Chef Nic Poelaert has found Newcastle's sweet spot

Eclair expertise: Nic Poelaert and his wife Tara at their Choux Patisserie stall. Pictures: Daniel Honan.

Eclair expertise: Nic Poelaert and his wife Tara at their Choux Patisserie stall. Pictures: Daniel Honan.

Somewhere in Newcastle there's a large room filled with gigantic bags of flour, cartons upon cartons of eggs, and a softly humming fridge filled with bottles of milk, tubs of butter, mascarpone and yoghurt, and a kaleidoscope of fresh fruit; punnets of bright red raspberries and strawberries, purple-tinted blueberries, apricots and a tray of crunchy apples, some soft yellow mangoes, passionfruit, lemons and limes, as well as a few grapefruit.

On one shelf is a bowl of green-husked guavas and another bowl of ruby-coloured blood oranges, while below rests a container filled with rhubarb compote, and, right beside it, a tub full of creamy yellow yuzu curd.

"Yuzu is a really hardy citrus from Asia that has a unique flavour. It's tart and acidic, like a lemon, but also sweet and floral, like orange blossoms," says French chef Nic Poelaert.

He is standing behind a stainless steel benchtop preparing a fresh batch of choux (pronounced "shoe") pastries.

Right now they taste surprisingly savoury and look a little like tiger-striped fingers with the tops sliced off, but soon they will be brimming with fresh fruit curd, cheesecake and custard fillings, and decorated with the type of things that wouldn't look out of place in a Katy Perry music video.

"No one is making éclairs the way we're doing it,"  Poelaert says. "There's a lot of thought that goes into how we make them.

“We try to use as much fresh fruit and other seasonal ingredients as possible with the aim to balance sweetness with acidity with savouriness and then incorporate different levels of texture.

“For instance, instead of filling an éclair with whipped cream, I'll use fresh strawberries for sweetness and strawberry coulée for acidity, then add mascarpone, because it's lighter and fresher than cream and won't sit heavy in your stomach. You don't always have to use cream." 

A single encounter with one of Nic's éclairs and you'll soon realise they have some real pedigree behind them.

Poeleart began his cooking career at Michelin star restaurant La Meunerie in Belgium then went on to work with the likes of Gordon Ramsay at his flagship restaurant in London.

He also worked with Michel Bras at his three starred restaurant, Bras, in the south of France, Shannon Bennet at the original Vue de Monde in Melbourne, and Matthew Wilkinson at Circa the Prince, where Nic was head pastry chef. Throughout this time, Poeleart acquired extensive knowledge around food and the science of cookery, which refined his culinary technique in the kitchen. In 2009, Nic opened Embrasse, alongside his Novocastrian wife, Tara (where he was proverbially showered with accolades and achievements that included being named Young Chef of the Year (2010) by the Age's Good Food Guide, Gourmet Traveller's Best New Talent (2010), and Chef of the Year (2011) by the Restaurant and Catering Association). Embrasse maintained their One Hat rating for three consecutive years.

In 2016, the couple moved to Newcastle, where Nic briefly wowed diners at Fortunate Son on Beaumont St. Now, Nic wow's early-rising gourmands on weekend's all throughout the Hunter with his wonderfully colourful, naturally delicious, and absolutely extraordinary éclairs.

"Making pastries is one of the jobs where you can really get an understanding for what cooking actually is," says Poelaert. "There are so many variables you need to consider... You've got to think about the moisture in the flour and the moisture in the butter, the freshness of your eggs and the quality of all the other ingredients that you're using to make something taste delicious.

"It's like a microcosm of the kitchen," he continues. "You're constantly adjusting the recipe, depending on all variables, so it's a great way for a young chef to understand how a recipe can work when they're learning to cook."

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Do you remember that Katy Perry music video? The one where she walks through a magical land of life-sized and brightly coloured candy - tall-as-trees lollipops growing in a forest of fairy floss - rescuing her extraordinarily attractive friends from green jelly and pink bubblegum prisons? Well, if you hold one of Nic Poelaert's Choux Patisserie éclairs up to your face (resist the powerful temptation not to push it straight into your mouth) and peer closely in-between all the brilliant colours, vibrant patterns, and mouth watering details that adorn the top of these soft and chewy choux, you might spy Katy Perry, or at least one of her back-up dancers, lounging around in-between the creamy folds of some piped vanilla crème pâtissière or some chocolate mousse, singing 'California Gurls'...

"I like to experiment with the presentation of the éclair's while playing around with the textures and flavours. I want them to be a unique style of éclair that changes each week and each season, depending on what ingredients I can get my hands on," says Poelaert. "It's fun."

Somewhere in Newcastle there's a trailer filled with a kaleidoscope of brightly coloured fruit, chocolate and cream covered Choux Patisserie éclairs. The trick, now, is where to find them before they're all gone.

No one is making éclairs the way we're doing it. There's a lot of thought that goes into how we make them. - Nic Poelaert

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