Chris Thé spoke with Siobhan Toohill for Out the Front in December 2013.
SIOBHAN: Tonight we’re delighted to be joined by Chris Thé, owner and chief creator at the famous Black Star Pastry of Newtown. Black Star are something of a Newtown institution, located across from the Courthouse on Australia Street. It’s a place full of pastry amazements, from the simple chocolate-dipped Ginger Ninja, to the amazingly structural Strawberry Watermelon and Rose Cream Layer Cake. Chris has a philosophy that goes like this: everything is handmade, we cook according to the seasons, and never open tins. One happy customer said “This is a bakery worth crowding into. I left with my arms full, and a smile on my face.” And we love it too. Chris, welcome to Out the Front.
CHRIS: Hello, everyone!
SIOBHAN: Chris, how did you get interested in food, and when did you know that you wanted to make pastries?
CHRIS: Well, I think it’s just this slow discovering of what you’re meant to do. I was at university, I was kind of cooking to pay my way through, and by my last exam, I was knee-deep in cooking. i just knew this was it, and I was working 70, 80, 90 hours a week. It was just a realisation that that was something that I could do every day. So it wasn’t a very hard decision at all. I started out as a kitchenhand, and I really have a kind place in my heart for all those chefs who started out as pot-washers, there’s a little affinity there. I think they’ve got a great attitude, it’s about, every little part of the process is important, you know? So it speaks for the holistic kind of nature of cooking, which I really like.
SIOBHAN: Did you grow up in Sydney?
CHRIS: Yes, I did. Haberfield. My parents came to Australia from Indonesia in the ‘60s, and I was born here. The only Asian kid in an Italian community. So I always wanted to be Italian. I’m a great Italian cook, actually. But yeah, I’m very much Australian, very much Australian. Sometimes I forget…
SIOBHAN: Is there something about the cooking, when you were growing up, that shaped what you’re doing now, or is it something you discovered in your own sense?
CHRIS: In hindsight, I think (laughs) this is the thing: my parents didn’t ever go to the restaurants I cooked in, you know… I wish I could cook the food that they cooked for me, but unfortunately, I can’t, no. It’s… sometimes I’m embarrassed at how Australian I actually am, you know? I just wish I had a bit more ethnicity there. (laughs)
SIOBHAN: With your time in the kitchens and pot-washing, when did you arrive at the point where you decided you wanted to make pastries and make desserts?
CHRIS: Well, eventually I ended up making desserts, and I think actually it’s the temperament that calls you, you know. I’m quite a patient, careful, thoughtful person, so turn-and-burn and fiery flames are not really for me. It’s more about the constructing, and the careful building of something beautiful that takes a long time, and can go terribly wrong with one mistake. So that’s… it just really suits me, and once I found it, it was like I never left. So that was in the second year of my apprenticeship, it was just finding the thing I wanted to do. To this day, I never grow tired of it.
SIOBHAN: How did you learn? is there one person in particular, or was it more a series of people or a series of experiences?
CHRIS: Definitely. I mean, you find mentors all over the place and I think you, I mean you don’t necessarily learn great things off them, but you learn something. So you go from person to person. I think the biggest influence on me was Tim Pak Poy at Claude’s, just the idea that there could be so much thought behind food, I hadn’t really come across that before. And having principles and a code that you live by. And meaning behind food as well, how history and tradition are important. So he really kind of made, well this was the choice, I came to him, I said, ‘Look, I’d like a job, but I’d like to go and work in Europe and do that thing,’ and he said ‘Just come work here at Claude’s, spend four years here and I’ll really show you everything I know, and teach you about eating and hospitality and that kind of whole idea.” And so I did that, I did, l after I qualified, pretty much a whole other apprenticeship under him for four years, and that really kind of set all my own principles to this day. And I worked with some great chefs there, Chui Lin Luk worked there, who took over Claude’s, but these kind of… it’s almost like a religious kind of ten commandments that they teach you, and I still hold these very dear to me today. And I’m passing them on to my chefs now.
SIOBHAN: You’re well-known for certain creations, I think the most famous being the watermelon cake. What’s it like having such a hit on your hands?
CHRIS: Well, I don’t know! I think I’m quite…happily naive about it all! (laughs)
SIOBHAN: How did the watermelon cake come about?
CHRIS: Oh look, it was a special order for someone. Someone, well this is the truth, I’ve told about two or three people that I created it for them, or maybe I didn’t not tell them when they said it was for them!
SIOBHAN: It was me, wasn’t it!
CHRIS: But I don’t know! It’s like, it came from two directions. I wanted to see a red stripe in the middle of a cake, you know, and I’m very much against using colourings or anything like that, so how to do that? Well, why not use watermelon? Watermelon was a way of eliminating one layer of cake and one layer of cream in this cake, so I think it’s much lighter, it almost just eats like a fruit salad. But I don’t know! I mean, I’m still kind of wondering.
SIOBHAN: How do you experiment? How do you create a new kind of cake, or a new kind of dessert?
CHRIS: It’s…I think it’s the ‘A-ha!’ moment you need. It can come after a great dinner, especially after a wine or two, and this is…I mean, I’m the kind of person who, if someone says to me, ‘Oh, I’d like a cake,’ when that happens, if they say ‘Well, what do you want to do?’ and if you just come up with something then, it’s pretty much the most obvious thing. But if you go away, and just let things kind of just tick away in the back of your mind, you can often come up with some quite interesting things. And these things come from your subconscious, and they come from everything you’ve experienced in art and film and music, and anything you’re influenced in. And I think I’ve just got that kind of ability to pull these funny things together, almost with a sense of humour. I mean, like the moustache biscuits, you know, ha ha. Just so simple, it’s a biscuit in the shape of a moustache, it’s those kind of things, you know. Is it tongue-in-cheek?
SIOBHAN: Is there a creation that really stands out as being really memorable for you? Something that was either really hard or really special or unexpected in terms of the ingredients that you pulled together?
CHRIS: I try not to stray too far from tradition. Because I think there’s been so many chefs who’ve come before you, and they’ve tried all these things, and they’ve put the best things together, and this is kind of your culinary history. But it’s almost like your in, your take on things. I mean, you might find a fresh angle at things, like…for example, you might have a violet and mango dessert, and you know in your head it just kind of works, but it all comes from intuition really, doesn’t it? You don’t want to think too hard about it. That being said, honestly, I never get anything right first go. This is what I say to my chefs: come up with something, but before you go and make the cake, put all the ingredients on a spoon and that’ll tell you if it’s a goer or not.
SIOBHAN: And then do you kind of pilot, and test ideas out in the kitchen? And with your customers?
CHRIS: Yeah, yeah definitely we do. I have to say it’s become a lot harder, since we had a bit of a spurt with the watermelon cake, but what I’m really hoping is that when we open our nice, beautiful kitchen in Rosebery that we can kind of use Newtown as a bit of a, what they call, a lab. Where we’re a little bit free from the production and we can just do nice work, do nice creative work. I don’t know, you’ve got to trial these things, and I have to say, one day I hope to be the chef that can just create things and get them right first go, but still, you know, it’s a lot of trying. And seeing what works, and just working on things, yeah.
SIOBHAN: And that must be part of the delight as well! You are a creator, but you’re also building a business. How do you manage the need to create with the need to run a successful business?
CHRIS: Well, I don’t know. It’s an organic thing, I’ve come to realise a business is a community. So in the first little instance, I mean, I decided this is what Black Star’s going to be, I decided the name, and the style, and everything that is installed in that place I did with my hands. But after five years, it’s just so much more than that. It’s a community of people who work there, people who go there, and people who supply us… So I don’t know, the role is more, I kind of just keep the place on the rails, and just let it happen. There’s a point where you can just let it happen, make sure that everyone can pay their rent, you know what I mean? We’re not spending more than we take in, but yeah. It’s just now, I just make sure that things just stay on the rails, the ship floats, and then… everything happens! Like the head chef, Sam, he’s great, he makes up the dishes now, and they’re in the Black Star style, because I think it’s really important for people to understand what you’re about and you have to be very clear about your style and your, what you stand for. Yeah. And it’s almost to the point now where if we create something, and someone sees it, maybe even halfway across Sydney, they can still say, ‘Hey, that looks like a Black Star cake!’ and that’s what I really wanted.
SIOBHAN: How did you come up with the name Black Star?
CHRIS: Well, it was what I was listening to at the time! It’s a Radiohead song, believe it or not. I comes from a Radiohead song. And I think, I don’t know, it just has a kind of, an audible kind of pleasantness to it, if you take away the meaning of it, because really, there’s no meaning behind ‘black’ or ‘star’, it just sounded right. And if you actually listen to the song, it was kind of a bit poignant at the time, but yeah, that’s a kind of personal thing.
SIOBHAN: Looking back over your career, what have been the big changes of direction? Has there been a big sliding door moment, where there was a really pivotal moment where things really fell into place or a key decision that really set you on the path that you’re on now?
CHRIS: Well, there was a point where I was going to take over an existing business and buy into it for a lot of money, because, I mean, I’d done so much work in restaurants, but I thought, ‘who’s going to buy anything that I make, because I’m nobody.’ But there’s a certain point where you say ‘Hey, well, I’m worth it, actually. People will buy it. I’ve just got to back myself.’ And that’s a hard thing. I mean, I see young chefs now, and they just have to have the confidence to say, ‘Yeah, let’s go do it. Let’s go do it.’ So that was really important for me, I think, this moment where I thought, I don’t need anyone, I’m just going to have a go and just see what happens. And luckily for me, I’m the kind of person that…I don’t know, I don’t really care what people think. So I just do what I think people would want. I cook the food that I think I want to eat, and fortunately, it kind of has really meshed with a lot of people.
SIOBHAN: There seems to be very much a growing Sydney food community, and chefs and cafe owners, and other avocates who are really passionate about local ingredients, and this sense of local and community. Why do you think this is becoming so important here in Sydney?
CHRIS: Well, I don’t know, it’s what are we about, really, what’s life about? It’s not about going to your supermarket and having choice, is it? I’d much rather have one choice and know the person it came from, than have unlimited shelves of things to choose. I think people are starting to just look at what they value in life. And it’s not really, I don’t know, they’re searching for a kind of realness. But at the same time, there is that, I have an anxiety, and I think a lot of people do, about the future. I mean, I have children now, and I’ve had a great life, but I really want them not to be the last generation. You know what I mean? That are…I don’t want them to suffer because of the cost that we put on our earth. That’s it, yeah. That’s it.
SIOBHAN: You set up your kitchen and shop firstly in Australia Street in Newtown, why did you decide to set up on Australia Street, and what is it about that particular local community that was so attractive to you?
CHRIS: Oh, I just understood the community. I mean, I didn’t live in Newtown, but I was always there, always there, always there. And it just…I don’t know. I was one of them, and I think they would get what I was trying to say. Yeah, they’re a great group of people, all of them, they’re great. And in a way, I think all I had to do was open, and kind of let them shape what it was going to become. And it’s like that,,when you put all sorts of new items in the shop. You know, you might put three in one day, and pretty much by the end of the day, you’ll know which one people want. So it’s really them that decide what Black Star is, and I just kind of let it happen. And then I hire one great person, and she brings in all her friends, and suddenly they’re controlling, you know, the kind of vibe of the place, and they’re loading the iPod, I just have to let it all happen.
SIOBHAN: And how has it evolved over those last five years, in terms of the community and the food you’ve made in Black Star?
CHRIS: Well, I’ve got a great bunch of people who are actually quite dedicated and happy to be there. And that’s fantastic. They all work extremely hard, it’s extremely hard work, and we work funny hours. But as well as that, there’s also the community that come to Black Star and they’ve been people who’ve met each other there, become friends, I’m sure there are people who’ve met their partners there, I’m sure of it. That’s just a lovely little thing, but yeah, as we go on, it’s just like, five years on now, it’s really, really not about me anymore, which is great. I mean, in the beginning, whenever there was like a little kind of, say, newspaper blurb or something, it’d always be ‘Chris Thé, who’d worked at Yellow and worked at Claude’s’, now it’s not about that any more, it’s about Black Star. It’s just something I just need to make sure stays on the rails. It’s like a kind of caretaker role, yeah.
SIOBHAN: Driving the train.
CHRIS: Driving the train.
SIOBHAN: So what does food and how we engage with it, what do you think it says about our society, and I guess, our local communities, and the way you’ve kind of established this relationship between food and Newtown?
CHRIS: Well, luckily, I spent a lot of time in restaurants, and it was a very intimate kind of dining, very small restaurants. This is what I believe: I think the whole kind of core and key to hospitality is this sense of giving, right? When you meet people and they come to work for you, you can kind of tell instantly. I mean, are they the sort of person who just can’t help themselves, they just have to help and they have to give, you know? And they’re just falling over themselves to help, those are the guys you know are going to do really well in this job. So I kind of try and surround myself with those kind of people, and there’s just a lot of energy in that place. It’s just frantic and hectic and there’s a sort of person that really just feeds of it. And just thrives off it. Yeah, and those are the guys who really do well. I just think, you know, people are just so…good at picking out a fake, you know what I mean? So when you come in, and often this happens, often the staff are grumpy because they’ve just served so many strawberry cakes, you know, you can kind of get that vibe, that, oh, they’re a bit grumpy, but most of all I think that’s in the far minority, you just get that kind of uplifted energy, it’s something that feeds people, that’s great. So I don’t know. It’s so much more than the food, that’s the thing. It’s the whole experience as well. So hopefully, when you come there, you kind of almost get an injection of energy. Much like a recharge of your battery.
SIOBHAN: Do you think our relationship with food is changing?
CHRIS: Well, I think, yes. I think people are less concerned about the artistic and aesthetic part of it, and more about the, I don’t know, the meaning behind food, and where it comes from. I think that’s really important.
SIOBHAN: What about social media? Because food-blogging and Instagramming is huge, it’s almost as if you haven’t eaten it unless you’ve Instagrammed it first. How’s that changing what you do?
CHRIS: Well, when I was a young chef, the old print media had so much influence. And personally, now, I think it’s not so important. I mean, it’s, I think it’s a really good thing, I think it’s a sharing thing. But it’s just a way of keeping interesting, really. You know, that being said, I think until, like, two years ago, I wasn’t even on Facebook, but now I’ve kind of gone really, really big on Twitter and Instagram, but I just enjoy it. But that’s the thing about social media, I tell the guys when they’re at a function…so I might set up a function and send my guys there, it’s like, you can reach 50 people today, or maybe 100 with your food, but if you get it out there, and get people interested, and they see what you’re doing online, you know, who knows how many people you can reach, and just that kind of impact is just amazing. And I mean, the biggest thing about the way we operate now is, whenever we do anything, we take a photo. We’ll make something in the kitchen, take a photo, send it to everyone and say ‘Hey, this is the dish we’re doing!’ and these pictures just save you a thousand words, and 20 conversations with different people. It’s just a really, really, really exciting and efficient way to communicate.
SIOBHAN: And describe. Are there other trends that are shaping our experience or our relationship with food?
CHRIS: Just let me think for a sec! (laughs) You know, when i started, there was that macaron phase, and the best thing you could do was to go to Pierre Hermes in Paris, and for some reason we created Black Star, which is just about home-baking, almost. Luckily for us, that’s…what people are really into now, and I think it’s just that kind of, almost like, childlike joy you get when you bake something or you eat something like that. As far as trends, I think people just want to be more connected to where their food came from, really. I think that’s important.
SIOBHAN: You talked about your interest in sustainability and community, how does that currently play out for you in your kitchen and in your shop?
CHRIS: I’m caught in the middle, absolute middle! I’ve got an old-world kind of consumer base, expecting the packaging, and then your box goes in a bag, and you walk down the street and it’s all branded, and I was very anti-branding for the first four years of existence. It was all about subtlety. And then I’ve got my staff, who are, like, almost militant (laughs) on sustainability. So somewhere I need to keep these two groups happy! And that’s been kind of tough, it’s made me, it’s forced me to think outside the square on things. So, I mean, there are issues, staff don’t like it when people order takeaway coffees and sit down, because that’s a cup that goes into landfill, you know? But say, some people might think they’re going to take it away, and bump into a friend, and suddenly they sit down, so how to keep everyone happy? So we’re thinking of, I mean, it’s actually quite important to me as well. Every organism in this world can’t exist without some sort of cost, and that kind of plays upon my conscience as well, how to minimise this. And I think, just taking baby steps at getting better at what we do. When we first could afford free-range eggs, I was extremely happy! As your business becomes healthy you can do this. And then it was the sustainable meat, and the biodegradable cups. The big goal is to have a carbon-neutral business, but you can only achieve that by baby steps, because you’ve also got to keep the thing afloat, and you’ve got 40 people who are relying on you to, you know what I mean? Their rent depends on you keeping this thing going. So sustainability, it’s, as a business, and as a community, if you’ve got the opportunity to be at the forefront, and show people how it can be done, then that’s a really great place to be. That’s a really great place to be. Because we’ve got a lot of influence, we can say, ‘No, you can’t have a bag,’ but what we’re trying to do is maybe let them purchase a bag that is carbon-neutral, or even carbon-positive, those kind of initiatives. So another thing we’re thinking about is a reusable cup depository, the amount of times I’ve been on the road without my keep cup or whatever, and thought ‘well, now I just have to take a cup’… we’re thinking of these ideas. What if we had a bank of cups that you could buy at cost price, and then we’ll buy it back off you later on? It’s thinking, it’s still in the thinking phase, we need to think about hygiene and things like that. Once we work it out, then I think these are great solutions that… if people see it works, these things could catch on.
SIOBHAN: Chris, five years ago you had an idea that you’ve now been able to bring to life, and it was the right idea for the right time, in terms of this idea, as you’ve framed it, as home-baking but on steroids! When you look to the future, how do you think our relationship with food might change even further?
CHRIS: 3D printing? (laughs) I don’t know! You know, there was a time when you had your little recipe book that was brown with folded corners, and now, as soon as you need an idea you go to Google, it’s…
SIOBHAN: You mean you don’t go to the Womens’ Weekly Kid’s Birthday Cookbook?
CHRIS: No, I’ve got that one memorised! But that’s really exciting, you can get anything you think of. And get advice from anywhere in the world, it’s quite amazing.
SIOBHAN: It’s almost like it’s an act of curating now? In terms of all that information that you can draw on?
CHRIS: I think what you need is someone to bring that fresh idea, to kind of cut through the clutter and bring things forward that are really interesting and poignant. I mean, I hope that I’ll never be out of a job, I hope there’s never going to be a robot that can do my job, or a machine that can just press a button and out comes a tart, but you never know! We’ve only had a car for 100 or so years. And with that will come good things as well.
SIOBHAN: What’s the craziest request for a cake that you’ve had?
CHRIS: At the moment it’s a sandcastle cake, I think! (laughs)
SIOBHAN: What is a sandcastle cake?
CHRIS: I don’t know! They just said, ‘I want a sandcastle cake for a wedding, we’re quite non-conventional, so go ahead and do it!’ That’s a great challenge, and I can never say no to that challenge.
SIOBHAN: It must be great having customers who do push your thinking!
CHRIS: Yeah, but it always has to make sense, culinary-wise and structure-wise, that’s the principle behind what we do. Everything has to make sense. So we don’t add unnecessary decoration or colour things with dyes or anything like that.
SIOBHAN: And do you have a favourite piece of kitchen equipment?
CHRIS: Oh, well, there was one day where I thought, ‘Yes, I do want to own a bakery,’ and I went and bought a 20-litre mixer.
SIOBHAN: That definitely says ‘I’m going to open a bakery’!
CHRIS: Yes, I think it was a commitment to own a bakery one day. A 20-litre mixer.
ADRIAN: Could you tell us about your new bread oven at Rosebery.
CHRIS: Wow, ok, so it's mainly fired by wood but it's got an electrical assist so we don't have to fire it up four hours beforehand. It's not very big so we're just doing enough bread for ourselves. It's an attempt to un-industrialise bread again. I think there's some fantastic bread being made now but there's vast quantities of it happening, so we're just doing something that's handmade and each loaf is a little bit different. It's interesting bread – it's like chunks of beetroot and walnut in there and kumara and lavendar and things like that. It's an attempt to bring the real artisanal thing back to it, and not to worry about the business side of it because we've got the Black Star Pastry side. It's just a nice thing to do.
SIOBHAN: My final question is, what’s your favourite ingredient to work with?
CHRIS: I think it has to be butter, probably. There’s just so much you can do with it!
SIOBHAN: Thank you, Chris, thank you for answering all of the questions I’ve always wanted to ask you! I’m sure I’ll probably think of some more, but that just means I’ll have to pop into Black Star and buy some cake and ask you. Thank you for joining us tonight on Out the Front.
CHRIS: Thank you, it’s been a pleasure. Thank you.
Interview: Siobhan Toohill
Photography: Dean Sewell / Oculi
Producer: Adrian Wiggins
Art direction: Sara Jinga
Transcript: Fiona Wright
This interview has been proudly sponsored by
Published by: Adrian Wiggins in Interviews