Finding that sweet spot

Christopher Thé standing in front of the window to his new shop HEARTHE

Christopher Thé, the brilliant mind behind Black Star Pastry and its world-famous strawberry and watermelon cake, is once again making waves in the industry with the opening of his new venture HEARTHE, which took place in Stanmore, NSW, on February 7.

Christopher Thé is a name that is synonymous with high-class pastry the world over, but baking—and hospitality in general—wasn’t initially on the cards for him.

“I was at university when I was young—straight out of school, when I hadn’t quite decided what my career was going to be, so I did a general Bachelor of Arts degree. I did psychology; I thought that was going to be my path,” he tells me.

“But then I discovered cafes and restaurants. I just kind of fell in love with the life, the service, the heat of dockets coming up, preparing food, watching people eat.”

As soon as Chris finished his degree, the day of his final exam, he stepped into the world of hospitality. Realising that he wouldn’t get far without any training, Chris decided to take on an apprenticeship, after which he quickly fell into the world of fine dining.

“In that world, I ended up in desserts because of my temperament. I’m quite patient and careful—I was, anyway, before I became an entrepreneur. I fell in love with the sweeter side of things, so that’s where I ended up,” he says.

After working at various well-known and reputable restaurants and patisseries, Chris decided to go down a different route after the birth of his first son.

“I had my first son, and it wasn’t compatible with kids anymore,” he says.

“I ended up with this thought of having my own pastry shop… and that became Black Star. I grew that from just myself in the kitchen to a huge business.”

As the business grew, there was an increasing distance between Chris and the various people who worked for him. So, in 2019, he decided to take a step back and find out if food was still what motivated him.

I tried a little bit of writing, I tried consulting small businesses, and I tried manufacturing… They were all great, but they didn’t really give me the joy of watching people come into the shop and giving them an amazing experience—that’s really what I love to do.”

The journey that Chris took in the time after Black Star led him to the idea for his new venture, HEARTHE.

“I went on this path of opening another bakery, another patisserie, but really it was two years before I found the right spot… And here I am. There was a beautiful sweet spot in my Black Star days, when I only had one shop, and I had a small team and I knew all the locals. That was amazing,” Chris says.

“I’m hoping that I can keep this place in the sweet spot—not grow too big, not have to grow too big. Keep it to a small team and know as many people who come through the door as possible and really put that effort into their experience.”

But keeping things small is not Chris’s only focus for the new bakery. He is also hoping to keep in touch with native ingredients.

“I was fortunate enough to dine at Noma in Sydney, when they were in Sydney. That was quite eye-opening. He brought all sorts of rare, rare, rare ingredients to put together in a meal,” Chris said.

“That made me realise that the food that I knew so well, that I called Australian food, was very English and French-based. Whereas the food that we get from this land can be quite challenging in the way that it can be astringent or acidic, bitter sometimes, sometimes a bit tough. That’s where you start to get all these flavours that you’ve never had before. That’s where the spark came from.

“I’ve been on this path of discovery, just trying all these new ingredients that are around. It’s been eye-opening as a chef. Before this, I would say that it would be very rare that you would taste something that was really novel to you. But it’s just been one after the other, once you start to get into native ingredients and whatever food this land can produce.”

Chris’s vision for the new patisserie is reflected in its name: HEARTHE.

“HEARTHE has so many other little words in the name that talk about what we’re about,” Chris says.

“If you pull the name apart, it’s got heart. I really wanted to put something very personal into the business, into the food. Hopefully it looks like art, but that’s for others to decide. It’s got my name in there, Thé. Also, one of my passions has been sustainability in small business, looking after the earth. You’ll see, in this one word, it contains all these other words.

“When you hear it in its final form and you can pick out all these words, it just kind of makes sense.”

Another important cornerstone of HEARTHE for Chris is that the cakes that are produced are able to withstand the harsh Australian climate.

Chris says, “I gave myself the challenge to build what I’m calling cakes designed to this climate, to this land. On a 30°C day—our signature cake range, they’re designed to sit on a bench for three days and be fine.

“If you think about it, we’ve been cooking like this all of our existence as human beings. It’s only really been in the last 100 years everyone’s had refrigeration, and there’s been cakes all this time.

“Our challenge was to bring that style of food with traditional preservation techniques and then modernise it and then make it taste good. That’s been a real challenge, that’s why it’s taken so long to develop these cakes to make sure that not only they taste good, but that they stand up and can be delivered. Cakes for this climate, really.

“People have been doing this for millennia. We’ve lost the skills in making food that doesn’t require refrigeration, cause we’re just so reliant on refrigeration and cold logistics and supermarkets these days.”

When he’s baking for himself, the thing that Chris loves to make more than anything is surprising. Apple tarte tatin.

“It’s actually very challenging to do, to get it right. It takes a lot of feel, experience. But really, the best food I find are the simplest foods. Just two things, apples and pastry—with a little bit of cream on the side of course. Perfection in food is when you’ve taken everything away and you’re just left with the essence of something. You take these two ingredients—apple and pastry—and the result is so much more than the parts. It’s like it’s gone through this magic transformation.

“That’s my favourite dessert of all time. You never get tired of these classics.”

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