It's been a busy year for Giselle Courteau. In nine short months, the ambitious and eminently likeable co-owner of Duchess Bakeshop has relocated and expanded the popular French bakery's Provisions shop, which sells high-end bakeware and ingredients to local bakers.
She then opened Café Linnea, which specializes in brunch fare, and put the final touches on Duchess Atelier, her new Parisian-styled baking school. Somewhere along the way, Ms. Courteau recently gave birth to a daughter, Rose.
"It's been busier than I thought," she laughs from a small office tucked away behind a wall of children's cookbooks. The din of power tools still reverberates from next door, where a team of workers installs equipment and wiring in a big commercial kitchen.
The projects come at a difficult time in the province. Alberta's economy has been sideswiped by depressed oil prices, and yet her bakery businesses have gone from strength to strength.
"Buying yourself a piece of cake or a macaron is a small luxury," explains Ms. Courteau, "and people are finding money for those. They might not be buying new cars, but they are still buying themselves treats. But they're little treats, not big treats."
She adds that the anticipation for Duchess Atelier's baking classes, which launch next week, is commensurate with an upswing in home baking. "People are creative with saving money," she observes, "and want to use fruit from trees in their yard. People want to know how to use what's right in front of them."
She notes that Duchess Bakeshop is even busier than when it first opened and business at Provisions is steady, but profit margins are tight. "Minimum wage has gone up, and food prices like for flour and butter have really increased, but we're surviving."
Ms. Courteau's Provisions is flanked on one side by Café Linnea and the baking school on the other. Holland Plaza, an quasi-industrial brick building on the western frontier of Edmonton's downtown core, is a few blocks east of Duchess Bakeshop and houses a number of food-related businesses, including smoked meat powerhouse the Local Omnivore.
"[My business partners] and I opened the original Duchess on 124th Street in 2009," she recalls. Edmonton's appetite for French pastries, in a city previously devoid of macarons and palmiers, proved ravenous and Duchess Bakeshop soon relocated to a larger space next door.
"The original Duchess space was empty," Ms. Courteau explains, "and so we had this idea to open Provisions, which is basically our dream store."
The long-time baker's dream store was one that sold hard-to-find ingredients, such as high-end baking chocolate and specialty flours, as well as niche cookbooks and bakeware.
"Duchess Provisions was a concept we hadn't seen in Edmonton. When I was practising baking, before the bakery ever opened, I had such a hard time finding quality equipment and ingredients here."
A great many Edmontonians shared Ms. Courteau's dream; the Madeleine moulds and Valhrona chocolate soon flew off the shelves. The Duchess crew – Ms. Courteau and her business partners, Jake Pelletier and Garner Beggs – faced increased demand for their carefully curated collection of baking provisions. Competing demand for increased Duchess kitchen space compounded these space constraints, prompting the trio to plan the move.
"All of a sudden we had the space to stock kitchen appliances like stand mixers and blenders, and we were able to have an expanded children's section, plus have an 'Alberta cookbooks' section," she explains before adding, "So if you know of a good one, let me know so we can bring it in!"
Duchess Provisions's move into a gleaming 280-square-metre space permitted the realization of Ms. Courteau's long-lingering idea to open a baking school.
"Our customers have been asking about baking classes ever since we opened," she says, "but it wasn't feasible in Duchess's kitchen. People are in there baking 24 hours a day."
Now that the teaching space, christened "Duchess Atelier," is nearing completion, Ms. Courteau anticipates the opportunity to welcome classes of aspiring bakers.
"I hope it becomes a hub for people interested in baking at home. I'm not a professionally trained pastry chef. I learned at home, so it's not impossible," she says.
Duchess Atelier's teaching roster will include the finer points of making macarons ("There are so many steps and people keep asking me about them," she laughs) and heartier French-Canadian fare such astourtière ("Especially around Christmas," she adds).
For those intimidated by intricate pastry work, Ms. Courteau advises fearlessness.
"Don't be afraid to go outside your comfort zone or make mistakes. People think I am some kind of wizard, but trust me, lots of things don't turn out when I bake. But I learn, and I have fun."