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This article was published 5/2/2017 (1561 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Alix Loiselle, owner of La Belle Baguette, a specialty bakery/café at 248 de la Cathédrale Ave., doesn’t need a calculator or ledger to know which of his shop’s treats are most popular with a specific segment of his clientele.
All the classically trained pastry chef has to do is count how many tiny fingerprints there are dotting his glass display case.
"We see it all the time," Loiselle says, seated inside his cosy St. Boniface locale, which, since it opened for business in July 2015, has drawn Winnipeggers from across the city and tourists from as far away as California, France and Germany. "Kids will come in with their parents, and as soon as they spot the eclairs, they’ll put their noses up against the glass and say, ‘I want that,’ pointing at what they call chocolate hotdogs. We actually keep a few bottles of glass cleaner behind the counter just so we can give (the display case) a wipe-down every once in a while."
Funnily enough, if all had gone according to plan, Loiselle’s life would have been more about Bach and Beethoven than bread and biscuits.
Loiselle, 28, took up the piano when he was three. He won numerous awards at the annual Winnipeg Music Festival and eventually joined the Winnipeg Youth Orchestra as an accomplished pianist and trombonist. By age 16, he had already decided he wanted to be a high school music teacher. Days after graduating from Louis Riel Collegiate in 2006, he packed his bags and moved to Brandon, where he had been accepted into Brandon University’s School of Music.
Everything was going along swimmingly, he says, until his second year of studies, when he was forced to take a semester off after being diagnosed with tendonitis, which his doctor attributed to years of playing the piano.
'Life was telling me in every way possible that it was time to come home ‐ for good'
— Alix Loiselle on returning to Winnipeg from Montreal
Loiselle moved back to Winnipeg during his recovery period. Not wanting to sit idle, he signed up for a culinary arts course being taught at the Louis Riel Arts and Technology Centre in Windsor Park.
"One of my teachers there, Helmut Mathae, became my role model… almost a father figure, really," he says. "He’s a classically trained chef from Austria, and he really took me under his wing. He pushed me into entering cooking competitions, and the first cake I baked, I won gold. I was thinking, this is fun... I like winning things. So I made the decision to not go back to music and applied to Le Cordon Bleu (Ottawa Culinary Arts Institute) in Ottawa, instead."
Loiselle completed an eight-month, advanced French pastry course in November 2009. He returned home and got a job at the Frenchway Café on Academy Road. He worked there for nearly a year before accepting a position at the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise in Alberta. Twelve months later, he moved to Montreal, where he was hired by a number of haute establishments, among them the prestigious Ritz-Carlton Montreal, which, through the years, has hosted the likes of Elizabeth Taylor, Queen Elizabeth and members of the Rolling Stones.
"I had the opportunity to be part of the pastry team at the Ritz-Carlton, which was an amazing experience," he says.
"It was a very upscale environment — very artistic with lots of plated desserts — but also incredibly demanding because we were in an open kitchen and felt like we had to put on a show each and every night. I used to get home at 2 a.m. completely stressed out, only to get up at 6 (a.m.) and start all over again."
In December 2012, Loiselle learned his grandmother was ill. That, combined with the fact Christmas was right around the corner, gave him the perfect excuse to book a flight to Winnipeg, he says.
"I was at my wits’ end, I wanted to spend time with my family... life was telling me in every way possible that it was time to come home — for good."
In a January 2014 Winnipeg Free Press profile of the Oakwood Cafe, which, at the time, was owned by Peter Paley, Loiselle’s spouse, Paley and Loiselle were asked if they had any future plans. Loiselle, who joined Paley at the Osborne Street bistro not long after returning from Quebec, said they were thinking about opening a bakery someday and hoped it would be in St. Boniface.
"We’ve already got a name," he continued, "La Belle Baguette."
A few weeks after Chez Sophie, the former occupant of 248 de la Cathédrale Ave., shuttered its doors in February 2015, Loiselle and Paley — who sold the Oakwood about a year ago to concentrate on his mortgage brokering business — visited the vacant property. Loiselle was familiar with the 2,500-square-foot building, which, in addition to the commercial space, also accommodates a separate, three-bedroom residence. His grandparents used to live around the corner, Loiselle says, and he was immediately convinced it was the perfect spot for what he envisioned as a French-style "patisserie."
La Belle Baguette welcomed its first customers July 17, 2015 — a day Loiselle refers to as "one of the best days of my life," before quickly adding, "I mean, besides my wedding day."
The shop had to open 30 minutes ahead of its scheduled starting time because of the number of people waiting outside, he says.
"It was supposed to be a soft opening, but everybody in the neighbourhood seemed to know," he says, noting passersby routinely stuck their heads inside during the renovation stage to ask what he and his team of painters and electricians were up to. "An hour in, we were sold-out of everything we had, and I was like, ‘I guess I’d better get back in the kitchen.’"
Initially, La Belle Baguette featured a somewhat limited selection: three or four varieties of bread, a small selection of danishes and tarts, as well as "some basic croissants." Over time, Loiselle twigged into what his customers were looking for and expanded his list of choices to include cinnamon buns, cream puffs, brownies and madeleines (a small, melt-in-your mouth sponge cake), as well as a daily lunch special.
"During our first summer, a fellow sitting on our patio asked me if I could make him a sandwich. I thought, well, I have lots of bread, and there’s probably some meat and cheese in the fridge. I guess I could put something together. No sooner had I brought it out to him than everybody (sitting on the patio) wanted one, too. I went back inside and announced to my staff, ‘That’s it. Sandwiches are now on the menu.’"
When a scribe notices a row of minced pork tourtières lined up behind the counter, Loiselle chuckles and says, "Next question, please. I don’t like to talk about those because every single family in the French community makes tourtière differently, and I modified my own family’s recipe by seasoning it differently. So it’s become a bit of a controversy when we all get together."
By the way, if you think everybody who pops into La Belle Baguette is heading home with a loaf of bread or bag of scones under their arm, think again.
"Sometimes a person will poke their head inside, take a big whiff and say, ‘Thanks,’" Loiselle says, breaking into a wide grin.
"I’ll say, ‘You don’t want a cookie or cup of coffee or anything?’ and they’ll answer, ‘No, I’m on a diet this week. I just dropped by for a quick smell.’"
David Sanderson writes about Winnipeg-centric businesses and restaurants.
Dave Sanderson was born in Regina but please, don’t hold that against him.
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