, Chapparo is introducing customers to goodies—like chocolate marquise and brazo gitano—she enjoyed as a child in her native Venezuela.

Her love of baking is rooted in those experiences. She cherishes memories of growing up surrounded by family in Maracaibo, where she was born and raised.

"Every Sunday we would hang out at my grandmother's house," Chapparo said. "My grandmother was a great cook. She made absolutely everything from scratch. She would follow no recipes at all—and she never wrote them down."

Like most young people, Chapparo thought her mother's mother would be around forever.

Death rendered a hard reality.

"My grandmother didn't have a chance to pass along her recipes. That was lost," she said. "I realized these were things that we were not going to get back. It made me sad."

So she's made it her mission to recapture and replicate favorite recipes of her Latin American heritage and that of her husband, who also has Lebanese ancestors, "to honor our roots," she said.

Vegan, gluten-free

Chapparo also experiments with treats for those who adhere to a vegan or gluten-free diet, she said. "I've incorporated things I never thought I would."

Finding ways to make these items tasty "was challenging, but we got the hang of it," she said, so "even if you follow a more limited diet, you can still enjoy some sweets," like vegan cinnamon rolls.

"Those items that have dietary restrictions are the most popular ones," she said. "People don't have a lot of options here."

Her bakery has also become known for "cakes that have sugar designs—using fondant and gumpaste—for weddings and birthdays," she said. "People want something that's over the top. It's called 'edible art.' "

"When I was young, I was very artistic," she said. "In high school, I enjoyed design very much, but I never thought I'd be doing anything like this."

"I like the artistic part—the modeling, doing the painting. I relax when I'm doing it. I'm disconnected with everything," she said. "I tell my husband it's my Zen space."

Medical doctor

Chapparo, a medical doctor who graduated from medical school in Venezuela, moved to the United States in 2009 to work in medical research at the House Ear Institute in Los Angeles.

She was involved in cellular biology and histopathology research, and was excited to work "on so many innovative things," she said, and most enjoyed "the creative part, the investigative part" of her work.

Later, she and her husband, Dr. Andres Makarem, moved to Chicago where he completed medical residency training.

Living the U.S. under his visa, Chapparo was not permitted to earn an income, which gave her time to develop her baking skills. It also meant delaying her residency training.

In 2012, the couple moved to Crookston where Makarem opened his practice at Altru Clinic.

Chapparo became more interested in baking, and was asked to make treats for her husband's clinic and other groups. That spurred more requests.

"It was not for me to make money, but to learn," she said.

As her love of baking grew, her desire for postgraduate medical training waned.

"I told my husband, 'I think my passion lies somewhere else,' " she said.

Chapparo has taken decorating classes and traveled to France, Spain and Italy for classes to improve her skills and learn baking techniques from those countries.

"Although I am not classically trained (as a pastry chef), I feel like a winner," she said. "I go anywhere I can to learn."

She has gathered feedback from focus groups "to see if they were ready" for new tastes, she said.

As her business has grown, so have special orders.

"Can you make a muffin that tastes like pecan pie?" she's been asked. "Could you make me a snickerdoodle cake?"

More often than not, her response is, "we'll give it try," she said.

Unexpected path

Although she was headed for a medical career, Chapparo seems happy with the path she's chosen.

Attending medical school and practicing for a while in a small rural village in Venezuela "was something beautiful that I did. It was amazing," she said.

As the daughter of two physicians, she understands the demands of that occupation, which is more important now that she and her husband have a 10-month-old son.

Her business has received "a lot of support from the community," she said, noting that she's booked for wedding cakes through August.

Downtown business owners have been "very welcoming, like you're part of this family," she said.

"It's a big, tight community. Nobody treats you as competition. It's just great—like a brotherhood."

Chapparo looks back with satisfaction and ahead with anticipation.

"It's been a rollercoaster ride," she said, with a big smile. "The ride is just beginning."