A freelance writer and father of two, I am interested in almost anything the ever-changing city of Brisbane has to offer. When I am not seeking the kid-friendly and affordable, I am tracking the home-grown and the unique... Come and discover with me!
Published December 17th 2011
For my money, the best patisserie in Brisbane by a clear margin is Avant Garde Patisserie at Centro Milton. Although one of fewer than ten patisseries in South-East Queensland to make all their products on-site and from scratch, Avant Garde is far from being simply a good place to buy a pie or a birthday cake, having also earned a reputation for excellence in both the cafe and catering arms of its business.
View of Avant Garde Patisserie at Centro Milton, from Baroona Road
Despite newcomer status in a suburb which boasts some of our fair city's best-known and longest-established cafes, Avant Garde has become widely known throughout the area as a cheerful and comfortable place to have a delicious breakfast or lunch, to arrange some deliciousness for your next function, or simply to relax over a damn fine cup of coffee.
If you're wondering whether these opening statements are merely the ravings of a heavily-caffeinated writer spruiking his favourite local, then here are some facts to consider. After less than two years in business, Avant Garde is already the top-selling outlet for Veneziano Coffee in Brisbane. The catering arm of the business has experienced such heavy demand that extensions are already slated for 2012 which will almost double the size of the kitchen. And the quality of both product and service made such an impression at a recent Royal Academy of Dance function that St Laurence's College in South Brisbane subsequently invited the Avant Garde team to set up a dedicated mini-store inside their brand new Edmund Rice Auditorium.
So how does a specialist patisserie also manage to earn a sterling reputation as a cafe and catering house, without some aspect of the business suffering either in quality or in quantity of output? The answer, in Avant Garde's case, lies with the dynamic duo of manager Sam Sherman and head chef Dean Vickers.
Dynamic Dean - with fruit mince pies and one of the immensely-popular Christmas Puddings
Sam is an organisational genius with a flair for coffee, a marksman's eye for opportunity, and people skills refined over years not only in hospitality but also in building and real estate. Dean is a world-class patissier in the grand old French tradition, who nonetheless sees himself as being at the vanguard of a distinctly Australian craft. His impressive resume includes experience with such famous London establishments as Villandry's and Putney Bridge, as well as a substantial stint as sous-chef at the three-Michelin-star Ivy, where he regularly made desserts for such luminaries as Ozzy Osbourne, David Beckham, Elton John, and even Queen Elizabeth II.
For these two lads from the Western suburbs, Avant Garde Patisserie is the fulfillment of a shared and long-held dream, one which they have brought into reality with a combination of intelligence, passion and sheer bloody-minded dedication. These three qualities can be neither taught nor bought, but to succeed in the hospitality game one either possesses them in spades, or finds oneself searching for an easier way to make a living sooner rather than later. When, in 1999, Sam and Dean discovered that an old shop around the corner from their Taringa share-house was up for lease at the now-unthinkable rate of $200 a week, these traits were already vividly apparent in the characters of the two young men.
By that stage Sam already had a degree in Hospitality Management from the University of Queensland and a growing wealth of experience in the trade; while Dean, having completed his bakery apprenticeship at Woolworths, had begun single-mindedly pursuing his passion for cake-decorating and pastry-making, and was rapidly accruing awards for excellence and blue ribbons at the Ekka as he went. The drive and the vision were already well and truly there—only the first of the above mentioned qualities prevented them taking over the Taringa lease and going into business together that very year.
Put simply, Sam and Dean had the good sense to realise the risks inherent in launching such a venture under-capitalised—and that they were both, as Sam admits with a grin today, perhaps still a little too pre-occupied with the care and maintenance of a V8 Charger and a Brock Commodore respectively. These were Western suburbs boys, after all—Sam from Redbank Plains, Dean from Goodna—who had first met in a Year 9 classroom at Ipswich Grammar School. But suspend your judgements right there, dear reader, for these were far from your stereotypical bevans sitting behind those overworked tachometers.
Even in those early days, Sam and Dean had identified, with characteristic acuity, a significant void in the Brisbane hospitality scene where high-quality hand-made product and a European-style flair for display should have been. Brisneylanders, they believed, were far more sophisticated in their culinary tastes than the current market gave them credit for. The processed, the ersatz, the mass-produced, were all on the way out; the all-natural, the boutique, and the made-from-scratch were increasingly sought after, and yet still difficult to find. To fill this gap between supply and demand would require the emergence of a distinctly Bris-style café society—one which was unafraid to innovate, and yet which could do so without forsaking all the greatest refinements of the European past. In short, Brisbane needed a culinary avant-garde, and Sam and Dean were the two good men who would launch it.
A dream deferred this may have been, but eleven years on, a visit to Avant Garde Patisserie will convince even the most casual of observers that this has definitely not been a dream denied. Breakfast and all-day menus combine the appeal of tried and true café favourites with the Vickers flair for tweaking key ingredients to achieve light dining experiences which are subtly different and yet still powerfully delicious. The display cases continually overflow with new takes on old recipes, with many of the cakes on offer being either gluten-free or flourless versions of ultra-gourmet Ivy standards. Sam, for his part, pulls delicious coffees so swiftly and effortlessly that he seems to have been born clutching grab-handles, and can turn almost any frown upside down with an enthusiasm that seems hard-wired into his soul. A freakish memory enables him to greet long queues of regulars by name, and even the most random of takeaway customers rarely fails to leave without feeling cheered by the positive atmosphere which Sam keeps bubbling away on both sides of the counter.
Smiles for the customers, but serious about coffee
So diverse is the Avant Garde range, so reliably good the coffee, that weekend cyclists, professionals from nearby Park Road, and baby ballerinas from the Premier Dance Academy next door all discover something irresistible, and return again and again for more.
To pay a visit to Avant Garde Patisserie is, in this writer's opinion, a chance to see one of the many fascinating and exciting aspects of post-millenial Brisbane operating at full successful throttle. Sam Sherman and Dean Vickers both possess skills and talents which would see them welcomed in any similar establishment throughout the world. Yet both have chosen their home city as the location in which to express these talents, in the measured and intelligent belief that Brisbane is a place which will reward those talents with the respect and success which they undoubtedly deserve.
With Sam already cautiously yet confidently assessing opportunities for expansion, and Dean concocting further hand-made delights every other week—I am reliably informed that made-from-scratch ice-cream may be next—it seems that Avant Garde Patisserie will continue to blaze a happy and high-quality trail through the coming decade and beyond. And neither they, nor I, have the slightest doubt that a sophisticated and appreciative local clientele with a world-class taste for home-grown excellence will continue to follow.
With Christmas a week away, what better way to sample some Avant Garde excellence than with Dean's Ivy-inspired Christmas Puddings and Fruit Mince Pies? Raisins soaked in brandy for a full two months make for a full-flavoured Pudding in the authentic old English style, and even the pastry-rings in which the fruit-packed mince pies are lovingly baked into being are custom-made. Drop in or visit the website--but be Santa-swift, as these items are guaranteed to move just as quickly...