“I was very attracted to the idea that pastry and dessert, well, they’re beautiful, they’re always pleasing to the eye. The only purpose of sweets is to give pleasure. It’s not only sustenance, it’s to make you happy.”
I sat down last Saturday at KB Cafe Shop with Amanda Scott, the woman behind Boneshaker Sweet Rolls. Over café filtre, banana bread, and apple crumble, we discussed her growth as a pastry chef, the all-pervasive Anglo-Saxon influence in the parisian food scene, and the place of the doughnut in a culture which raises pastry to a level of artistic glory.
Amanda first came to Paris in 2002 as an Art History student from Sarah Lawrence College in New York state. Like many, she became infatuated with the city, deciding to stay on for an extra few months after her initial semester-long stint was up. After coming back to the states in August, Amanda finished her senior year, but just three days after graduation, she was again on a plane to Paris. “I was determined to come back.”
“I was told it would be hard to get a job, but that I would have a little more leeway if I wanted to study. I didn’t want to jump immediately into a graduate program, so I looked for something else. I had always worked in restaurants since I was 15, and while I was in Paris the first time, I had made a lot of friends who were attending culinary school. The more I thought about it, the cooler the prospect seemed. Worst-case scenario, if it didn’t amount to something, I would learn how to cook.”
After getting her Diplôme de Pâtisserie at Le Cordon Bleu, Amanda moved to Ireland, staying in Dublin from 2004 until 2012. She talks to me about the city's food scene, a massive revolution comprised of a focus on fruits, meats and cheeses. “And the restaurant scene has just followed suit,” Amanda says. “I was very lucky, it was a good place to be. The Irish produce is second to none.”
And then we get into the less-glamorous side of kitchen work. Amanda cites long hours working in a Michelin-starred restaurant, joking that she was called the “part-timer” by her co-workers who justified that getting in at 7 in the morning and finishing around 6 at night constituted as slacking. But of course, regular time in the kitchen is usually the 18 hours between 8 and 2 a.m., and with her eldest son having just been born, this wasn’t sustainable.
So Amanda took a different approach: “That’s when I first got involved in third-wave coffee, starting to go to specialty bakeries and specialty coffee shops. I was offering sort of upscale but at the same time rustic and homestyle desserts.”
Amanda then speaks to me about her focus on patisserie, describing it with an internalized artistic sentiment: “I liked the correlation between art and pastry, it didn’t seem like a huge jump between the two.” And when I ask her about her preference between cooking and baking, she approaches the question with an answer that seems to have been formulated long ago: “What it comes down to is alchemy. Unlike cooking, you start off with these raw ingredients and in the end you have this unrecognizable result. It’s chemistry, but it’s exciting. I love that”
I return the subject momentarily to coffee, going deeper into Dublin’s third-wave coffee culture. “Oh, it’s huge there, it’s even taken off more after I left. It was spearheaded largely by Colin Harmon of 3fe Coffee, whom I worked with as well. There were a few before him too, Coffee Angel being one, but he’s universally-recognized as bringing it to the masses. It was the same story, he was fed up with not finding good coffee and decided to be proactive about it, making good coffee himself.”
We build upon this by making connections between third-wave coffee and the growing interest in responsibly-sourced ingredients. “There’s a resurgence of people interested in quality, hand-made food and a rejection of mass-produced goods,” says Amanda upon reflection. “But the local food movement has been around for a long time. In America you have Alice Waters with Chez Panisse and you have the Slow Food movement which began in Italy in the 80s, so of course it’s not new, but it’s thankfully become more mainstream. I don’t think it’s just a passing trend either because it’s been built from such a solid foundation.”
But then there’s always that question of accessibility. I think of $10 juices purchased at Whole Foods or $29.99/lb pignolis picked up from the co-op. I look down at my café filtre and remember the three euros I handed over to the barista. What do we gain in something that can be thought of as unnecessarily over-priced? “Coffee costs more here because they’re paying more for the beans. They’re not buying beans and jacking up the prices,” Amanda responds. “It involves more complex economics than that, but I know that the establishment of price starts very early in the process of production. It’s the same for me, the high-quality ingredients are a bit more expensive, and I have to price accordingly for my business to be viable.”
“What’s interesting though,” she continues, “is that it’s already a part of the lifestyle in France to seek out ingredients of this caliber. You have conversations with producers, creating this intimate connection that I fell in love with when I first got here. You form personal relationships with the people involved in your food. It’s very romantic.”
We use this idea of culinary passion to transition into Amanda’s focus on doughnuts. “It started with my husband and I visiting my family when we got married in 2013. We found this amazing doughnut shop at the beach, and we thought about how much we wanted these back home, back in Paris. And the idea just grew from there. My husband has always worked in the industry as well, so it was really just a natural progression for us to open our own bakery. You reach a certain point where it just becomes the next step.”
“We had a few different incarnations. Yes, we were always going to do doughnuts, but we added to that other yeast-leavened sweet breads, cinnamon rolls and sticky buns, but doughnuts were always going to be our signature thing. Often, as one finds, simplicity is best.”
“What helped too, in deciding to go out on our own, is knowing that people aren’t going to come into your doughnut shop unhappy. I really liked the idea of having nice interactions with people. Making and selling doughnuts, it’s a wonderful way to spend your day.”
This prediction has been consistent with the outcome. The Maple Bacon doughnut is Amanda’s bestseller, which she attributes to people’s interest in the sucre-salé concept. “People love trying new things. I’ve found that the wackier I go, people will just continue to embrace it. I think it’s also because I did my training in Paris; all of my recipes are based on classical French techniques. Everything I do ultimately has its origins in traditional French pastry.”
You can find Amanda Monday through Thursday at the Beans on Fire, the coffee shop where I first discovered her genius in the form of her lemon basil curd-filled doughnut. “We’ve been there since January and we’ve only been supplying Tim [of the pop-up café, O Coffeeshop, also located at the Beans on Fire] since the fall of 2015.”
The weekend, then, is devoted to delivery. Friday through Sunday, Amanda and her husband, Louis, a watercolor artist, hop on their bikes. “It’s our primary means of transport. Paris is such a beautiful city, so why not? I could be doing a lot worse, right?” They distribute among a group of coffeeshops in Paris, including Honor Café in the first and three in the third: Ob-La-Di, Fondation, and most recently, Loustic.
“The cafés place their orders so you can really see the personality of the shop in the doughnuts they choose. Ob-La-Di does an avocado toast with pomegranate, a lot of chia puddings too, so I like to do a pomegranate-lime doughnut because it mirrors their California vibe. I do a filled doughnut for Honor Café, sort of old-school with homemade jam and a vanilla custard. Today was Loustic’s first order, so I just did a giant sample, the salted caramel, Boston Cream, apple pie, and hot chocolate. It was like a trial-and-error to see what works for them.”
Then I give Amanda a challenge: determining the doughnut’s future in Paris. “Well, I hope it’s good,” she laughs. “But American sweet bread rolls do certainly seem to have a place here. It’s of course a culture that loves pastry already, and more and more people are going to Anglophone countries, bringing back not only the coffee but the cakes as well. Banana bread, carrot cake, it’s all very American, Australian, English."
"There’s the evident bridging of American and French culture in the doughnut. It’s a fermented dough, delicate glazes, and an individual portion. It’s very similar to entering a boulangerie where you have all your little tartlets lined up. So in a way it’s really not that different from what people are used to seeing in France. People love doughnuts. They’re not pretentious, they’re both beautiful and approachable.”
We talk more about the benefits of her work. Amanda smiles. “I feel very engaged with what I do, and I think a lovely side-effect of working in the industry is getting to know your customers. You form relationships. If you see someone on a regular basis, the natural progression is to get to know that person. Of course it’s a business first and foremost, but if the business is working, well, then it’s a great added bonus.”
“And it doesn’t feel like this massive jump from work to life. I build my business to fit my lifestyle as opposed to the other way around. I want to work but of course I want to spend time with my family as well. And it’s fortunate because this works really well in Paris. Here, it’s about creating a life that’s enjoyable to live. It’s never perfect of course. You have to work hard, but it’s wonderful work. I love it, I wouldn’t be able to do it unless I loved it. It’s really fun.”
And doughnuts seem to go perfectly with that.