Save room for dessert: Vancouver's pastry scene has never been so sweet

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The local bake shop seems to be making a comeback, as consumers shift back to a more piecemeal shopping experience. Though the shiny supermarket aisles still beckon, loaves of bread, and, even more pointedly, piles of pastries, are flying off the shelves at bakeshops in Vancouver.

The pastries, along with chocolates, and other baked treats and confections, are being made by some of the country’s most celebrated chefs who are a part of what’s making Vancouver a globally-recognized food destination.

Vancouver has a reputation for being a haven for health-conscious outdoorsy types, and yet we have one of the most robust bakery cultures in Canada. And, pssst…baked goods are made with butter and sugar–not exactly the most recommended ingredients to gobble up on the regular.

Coffee and a treat at Beaucoup Bakery (Lindsay William-Ross/Vancity Buzz)

Coffee and a treat at Beaucoup Bakery (Lindsay William-Ross/Vancity Buzz)

“Vancouverites tend to be very health-focused, for sure,” says Jackie Kai Ellis, who owns Beaucoup Bakery. “However, I think that what they do is try to make their calories count,” she elaborates. Ellis says she has a lot of customers who pop into Beaucoup from nearby fitness classes for a daily cup of coffee, and the occasional treat, like the buttery croissant they’ve been saving up for, calorically-speaking, all week.

At his eponymous patisseries in Vancouver, Thomas Haas sees much of the same behaviour. “Because we are such an active city, [Vancouverites] know they can eat a good pastry,” says Haas, who admits he happens to eat three pastries a day, but has his lunch standing up to balance it all out.

Ellis, who also eats pastry daily, sees Vancouver’s pastry consumers’ behaviour as a clear instance of quality trumping quantity, a sentiment shared by Adam Chandler of Beta5.

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SEE ALSO: Best independent chocolate shops in Vancouver

It’s a very bottom line reality, points out Chandler: “We are all looking for value in what we purchase, and at BETA5 we look to bring value through quality ingredients that we treat with care and transform into unique, delicious treats with well-balanced flavours.”

No wonder the bakery is enjoying a renewed heyday. “I think what the proliferation of bakeries and chocolate shops shows us is that as Vancouverites we are becoming more conscious of the quality of sugar we consume. We don’t want industrially processed foods, we’d prefer treats made from real ingredients, by real people,” adds Chandler.

Cream puffs at Beta5 (Beta5 Chocolates/Facebook)

Cream puffs at Beta5 (Beta5 Chocolates/Facebook)

Passing over processed foods in favour of high-quality “real” food is in part why bakeries are enjoying tremendous popularity in Vancouver right now. Haas points to the “junk” available readily at supermarkets as the real culprit when it comes to poor food choices.

“Ninety per cent of what’s at the supermarket is what we shouldn’t buy, because it’s junk,” explains Haas. “Through a lack of education, people inhale all that food… pre-processed, pre-manufactured [food that has] sugar where there shouldn’t be any sugar. Why would i buy bread made with sugar in it?” asks the German-born pastry chef.

At Haas’ bakeries and chocolate shops–one in Kitsilano and one in North Vancouver–the chef says what they accomplish is fairly basic. “We do nothing different than what’s been done for centuries in Europe: we make good pastries from simple ingredients.”

The simplicity extends to the vibe of Vancouver’s pastry shops as well. Ellis theorizes: “I think that people are craving human connection. The coffee shop in Vancouver has basically been a replacement for the local watering hole. People want to see people face to face, they want to connect.”

“Everything is cyclical,” Ellis continues. “There was a time when we gravitated towards the supermarket–bigger places. If you think about food photography in the 80s, everything was very glossy–nail polish on grapes–and now it’s all rustic, natural light, things scattered on the table so quote-unquote effortlessly. It’s the same thing-people are just going in cycles. they’ve had enough of the glossy, big, and polished now they want comfort, home, connection, and it will go back.”

Christophe Bonzon loves playing with chocolate (Chez Christopher Chocolaterie Patisserie/Facebook)

Christophe Bonzon loves playing with chocolate (Chez Christopher Chocolaterie Patisserie/Facebook)

That connection extends from the counter to the customer, according to Christophe Bonzon, who owns Chez Christophe Chocolaterie Patisserie in Burnaby. Bonzon pinpoints the bakeshop’s resurgence: “One word: ‘Artisan.’ I think customers want to see pastry chefs make their products and made with local ingredients when possible, in small quantities.”

Seasonality can be key to keeping what’s on the menu at a pastry shop exciting. At Beaucoup, Ellis is influenced by what’s in season, be it figs or rhubarb, for what new creations come out of their kitchen. Haas says they do bring in a few specials, but put the emphasis on continuing to produce the same high-quality items in order to give their customers precisely the product they have come to rely on.

“I don’t jump on trends,” remarks Haas. “We are a little more based on classics that are proven to be good,” he explains. “Whatever we do it has to flow from our foundation of what we are expected to be. That doesn’t mean we can’t be creative, we just have to make sure it fits with what people expect from us,” Haas adds.

At Beta5, Chandler takes a slightly different approach. “I think our signature is that we’re always changing, creating and developing new ideas,” says Chandler. Things get wildly innovative at Beta5, proving culinary creativity never goes out of vogue. “Our Lime Spritzer cream puff is a personal favourite of mine, marrying a mint-infused lime curd with greek yogurt and a cucumber meringue. The result is something surprisingly refreshing – perfect for summer. We have a lot of fun with ice creams as we move into the summer, with one of my favourites from last year being a sweet corn ice cream, paired with blueberry frozen yogurt and little corn cakes.”

Haas does have an opinion on one trend on its way out: “The donut trend is on decline,” observes Haas, with a note of relief.

Ellis, too, has a trend fatigue: “I just have to say, are we over the macaron yet? I feel like I’m over it now. I enjoy a good one, but I never way crazy about them,” admits Ellis.

What is in? Bonzon returns to the notion of quality ingredients going into small-batch pastries. “Higher end–premium–chocolate and pastry are booming right now, and I think that people have evolved or changed. The product is more expensive and smaller but made in small batches with premium ingredients of a higher quality,” observes Bonzon.

Ellis gets specific: “Éclairs,” declares the chef, who also leads culinary tours of Paris multiple times a year, where they have shops dedicated solely to éclairs, including many that are completely savoury (think smoked salmon, or Croque Monsieur).

Parisienne éclairs (bruno collinet/Flickr)

Parisienne éclairs (bruno collinet/Flickr)

“For us as pastry chefs and chocolatiers, sugar is in everything we make, so our challenge is to ensure that the end product has a balanced flavour profile – not one that comes through as cloyingly sweet,” notes Chandler, who veers towards the savoury side in some of his creations at Beta5.

“We’ve been playing more and more with vegetables and finding ways of incorporating them into what we do. cucumber meringues, carrot caramels, corn ice cream, tomato or olives in a chocolate bar,” explains Chandler.

Speaking of flavour mash-ups, Ellis also believes that Vancouver is the ideal place for more Asian-inspired flavours in desserts, citing the city’s indisputable dominance in the cuisine.

Ellis also says that despite some highly innovative desserts being plated at Vancouver’s restaurants, it’s still a let down when the dessert course appears to be an afterthought. Still, she has great hopes for sweets in Vancouver. “I just want people in the city to get excited about pastry being a thing,” says Ellis. “I want to be able to inspire people to be really excited about pastry.”

The stage is truly set in Vancouver for local pastry and chocolate shops to take the spotlight.”Vancouver is it right now for Canadian pastries. We are killing it,” says Ellis.

And yet, with all of the pastry shops, even Haas, who stands at the head of the line and is often credited for initiating this current wave of high-end patisseries in Vancouver, doesn’t see us as having too many. Haas credits the “food educated” consumers of Vancouver for willingly supporting so many pastry and chocolate shops, including the ten or so that Haas says have opened in recent memory. “We haven’t felt a negative impact,” says Haas. “Last year was our busiest.”

Inside Thomas Haas' North Vancouver patisserie (Neelam Sharma/Vancity Buzz)

Inside Thomas Haas’ North Vancouver patisserie (Neelam Sharma/Vancity Buzz)

While the community is continuing to throw their support behind Vancouver’s many sweet shops, there is a surprising lack of rivalry. In fact, many of the pastry chefs gladly tip their hat to their colleagues in the local sweet treat game.

“I think as a community of cooks and chefs, we are becoming much more open and collaborative,” notes Chandler. “I would love to see more events where we have the opportunity to come together and share ideas, but it can be challenging with the long hours that come with the kitchen life.”

Haas agrees. “I’m a big promoter and believer in good community, and within the industry. People in the industry know that if they have a question they can come and talk to me,” says Haas, adding: “I want the community to become better, and the industry to be better.”

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Lindsay William-Ross Lindsay is a Senior Editor at Vancity Buzz, and currently runs the site's Food section. A fourth generation Vancouverite, she spent the last two decades in Los Angeles, where she was EIC of the city's top blog, earned her MA, attended culinary school, and was an English professor (among other things). Lindsay's first published piece was December 1980 in The Province; it was her letter to Santa. E-mail: lindsay@vancitybuzz.com
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