Art and culture mix with gorgeous food design at Sydney’s Black Star Pastry. Australian Baking Business spoke to owner and pastry chef Christopher Thé about finding truth through food.
The owner of Black Star Pastry is in the middle of a juggling act. Packing equipment away at the end of a catered conference while talking into a mobile phone tucked under his chin, the practical requirements of running a business are striking home. If Christopher Thé had known more than three years ago the amount of work involved in opening a bakery café, Black Star Pastry may never have existed.
“I think back to those days and if I was actually aware of everything I had to do then, I don’t think there would be a Black Star. So I’m kind of grateful that I was quite naïve,” Christopher revealed to Australian Baking Business.
Established in October 2008, the Newtown patisserie is the culmination of years of experience for the talented pastry chef. The 38-year-old’s background with some of Sydney’s best chefs has influenced and crafted his skillset. Completing his apprenticeship under Steve Manfredi at Bel Mondo, he spent six years running fine dining restaurants at three-hat pastry kitchens such as Quay and Claude’s. Despite the allure of working a chef’s life, he decided to broaden his experience and began shaping dough at Sonoma Bakery, working in cake factories, piping eclairs at La Renaissance Patisserie and running the pastry section in Balmain’s Victoire.
“It’s really quite different from a restaurant background. The service runs in reverse – you start off really kind of stressful in a bakery, whereas in a restaurant you come in all cruisey and then service (hits),” he says. The style and delivery of baked product appealed to Christopher and his wife Rose, and nearly four years ago they decided to open Black Star Pastry.
A clear single vision and traditional techniques drive Christopher and his team of five pastry chefs. The café has an eclectic vibe that “feels instantly familiar”. Fine coffee made from Little Marionette coffee beans, a DIY toast station, house-brewed iced tea and fresh juices serve as accompaniments to the array of sweet and savoury offerings. Here, chocolate caramel tarts, macarons, eclairs and handmade truffles are wonderfully displayed and take centre stage.
“I love patisserie. I love the creativity,” Christopher says. “In a patisserie there is a certain kind of limitation, and they are the kind of rules that you play by. Things have to travel well, they have to make it home, they have to taste just as good to your customers when they travel across Sydney. It should look exactly the same. You have to really use a lot of restraint because if you don’t, it’s almost like cheating. So that’s quite challenging.”
Christopher believes Newtown’s informal and fun atmosphere made it the perfect place to set up shop, and locals have been enthusiastic with their support.
“Newtown is great, it’s just a hip and happening place. Lots of young people, who kind of have the same interests similar to me. Perfect for Black Star,” Christopher explains.
“I think Newtown is where the food scene is heading. There’s so much happening at the moment in the way of new restaurants starting up and having a go. It’s where people are going to do that now.”
Christopher follows a philosophy of taking ownership of all the food on display, so that it has a complementary look, taste and texture.
“There’s a lot of thought behind really good food. It’s not wacky, it’s not putting together stuff that people haven’t thought of before – it’s just good cooking,” he says.
A case in point is a customer favourite, the strawberry watermelon cake. A layer of masserated watermelon runs through the centre of the cake, with dacquois on the top and bottom buffered by rose-scented cream.
“So the flavours are all there, and then the watermelon then cuts out the use of another piece of cake, or another piece of cream, so it’s just light and refreshing. People love that one,” he explains.
Christopher’s attention to detail and clever food ideas extends to the café’s retail design. Local designers have been commissioned to craft equipment for the café, including stools, glasses and even a spork. Christopher believes that when you own a café, it’s okay to indulge in small embellishments, especially if it appeals to your clientele’s tastes.
“It’s not the most sensible thing to do financially but it’s really cool. I think you always have to stay interesting,” he said.
“For me, it’s a holistic kind of thing. To be really creative in the kitchen you have to keep up with what’s happening, say in music even, and just what’s happening with kids on the scene, art galleries. That kind of sense of aesthetic runs through your life.”
Black Star Pastry’s lamb pie received the top 10 meat pie title in Sydney from Time Out magazine last year. The business was also named best café patisserie in the Sydney café guide. The awards have helped to ramp up awareness of the business and grow its customer base. While Christopher would love to grow the store further and bake bread onsite, he believes it is more economical to focus solely on pastry.
“I really believe that you have to know what you are good at and just specialise in it. I really love baking pastry. There’s seven or eight just different types of dough in the fridge at any one time and we know exactly how to use that. That’s where we really excel, that’s why people come to us. So I can make bread, but it’s not my passion. My passion is tarts and pastries and baking pastry,” he says.
What originally started as a simple two-person business has grown exponentially. The Black Star Pop Up store was recently launched to take the retail experience off-site, while Christopher uses both Twitter and Facebook as promotional tools.
With the production site “busting out of Newtown”, Christopher is constantly asked what he will do next. With four children at home and so much on his plate, he is taking a relaxed and organic approach to expansion plans.
“I used to work 16 hour days if I had to, but now I will drop in four hours, leave to look after the children and come back. So we are full-steam ahead on a sensible production site. That’s my biggest challenge. It’s just hard to produce where we do.”
Regardless of his future plans, Christopher derives satisfaction from the integrity he maintains in the standard and quality of his food. Putting away the last of his dishes after a long day before heading home, Christopher reveals the sense of purity in what he does.
“The most beautiful thing about bakery is that everyone can kind of see where it comes from. So it has authenticity to it.”