With exquisite buttery croissants, rustic baguettes and ‘bonjours’ all round, who needs to go to Paris? Australian Baking Business chats with Lara Sample about her booming French boulangerie-pâtisserie, Chouquette.
On any given weekend, Brisbane’s Francophiles flock to Chouquette, a small, bakery-pâtisserie tucked away in the trendy, inner-city suburb of New Farm. With its fresh bread, strong coffee and cosy collection of tables, it’s a top pick for a Gallic-style breakfast.
It’s not just for dine-ins though. Five days a week, scores of Brisbanites emerge from the bakery, baguettes, macarons and tartes in tow.
With an abundance of warmth and charm, Chouquette is truly a bona fide artisan French boulangerie. Of course, the business’s authenticity can be largely attributed to its owner’s close acquaintance with European culture.
“I can’t decide whether I’m French-Australian, or Australian-French,” Lara says, laughing.
“I was born in Australia, but my mother comes from a small town an hour south of Paris and as a child I learnt the two cultures side by side. I made regular visits to France to spend time with my family and I would even go to school over there for months at a time. So, from a very early age, I developed a love of France and a respect for its food.”
While Lara is quick to admit the range and standard of French bread and pastry in Brisbane has improved in recent years, she remembers the days when she lamented the local bakery offering.
“I would come home and find myself craving a tasty, crunchy baguette or a buttery croissant. I also wanted to be able to offer a beautiful French pâtisserie product to my dinner hosts if I was invited anywhere, yet I couldn’t find the quality I was accustomed to,” she says.
Thus, Chouquette was born and, seven years later, business is booming.
With an artisan bread range including baguettes, batards, sourdough and boule – as well as loaves filled with olives or dates, figs, apricots, nuts and spices – bread connoisseurs are given ample variety. Still, one can be forgiven for “umming” and “ahhing” at the counter – the rustic selection is beautifully presented in hanging cane baskets and the wafting aromas are divine.
“All bread is made using a traditional slow-fermentation process and a sourdough culture, which gives it full flavour, a textured crumb and a crunchy crust,” Lara says.
And, if the boulangerie is Cézanne, then the pâtisserie is Matisse. The counter is filled with vibrant colours and assorted shapes; tiny works of art intricately presented yet designed to be devoured.
“Of course, we have traditional products one would expect from a French pâtisserie, including éclairs (café, chocolat and vanilla), gateaux, entremets and macarons,” Lara says, before pointing out the delectable selection of mille-feuille (vanilla slice) and canelé (a small pastry with a soft and tender custard centre and a dark, thick, caramelised crust).
Then there are the petit fours: mini versions of éclairs, tarte au fraises (strawberry tart), tarte au citron meringuée (lemon meringue tart) and mousse-filled macarons.
“At the same time, we have recipes that are gaining popularity today in Paris and throughout Europe. For example, we have introduced a chocolate tart, which is proving very popular,” Lara adds.
The tart selection certainly demands attention. Sold individually, or in 6/8 portions, varieties include tarte aux fraises, tarte aux pommes (puff pastry apple tart), tarte aux pêches et pistache (puff pastry peach and pistachio tart), tarte bourdaloue (pear and almond) and tarte citron meringue.
If that’s not enough to satisfy customers, the viennoiserie has every buttery delight one would expect from a Montmartre eatery. Croissants – plain and with almonds – sit alongside pain au chocolat, pain aux raisins, chausson aux pommes, torsade, danish, brioche and palmier.
“The tarte au chocolat consists of a pâte sucrée base with a bittersweet cocoa dacquoise, rich chocolate ganache, a thin leaf of dark chocolate, topped with a 60 per cent chocolate mousse,” Lara says.
To call these products tarts, however, is to sell them short. They really sit somewhere between a tart and an entremets, or even a gateau.
“The way they are constructed and put together is actually quite complex. There are a number of recipes that become part of the one product, which is something we’re seeing more and more in France at the moment,” Lara says.
The team is also currently experimenting with chocolate, selling blonde chocolate with roasted almonds by the block.
“We break off big chunks and roughly chop them up. Customers choose which one they want and we sell them by weight. It’s a bit of fun,” Lara says.
“Our head pastry chef, Jean Marie, is a passionate chocolatier who loves to pass his experience on to the other pastry chefs and the apprentices.”
Luckily, Jean Marie greatly appreciates savoury foods as well because Chouquette’s lunch crowd is growing by the day.
“We get a strong, regular, grab-and-go lunch crowd, to which we sell quite a lot of baguettes with fresh ingredients, including jambon fromage or Tetsuya smoked ocean trout,” Lara says.
“We’ve introduced quite a varied choice of savoury items that make good use of the bakery products. For example, the tartine served with a petite green salad, large slice of fresh bread, with generous toppings of prosciutto, artichoke hearts, cherry tomatoes and Gruyère, finished off in the oven, is very popular.
“We hope to bring in more of a savoury range in the new year, including salads, to cater a bit more to the lunch trade.”
It’s a lot of fit into a 50sq m business. With Chouquette’s reputation getting stronger and demand for wholesale increasing, Lara opened a second business in March. By essentially splitting the business in two, all bread and croissants are now baked nearby in Wilston, as part of the new Crust & Co enterprise.
“I’ve gone into partnership with Sebastien Pisasale, who was the baker at Chouquette for four-and-a-half years. Primarily, it’s a wholesale business that sells to a number of restaurants, cafés and hotels throughout Brisbane. Since August, it has also been open to the public every Friday, Saturday and Sunday morning,” Lara says.
“It’s great being able to work with high-quality establishments and it’s a real honour to know they are offering their customers our breads and pastries.”
While there have been periods where Lara has been in the kitchen from dawn to dusk, these days, she prefers to look after the back end of Chouquette. Always involved in the design and development of products since the business’s inception, Lara says she enjoys being a visionary and constantly moving the business forward.
“It has never been enough for me to just run a French boulangerie and pâtisserie. I’ve always enjoyed a challenge and I’ve always wanted to present a range that goes beyond the traditional and into the innovative,” she says.
“This is something that is always in my mind when I return to France, when I research the latest trends and when I brainstorm with my pastry chefs, many who I’ve sponsored to come over from France.
“At the end of the day, people come to Chouquette for a variety of reasons. They’re not here to just pick up a baguette for lunch a quick coffee or a few pastries. It’s not about one particular product, it’s about the experience – a unique, authentic French food experience.”