Laurent on Little Collins Street

February 1998

Laurent Boillon, creator, pastry chef and owner of Laurent (Como, Camberwell and now the City) would never be short of a celebration cakes. But on his 34th birthday, at the end of last month, he had no time to think of celebrations. He was still unpacking his new Pillivuyt plates from France styled by Laurent with gold lettering around the edges proclaiming a philosophy about life, love and the joy of eating. These plates will be available for sale with cake on, a new idea when you go to dinner, explains Laurent, instead of a boring bottle of wine or flowers, take a cake on a beautiful porcelain plate.

The plates are just one of the details embellishing Laurent's splendid city pastry shop and bar soon to open at the corner of Little Collins Street and The Causeway. The elegant twenties' building was a bank for many years and still has the old brass night safe outside on Little Collins St. But Laurent is insisting that he will be offering his customers a lot more service for their money and a real flavour of Paris in his new business, the third of the very successful Laurent bread and pastry shops to open in Melbourne.

He is expecting so many customers in the new city business that he has made a second entrance onto The Causeway, complete with black awning and gold insignia so that take away service can be very, very fast and not interrupt the customers sitting at the cafe tables. A semi-circular wooden staircase has been put at the front of the building to lead customers up to another glamorous space (for about 75) overlooking the six foot black iron curved chandelier and nine metres of counter display. Newspapers, magazines, and the ability to buy glasses of wine or champagne to go with Laurent's food will encourage some to linger longer.

But the menu at Laurent City is designed for speedy service with a difference. Laurent has recruited chef Richard Reymond to produce a range of terrines, savoury lattice pies, appetisers, soups and, eventually a whole range of traiteur style goods for home eating. Reymond started working with Laurent's chief patissier, Ross Saunders, in January to develop a new style of presentation. A pork and prune terrine will sit on a piece of feuilletage (puff pastry) with onion and red wine compote; a tabbouli salad with pink grapefruit and shrimps will come in a pastry case sitting on soft butter lettuce; a veal and orange terrine will also be served on pastry, lattice pies filled with potato, mushroom or ratatouille will cater for vegetarians. One of the challenges which Laurent has given Ross is to get the right pastry container in which to serve scrambled eggs either with bacon or with smoked salmon. Laurent wants something which will remain crisp, either to eat at the cafe or when taken home. Everything has to be of quality, he insists, but it must also last. for several hours.

Laurent and Ross met at a pastry shop in Brighton where Laurent' first worked after coming to Melbourne. In 1993 when the bakery and pastry shop started at Como Laurent asked Ross to join him and now Ross is in charge of the Richmond factory which supplies the three Laurent shops as well as wholesale products for many of the city's hotels.

With the new shop opening Ross is now responsible for 20 factory staff and Laurent is employing 110 between the three businesses. It's an extraordinary success story for this - still young- pastry cook from France. Laurent always wanted to be a baker but his father said I would be crazy, to start work at 10.30pm. So I compromised and became a pastry chef, which meant starting at 4am instead. Laurent recalls the freezing early morning starts in a small village in Provence from where he moved to a larger and more successful pastry shop before going to Paris to work with the famous LeNotre, where he saw a different vision .

After some years travelling the world Laurent came to Australia, married and settled in Melbourne where he now has a son of 26 months and is expecting another child in May. In less than a decade in the country his achievements here have been considerable.

I would never have been able to do this in France, there is too much competition there, here the opportunities are fantastic. Certainly Laurent is continually surprised by the amount of pastry which Australians like to eat. His shops sells about equal amounts of bread and pastry, though the revenue from pastry is considerably higher. Laurent is now searching for a much larger factory, close to the city if possible, to service his expansion.

The boutique baking boom which Laurent is part of was started in Melbourne by Greg Brown. Laurent worked with Greg for a short time and was inspired by him to start his own business. Although these two highly crafted and dedicated entrepreneurs are now in competition (there are seven Browns Bakeries in Melbourne), they each have a distinctive style and respect each other's work.

It is interesting to consider how many more bakery cafe businesses Melbourne can support. The customers' demands seem insatiable. The interest in variety breads may, as has happened in America, be cannibalising the traditional big bakeries, or is it that consumption of bread and baked goods has increased sufficiently to warrant these extra outlets. Whatever the reason, Greg Brown is finding that the increased demands for his products justifies a further million dollars investment in state of the art baking equipment from France, as well as Italy, Germany and England.

At Laurent City, the coolrooms, pastry equipment and all the sleek curved Gibrat display counters have been imported from France and the striking glass mosaic tiles from Vicenza, Italy. There are two shades of green and white tiles laid in a 1.5 metre circle around the brass gold insignia which sits in the doorway and at the top of the stairs.

It will be interesting to see if Greg Brown or Laurent Boillon take Melbourne quality bread and cakes to Sydney, something which is badly needed. At the end of last year the opening of Infinity Sour Dough Bakery helped fill some of Sydney's aching void for the staff of life (as reported here in Herald Sun 27/1 )

But for the moment Laurent is concentrating all his energies and creative drive in Melbourne. He has been dreaming for a long time of being able to operate a Parisian style cafe with delicious savoury pastries and sweet morsels to enjoy with a glass of champagne, beer or wine. That dream may not be immediately realised with the opening of Laurent City on March 2 as it seems that the liquor licence may not be granted by then.

But the full range of croissants, eclairs, sandwiches, tarts, charlottes, quiches, savarins, brioches, pizzas, terrines -- more than 150 standard items, will be available. And, Ross says, that he can also make up special orders which are not already on display in the shops. Next Monday Laurent City opens at the corner of Little Collins St. and The Causeway from 7am-7pm Monday to Thursday; 7am to 9pm on Friday and from 10am to 5pm on weekends.

Mietta O'Donnell

This first appeared in the Herald Sun on 16th February, 1998.
©Mietta's 1998.