My French Melbourne: get your French pastry fix at Choukette
As Francophiles, we all know how it feels to search for that authentic, unpretentious French fare close to home. And we know how it feels to give in, admitting defeat, believing that what we are searching for exists only in France – and in the presence of our fondest daydreams. But fear not, Melburnians, for that eager search to fulfil our fix right here at home is soon to draw to a close.
We’re not quite sure if it’s the four coffees he’s had before 9am, or the sheer enthusiasm for croissants, but Nans Wojtczak is literally buzzing when he talks to MyFrenchLife™ about his Sydney Road bakery. Upon first step into the café, all senses engage. Our noses catch a whiff of something tempting, feeling our mouths start to salivate, before spying a group of pastries nestled snug in the display cabinet. Our gaze rests on the interior, warm and cosy, where a group of ladies don’t appear to plan on moving from their corner any time soon, and frankly, neither would we.
The café is Nans’ pride and joy, the success of which he attributes to the value placed on customer feedback and the thriving individuality that’s the backbone of his Brunswick neighbourhood. But Nans is modest, and it’s obvious his no fuss hospitality is the reason why so many visitors are making Choukette a French home away from home.
We sat down for a coffee with the man himself and discovered just what it is that is making the quaint café so infectious…
Tell us the story of how Choukette began. What inspired you to create the café?
Choukette started in 2008 with Stephane who also owns Aux Batifolles in Fitzroy. He was one of my first employers in Australia actually. Choosing Brunswick was a bit of a coincidence really as we found a shop with a bakery and café/pâtisserie not knowing the area at all. I am now in love with Brunswick.
Why did you decide to move from France to Melbourne? What was the most challenging part of adapting to the Melbourne lifestyle?
I travelled all around France and Europe to learn my skills for about seven years with the companions du devoir. After that, I still wanted to travel far away – England wasn’t far enough! So I chose Australia. I came with my backpack; I thought I could speak English, but in fact no, I couldn’t really, which made it really hard to find my first job!
The most challenging part of adapting [to Melbourne] would have to be the food! We eat so much pâté, terrine, charcuterie, saucisson and cheese back in France and here it’s really hard to find these things.
More and more French people are moving to Melbourne. Why do you think this is happening?
I think they want to see what’s on the other side of the world, as in France it’s pretty tough at the moment regarding jobs and the economy. A lot of people complain about this in France. Most of the French complain most of the time anyway I hear…
What do you love most about Melbourne? And what do you miss most about France?
What I love the most about Melbourne is the melting pot for the food. It’s so amazing to [have] a world tour of food staying in one city! I love the diversity of culture. The way of life is so much easier, so many happy people here.
What I miss most about France is my family, after the food of course! Especially when you start having children – that’s when it hits you harder, not being able to share these moments…but we can’t have everything!
What is a typical day like at Choukette?
Typical day at Choukette starts at 4.30 am, drinking coffee, baking croissants, quiches, tarts, drinking more coffee, decorating the cakes, filling up the shop cabinet with everything, then a break: coffee and croissant.
After this is all done we make preparations for the next day: béchamel, crème pâtisserie, rolling, lining up dough, building cakes, etc. We finish around lunchtime, which I really like about the job!
What quality does an excellent pâtisserie need to succeed and excel?
To be successful you need to be consistent at all times, keeping your products at a high quality and standard. Using fresh, raw and good quality products are a main key for me.
If you keep your head down without looking and listening [to] what your customers wants, it just won’t work!
Why do you think la pâtisserie is such an important part of French identity? Buying specialty goods from smaller shops also remains a large part of French cultural identity, why do you think this is so? Do you notice differences in the shopping habits of Melburnians?
It’s part of the tradition I think. There are still a lot of families who have Sunday lunch, therefore they like to buy and eat cakes to share. Most French people need their baguette to survive, therefore they are often tempted by a little sweet or snack.
I realised that last December when I went back home, I really missed that. On nearly every street corner you can find a decent boulangerie/pâtisserie.
We are lucky to have a lot of artisans in France. Lots of people respect and support this hard work – it also tastes very good! Unfortunately the little artisans are getting taxed more and more, therefore the bigger factories and chains are supplying the smaller pâtisseries and boulangeries with their products like frozen cakes and pastries. The artisans are fighting hard to show that everything is made on their premises.
I find Melburnians tend to shop more often and buy less at a time rather than do one huge shop.
What is your favourite pâtisserie? Which is the most difficult to make?
It would be the croissant because the recipe and the way to do it always changes depending on the brand of flour, the weather (winter, summer, humid, dry)… All those factors change the way you knead the dough [and] the way you cook them. That’s what I like because there is always a challenge!
What are your three most popular items?
1. Croissants and pastries
2. Macarons – our chai and mint macaron won the best signature Melbourne macaron in 2010
3. Royal: crunchy layer of praline with flourless sponge and chocolate mousse (also gluten free)
A lot of our customers come for the croissants. They say it’s hard to find a good croissant in Melbourne.
Is it important for Choukette to adapt to the local expectations rather than the original French influences?
Yes, you really have to listen to your customers. Some traditional cakes don’t work here, as some people don’t know [them]. I tried a few things that are very popular in France but didn’t work here unfortunately like the religieuses – I was very disappointed as I love them!
We also make a lot of vegetarian food here as there seems to be a lot of vegos in the area.
If you keep your head down without looking and listening to what your customers want, it just won’t work!
Do you have any specialties, particular to Choukette? Is there something that people really seem to come back for? Why do you think this is so?
A lot of our customers come for the croissants. They say it’s hard to find a good croissant in Melbourne. I really like to make them too and, as I always say, the most important ingredient in the recipe is love!
What do you do with items left at the end of the day?
We give them to the staff or I give some to charity too. A lot of the staff say that after one or two months working in Choukette that they put on weight eating too many pastries and cakes!
In Melbourne, do you have a favourite boulangerie, fromagerie, café, pâtisserie, boutique…?
I like my local bakery/café, The Sourdough Kitchen in Seddon. I get a lot of my cheese from Rathdowne Deli in Carlton North. And… Cornelius Cheese online!Ready to meet Nans in the flesh? You can find Choukette at 318 Sydney Rd, Brunswick Monday-Thursday 7:15am-5:30pm, Friday-Saturday 7:15am-6pm and Sundays 7:15am-4:30pm.
Have you visited Choukette? What pâtisserie got you salivating? We’d love to hear your thoughts!
All images courtesy © Nans Wojtczak.