A bit(e) of France in the heart of Texas! There is no better way to describe Baguette et Chocolat. First there is the name of course. Lovely to my ears as, growing up in Paris, I had baguette and chocolate for goûter (afternoon snack) every day when I got home from school. To this day it remains one of my favorite treats (recipe: take a long-ish piece of crisp yet airy baguette, do NOT slice it open, push an elongated bar of dark chocolate (four squares should do it)into the crumb until the whole chocolate is engulfed), then close your eyes and bite. Tell me if that doesn’t beat most pastries any day of the week!)
Pretty much everything says France at Baguette et chocolat: the owners, Anne-Lise and Chi-minh Pham-dinh, the bread, the viennoiserie, the macarons (sorry, I forgot to take a picture) and the pastries. The only difference with most French boulangeries is that this one offers a lunch menu and features a seating area.
We arrived around 10:30 AM and to my surprise, the bread baskets were already almost empty. What was left was lovely though.
As it wasn’t yet lunch or tea time, the pastries were still spread in their full glory. They too had that unmistakable French look.
I had first heard of Baguette et chocolat on social media and I was immediately curious. What could have brought these French bakers to Austin? Ahead of our next visit to family there (yes, I know, aren’t we lucky to have family in Austin?,) I emailed the owners and Anne-Lise was kind enough to take time out of her busy schedule and answer my questions.
As it turns out, she and her husband Chi-minh lived in Versailles, near Paris, before they moved to the US. I have lived near Versailles for a while, back in the days. No wonder everything looks so familiar!
Chi-minh is a pastry chef. Interestingly, like so many other bakers/chefs I have met, he didn’t start out as a baker: he was an insurance agent and the owner of his own agency. As for Anne-Lise, she was a lawyer, training to become a notaire. But the couple got tired of a life of traffic jams and endless rushing around and they decided to change things around drastically. Chi-minh went to work for a boulangerie-pâtisserie, liked what he saw and went back to school. By 2007, he had graduated with certificates both in bread and in the pastry arts from the world-famous Institut national de boulangerie pâtisserie in Rouen, France.
A couple of years before Chi-minh had visited a close friend in Austin and fallen in love with the city. The couple decided they would move to the US and see if they could turn their rêve américain (American dream) into a reality. A French baker they knew in Colorado was looking for French-trained staff: they decided to apply. The baker hired both of them and that’s how Anne-Lise got her on-the-job training in petite restauration (snacks) and drinks, and especially coffee. The couple remained in Colorado for six months, from January to July 2009, then there made their bold move to Austin.
“When we bought the place back in 2009, the Uplands Shopping Center was almost empty because of the Great Recession. There were many fewer people than today. We never advertised anywhere, yet customers have been lining up ever since opening day on May 15, 2010. The workload quickly become too much for the two us.”
Four or five months after opening they recruited a French baker from France but it didn’t work out. Later in the year they hired an American baker. She is still there. She makes the bread, the viennoiserie and all the doughs used in the pastries. They hired a French pastry chef two years ago. Now the bakery is open six days a week (closed on Mondays.)
Their customers? Office workers, stay-at-home moms, teenagers (we saw a bunch hanging out in the coffee area), families, older people, many different countries, lots of regulars, people from many different countries.
What strikes me the most…,” Anne-Lise reflects, “…is how much the area has changed in seven and a half years. The city has caught up with us: there are new roads, new shopping centers, more places to eat.” Because of the proliferation of small eateries, finding and retaining staff has become more difficult.
Every day is different: sometimes a crowd rushes in as soon as the door opens (at 7:00 on weekdays, at 8:00 on Sundays) and the rest of the day is quiet, sometimes customers stagger their visits and the whole day is action-packed. But the goal hasn’t changed: give the locals a feel for what a French boulangerie-pâtisserie is like.