How three alumni are taking Edmonton baking to new heights
Not long ago, grocery-store slab cakes, coffee-shop scones and big-box-store muffins were the dominant options for baked treats in Edmonton. These days, however, high-end bakeries are springing up faster than a perfect croissant, giving local pastry lovers a buffet of delectable new choices.
Edmonton has become a haven for fancy, patisserie-style shops offering French specialties like pain au chocolat and macarons, along with elegant cakes and tarts.
Why now? Why here? And is the market for deluxe baking big enough for everyone to get a slice of the pie? We talked to three of the newcomers to find out.
A maturing market
It took a while for Edmontonians to fully appreciate the quality and craftsmanship of a boutique bakery but they’ve made up for lost time with their enthusiasm, says Amy Nachtigall.
“I feel like Edmonton has been a little bit behind some of the bigger cities until now,” she says. “It’s this sense of people waking up and recognizing that there’s all this great food and talent in our city. It seems that people are just starting to realize that and want that.”
The proof has come in the strong support Amy and husband Jeff received from the community before they even opened their shop in a funky back alley off Whyte Avenue.
An Alberta BoostR crowdfunding campaign the couple launched in 2016 raised its entire $20,000 goal in less than 24 hours. In total, they raised more than $50,000 over the 45-day campaign, which sought contributions from supporters in exchange for bakery rewards.
Essentially, their proposal was to continue a journey they’d begun five years ago, when Nachtigall started selling gourmet cookies at a local farmers market. She branched out to beautiful, custom cakes and in-house baking for a couple of local restaurants.
Nachtigall still makes those cookies and cakes but has broadened her scope by adding danishes, scones, tarts, meringues, cinnamon buns and macarons. It’s a mix of the products one would find in a traditional French patisserie and in a home-style bake shop, and appeals to fans of each.
“I think for a long time there was the convenience trend,” says Nachtigall. “You could buy cookies or a cake in the grocery store, and people wanted cheap and fast. I think people are tired of that – they want quality and craftsmanship and fresh.” She finds that they’re willing to pay a little more for that.
Which is good, because with booming competition comes the challenge of running an efficient, high-end bakery. Planning is crucial: trying to balance the right amount of product and staff, along with the long hours of a small-business owner and the early morning hours of a baker. “We’re working 15, 16 hours a day,” she says. “I feel like we’re running a really long marathon and we can’t see the finish line yet.”
Despite the challenges, Nachtigall is thrilled to be up and running in her own space. “I love what I do. I love seeing the reaction from customers and being part of their events in some small way. And I love having a place to call home where people can visit us and be a part of this.”
The impact of the Duchess Bake Shop
Jennifer Stang (Culinary Arts ’08) | La Boule Patisserie + Bakery, 8020 - 101 St.
Edmontonians’ newfound passion for pastry has left Jennifer Stang scratching her head. “I wish I knew what it was all about, quite honestly,” says the pastry chef who opened La Boule last December, just south of Whyte Ave. “We went years and years with essentially one powerhouse in this city and then, in the last six months, we’re popping up like daisies all of a sudden.”
The “powerhouse” Stang’s referring to is Duchess Bake Shop, the renowned bakery co-owned by Jacob Pelletier (Culinary Arts ’06). Opened in 2009, it was named one of the world’s best bakeries in 2015 by Buzzfeed, and has grown steadily over the years. She credits Duchess with raising the bar in Edmonton by educating consumers about high-quality pastry. “I think a lot of us then looked around and saw there’s clearly a demand.”
Stang initially focused on baked goods like eclairs, tarts, cakes and Viennoiserie, the bread-like pastries that include croissants, pain au chocolat and brioche. She also makes cruffins, or croissant dough shaped into muffins and featuring sweet or savoury fillings. Since opening the shop, Stang has expanded to offer breads and confectionaries, including caramel, marshmallow, chocolate and nougat.
“I love the creativity and the continued learning and exploration,” she says. “This is why I like to bring in new products and change shapes and flavours and garnishes.”
Among those products are sauces and syrups Stang makes in the café, which she’d like to bottle for home use. “It’s been hard to rein myself in – there’s been so many things
I want to do.”
Like Nachtigall at Sugared and Spiced, Stang is also learning valuable lessons of entrepreneurship. The fine pastries that Edmontonians have come to love require not just exceptional skill but expensive ingredients. Figuring out how to make the most of them is an art in and of itself. Dealing with the excess is less so.
“I make my staff eat scraps. I say, ‘that has Valrhona [premium French chocolate] in it – we’re not throwing that out!’ The margins are so small on a business like this, you have to be really conscientious.”
Kai Wong (Culinary Arts ’07) | Chocorrant Patisserie and Cafe, 10328 - 124 St.
Kai Wong believes Edmontonians are not only embracing fine pastries, they’re open to experimenting with new and unfamiliar flavours in baking. That’s pushing bakers to challenge consumers even further.
At Chocorrant, the bakery Wong opened in April, unexpected flavours have become her trademark, particularly in croissants.
“It’s such a versatile dough that can be sweet and savoury at the same time,” says Wong, who started her career with a home-based cake business, then worked as a restaurant pastry chef. “I can play around with so many flavours
to make it fun.”
While she makes croissants with traditional fillings like chocolate and almond, she pushes the envelope with dessert croissant flavours like matcha, strawberry milk, banana-chocolate-hazelnut, cookies and cream and cinnamon swirl.
Wong makes savoury croissants too, filled with bacon jam and white cheddar, apple and brie, and mushroom and herb.
Her unique pastries are a hit with customers so far. “Every time we bring out a new feature flavour, it seems to sell out right away, so I think that’s a good sign,” she says. “I think people want variety.”
Her cakes, too, incorporate unusual flavours, like a seven-layer Earl Grey opera cake with the tea’s essence infused in the sponge cake, the buttercream and the dulce de leche filling. She’s currently experimenting with a matcha-chestnut-praline cake, and a mango-coconut-caramel-almond cake that’s dairy- and gluten-free.
But Wong is most excited about her experiments with an ingredient few would expect in any food, let alone dessert: edible activated charcoal. She’s seen it used in Asia and on a recent trip to Toronto, to make
pitch-black desserts. “In Toronto I saw it at a soft-serve ice cream place with a line-up that was two blocks long. I’ve seen it in a croissant, in a cheesecake – people are raving about it.”
She’s still playing with flavours that will marry well with the charcoal’s hint of smokiness. When she hits on the perfect combination, will such an unusual ingredient appeal to pastry-savvy Edmontonians?
These days, Wong may have good reason to be optimistic.
“I think people are always curious about new flavours,” she says. “Whenever you bring in an ingredient that hasn’t been used before in a dessert, it piques peoples’ interest.”