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Pastry Chef Nathalie Gautier – L’Epi De Blé

Pretty In Pastry

 By Arvel Gray

Sweet delicacies are having a moment in the sun, from the macaron explosion originating in Europe to SoHo’s towering, candy crusted shakes. Yet for Nathalie Gautier and her husband, Gilles, Instagram-worthy desserts are not a fleeting trend but a representation of years of hard work mastering time honoured techniques. Their bustling Main Street bakery, A L’Epi De Blé, has been inspiring a fresh French revolution, bringing a slice of Provence to the prairies with classics like baguettes, brioche, tarts and croissants.

The couple purchased the former Polish bakery (Hartford Bakery) in 2011, and renamed it after a French loaf that resembles a stalk of wheat. Ever passionate about quality, the goal from the beginning has been to use traditional baking methods and top quality, natural ingredients.

This little shop, tucked into an unobtrusive strip of north end businesses, is redolent with warm and yeasty aromas drifting from the kitchen, and racks of freshly baked bread lining one wall. Loaves are made using the traditional French process—no preservatives, dairy, or gelatin, and never ever shortening.

Young and old linger over a long pastry case filled with mouth-watering options like buttery croissants stuffed with sticks of chocolate, apple turnovers, and a luscious apricot tart oozing with pastry cream and glistening, plump fruit. Like traditional French pâtisseries, the bakery also serves savouries, such as quiche and grilled ham and cheese sandwiches covered in velvety béchamel. A handful of café tables bathed in late day sunshine hold customers seemingly reluctant to leave their warm cocoon, as if the big cups of good, dark coffee and aniseed cookies have magically transported them to the south of France.

Part of the bakery’s appeal comes from Nathalie, whose broad smile and charming accent are as irresistible as her pastries. She learned the fine art of customer service from her mother, at her parents’ bakery in Marseille, France. There, from the age of seven, she ran the cash register while her father baked in the back. Later, she took on the accounting duties and worked in the shop every weekend until she was 18.

The budding business owner spent a year in London, UK, working as an au pair and learning English, followed by a stint in Toronto studying business management. When she returned to France, she met Gilles and persuaded him to join the family business, apprenticing with Nathalie’s father and formally training as a pastry chef. Eventually the couple moved to a shop of their own in Avignon.

Even in a country known for its bakeries, supermarkets selling bread caused the baker’s trade to wane. One day, a newspaper ad for opportunities in Canada sparked the discussion that would lead to a major life change. Intrigued by the potential, they made plans to sell the shop, and at the age of 40, Nathalie enrolled in the prestigious Institut National Boulangerie Pâtisserie in Rouen to obtain her pastry chef diploma.

Baking was still an industry dominated by men, and instructors were demanding. Once, it took four attempts in a row to create a satisfactory choux pastry. “You have to incorporate the flour quickly into the butter and water and dry the dough to the maximum,” she explains, adding that now she can make it in her sleep.

That’s probably a good thing, as she and Gilles arrive at four o’clock every morning to bake the bread that has been rising overnight in the French proofing ovens, attend to the cream fillings and prepare the flaky dough for the napoleons and croissants. Some ingredients are imported, like non-genetically modified German flour, and some are local, like the butter from Notre Dame de Lourdes. (Surprised by the extra water in Canadian butter, they had to adjust their recipes.)

By six o’clock, a small crew begins the éclairs while Nathalie fills the bread racks and display cases. In the afternoon, she starts the sponge cakes, chocolate mousse, cookies and glazes while Gilles makes the bread dough and seven varieties of macarons.

When it first opened, their Winnipeg shop served 17 people a day compared to 600 in France. As word spread they were quickly embraced by customers who became ambassadors; now, sixty baguettes fly out the door every Saturday and lineups snake down the street.

She leads us to a 1973 photo of her parents standing in front of their Marseille bakery. “My mother said you should do only what you are good at,” smiles Nathalie, who has more than accepted the challenge. Her talents as a businesswoman and baker have been magnified by her devotion to classic French baking techniques and commitment to quality, creating some of the finest pastries in the city.

What could be sweeter than that?