This article first appeared in The Times, 13 December 2017
I relished my first croissant in Cannes on the Cote d’Azur, age 14. To someone whose South African bread repertoire was limited to government loaves and Portuguese rolls, the glorious pillow of pastry was a revelation.
Finding the quintessential croissant, done the way I like it, in Cape Town has been a tad challenging. I’m a picky diva after perfection on a plate, so when murmurings of Truth Roastery’s next level confection reached my ears, I made haste to Buitenkant Street to meet the man behind the menu.
Towering over me at a statuesque 1.98 metres, Kamel Hamzaoui looks more like a demi god than a pâtissier. Born thirty-seven years ago in Montmartre, Paris to French Algerian parents, his baking prowess first manifested at age four when he casually whipped up a spectacular cake at kindergarten. Every Wednesday was baking day at the crèche and the little cook clearly took it all very seriously. While at high school he worked weekends in Enghiens-Les-Bains as an apprentice to one Monsieur Chapeau, learning the crucial fundamentals, from creating the base of a gateaux to honing the techniques that underpin the classical handcrafted croissant. At age twenty-one, after five years with the master, he left the kitchen and switched direction and left the kitchen to pursue a global modelling career. One of his stops was Cape Town where he met his future wife before returning to Paris and taking up a position at the exceptional L’Epicure in 2007, a three Michelin star restaurant at Le Bristol Hôtel in Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré. There he worked under the guidance of the late Laurent Jeannin, the famously charismatic pastry chef who trained alongside Pierre Hermé and whose résumé included other emblematic establishments like the Crillon and the George V. “I learnt everything from him,” added Hamzaoui whose pedigree also boasts stints at several temples of gastronomy at the Hôtel Plaza Athénée on the Champs Élysées, the Mini Palais inside the Grand Palais Museum, and, just prior to leaving for Cape Town, at La Petite Cour in Saint-Germain-Des-Prés where he spent five years. Hamzaoui started at Truth Roastery exactly a year ago. Owner David Donde spotted him sitting at his now world-famous coffee shop, impeccably dressed in a three-piece suit. “Kamel is an extraordinary man and an outstanding talent – we are in awe of his creations.
Creating the ultimate croissant by hand is a feat and Kamel’s fastidious process is tantamount to the way he makes his mille feuille, that ultimate benchmark in layered airiness, if done correctly. It’s a scientific undertaking from start to finish, a marriage between precision and passion. There is no cutting corners and only the very best of ingredients will do, like the butter he imports from France. “Before beginning, I take heed of the temperature of the room, the wheat flour, even the water”, he explained, “the sheets of dough must feel right, the texture must be just so, and then you know where you’re going.”. At Truth, the croissants are elongated and emerge with just the right amount of buttery lightness and feuilletage (flakiness).
Kamel specializes in taking traditional pastries through a visual and taste metamorphosis. If you adventure beyond what’s on offer at the counter and inch your finger down the list of bewitching edibles on the menu board, you’ll discover a choice of desserts and cakes that have had an exotic makeover under Kamel’s hand. Take the humble cheesecake. Never my first choice, but Hamzaoui’s version is a perfect ronde made with sabayon cream cheese and chewy caramel mou that oozes from the centre. It had me wide eyed and waxing lyrical.
Get to Truth early if you want your share of the pain. Kamel makes 108 croissants a day, seven days a week and they disappear faster than a homesick mole. Au revoir banting!
You have been warned.
Truth Coffee Roasting is at 36 Buitenkant Street in Cape Town. 0212000440.
Until next time,