Love at First Taste
By Briana Loëb
Photos by Leslie Hodge
Soraiya was 10 years old when she walked into Laduree, a boutique sweet shop in the heart of Paris, France. The shop was chic yet elegant, filled with chocolates and baked goods, overflowing with rows of brightly colored macarons. Parisians ate sweets like it was a privilege or a right, rather than a guilty pleasure. So when Soraiya took her first bite of a rose macaron, she immediately fell head over heels in love at first taste. There, her enamor for all things French flowered, and a dream was born.
A macaron (widely confused with a macaroon) is a confection comprised of a sweet filling sandwiched by two almond meringue-based cookie shells. They are characterized by a distinct appearance and come in an endless variety of flavors. Macarons have a long history, dating back to Venetian monasteries since the 8th century. They made their way to Paris during the Renaissance through Catherine de' Medici's marriage to Henry II of France and, within the last decade, they have become a sensational item across North America.
Some years after her first visit to France, Soraiya Nagree was studying engineering at Trinity University. After school, she went to work for a bowling manufacturer doing urethane engineering. "There is a lot more science to making bowling balls than you would think," recalls Soraiya.
After three years of mixing extremely toxic chemicals, she decided to give the mixing of edible ingredients a go. After attending Le Cordon Bleu, she realized this wasn't just going to be something she could get out of her system. So she packed up some cookies and took them to Royal Blue Grocery's first store at 3rd and Lavaca. "Twelve years ago, I had no idea that pursuing baking would force me to become a salesperson, and push me so far out of my comfort zone. I showed up and said 'Hi, I've got these cookies do you want to try them?' And George, who's one of their owners, was so warm and welcoming." To this day, you can still get one of Soraiya's cookies at Royal Blue Grocery.
Three years afterward, they began wholesaling to 10 locations of Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf. "That basically took us from a wayward side business to a legitimate business with full-time employees," says Soraiya.
Of course, it hasn't all been as simple as following a recipe. "I went through the full culinary program at Le Cordon Bleu," Soraiya says. "Macarons, oddly, weren't one of the things we learned to make. So I had to teach myself how to make them. There was a lot of wasted almond meal in those days." Macarons are notorious for being extremely difficult to make because they are so temperamental. "Every hour, every day that you try to make them, they behave differently". It's no wonder that engineering would have come in so useful for Soraiya's career. "It taught me how to think in a way that still comes in handy today. It's about fine-tuning processes and using experiments to figure out what's right and what's wrong. We apply that thinking in our kitchen on a regular basis."
Shortly after the wholesale pastry business took off, Soraiya's husband stumbled across a home for sale on Craigslist. One look and they knew they had to do it. Her dream of opening a French pastry shop was actualized. La Patisserie's doors opened, a charming house on W. Annie Street, and 6 years later, in 2016, she opened a second location on Burnet Road.
"I love baking," she says. "But I didn't realize how much I was going to love interacting with customers. Since we were wholesaling for so long, we never had that final interaction with the customer. We could just hope that the people selling our products were representing it well, since we didn't have much control. So after we opened our doors and I got to talk to the customers, I couldn't have been happier. I had no idea the extent to which I would completely fall in love with what I'm doing."
For every entrepreneur that takes the leap, however, there is always an inevitable element of fear. In 2010, Austin didn't even know what macarons were. Instagram was in its infantile stages (whereas today, you can find several million posts about the pastel pastries). "Macarons just weren't known. It was really scary," says Soraiya. "We had some great PR pieces come out when we opened, and it helped us feel like we had our footing."
Of course, technology has helped and hindered the growth of La Patisserie. "There is never a lack of ideas," Soraiya says. "I get constantly inspired. But at the same time you can feel like you're not doing enough, which is exhausting. And nowhere on Instagram or Pinterest do people see prices. So when a bride-to-be walks in and shows me professional photos of a cake made in LA that's probably $30 a slice, she has no context for what she's asking for."
Soraiya says the fear never really goes away. "It's there every day," she says. "Every morning, every time I check our numbers, the fear is there. Eventually, you just get comfortable being uncomfortable and remember that bad days will be followed by good days. And there are always more good than bad! There's never a day that passes that I don't know how lucky I am that I get to do what I do. It's ridiculous because I made thousands of macarons, but I still love it. The process is therapeutic."
Not only has Soraiya created countless confections, she has created a lifestyle. What was once a fantastical dream for a wide-eyed 10-year-old is now a reality. The little girl that tasted a rose macaron in a boutique sweet shop in Paris now has her own slice of Paris here in Austin.
Stop by either of La Patisserie's locations to try a macaron. Or check out www.lpaustin.com to order some online, learn what other baked goods are available, or sign up to take a macaronmaking class.