Sonia Haumonté is Pastry Chef and owner of Patisserie Vaniyé in Parnell, New Zealand and Brand Ambassador Les vergers Boiron. In this interview, she takes us on a journey through her vast cultural and culinary world.
Let’s begin with a few words on your early years and your family background.
"I was born in New Zealand in 1981 to a Thai mother and a German father. I grew up in Thailand for the first 10 years of my life, then schooled in New Zealand before moving to France. My parents had restaurants in Thailand and I grew up in an environment of different foods and cultures and was lucky to travel a lot. This awoke my curiosity for different foods, plants, spices and the amazing diversity of food cultures. Growing up in restaurants also meant being exposed to all the dramas and excitements of the hospitality business, whether it’s in the kitchen or front of house.
My mother was incredibly passionate and dedicated, but was also a hard worker who gave her all, while my father was a real perfectionist, with an unbelievable eye for detail. He could spot an ant on the floor! My parents were my ultimate inspirations and I hope I’ve ended up with some of the qualities from each of them. I started working in their restaurants at a very young age, experiencing every aspect of the trade, from cleaning glasses and toilets to being a bartender and Maître D’. They taught me about being honest and passionate in everything I do. The hospitality business is hard and we have to work long hours, but we get our motivation from the pleasure of making our customers happy when we offer them quality products and services. "
I believe you speak several languages and that you even majored in European languages.
"My mother tongue is Thai and I’m fluent in English and French. Because of my parents’ backgrounds, I was always interested in different cultures and I quite naturally became fascinated with languages as a teenager, which is why I ended up studying Spanish, French and German at university in New Zealand and obtained a Bachelor’s degree in European languages and Psychology. Since I also loved food and hospitality, I worked part-time in restaurants during my student years. Every year, I would also go back to Thailand for two months and help my parents work in their restaurants."
You then went to Paris, which was a real game-changer for you.
"Indeed, I fell in love with Paris the minute I arrived! Everything there stimulated me and brought out all of my creative and emotional instincts. The city, the monuments, the parks, the small shop windows, the fashion, the people – especially the people – all inspired me! Paris is a big melting pot of cultures and I became friends with people from so many backgrounds and cultures. Having lived in the City of Light made me realize that our cultures are very different, but yet we are all the same in that we all enjoy being together, having a good time, sharing good food, telling stories, laughing together, crying together. All of this allowed me to express my passion and emotions through my food and dessert creations. It’s something that’s stayed with me to this very day!"
What were the main things you learned in your other studies, in particular at the Parisian ESSEC-IMHI International Business Hospitality School?
"If you like, cooking and creating recipes come naturally to me, especially since I love eating! However, ESSEC-IMHI gave me tools to better understand the business and strategic side of the hospitality world and how to manage people from different backgrounds and in different lines of work. It gave me the opportunity to get into the corporate world and progress in taking on strategic roles and, above all, it allowed me to build up my confidence, which eventually gave me the skills and the courage to start my own business at a young age."
What was the event that really triggered your rise as a young chef and who has influenced you most over the years?
"When I was in Paris, I discovered the art of French patisserie and was fortunate enough to work for Jean-Francois Foucher, Executive Pastry chef at the Park Hyatt Vendome Palace who taught me the essence of what it takes to become a great pastry chef. I am grateful to him for having shared his creativity and imagination and for teaching me respect for food and ingredients. Sadaharu Aoki, the great Japanese pastry chef, who has several shops in Paris, allowed me to get an understanding of immaculate precision, simplicity and the use of different exotic ingredients to create fusion flavors. Jean Francois Rouquette, Executive chef of Le Pur, a two-starred Michelin restaurant at the Park Hyatt Vendome was a great example of professionalism and showed me how to manage teams and gain their respect. People often think that a chef is hot-tempered, loud and crazy at work, so it’s just beautiful to see how JFR is the complete opposite, a chef who is elegant, graceful and calm, who can subtly orchestrate his team to work together harmoniously."
What are your favorite desserts? Do you consider that you have a signature dessert?
"A very good chocolate mousse or chocolate mousse cake hits the spot for me. It is a basic dessert, yet very hard to perfect. When it’s good, it’s really good, with the right balance of chocolate to cream, the right consistency so it doesn’t melt too fast in the mouth, leaving the chocolate flavor lingering on the tongue, with a velvety yet light and airy consistency, achieved through perfect mixing and folding techniques. Of course, with that in mind, you’ll need to work with the best raw materials to get the best result! I don’t have a signature dessert, since I love to continuously create new desserts and we get such wonderful feedback on so many of them that it makes you want to try new things. However, I think my signature trait is that my desserts are never too sweet, but bursting with flavor."
Can you give us an insight into your experience at Vaniyé, an explanation of the name and what plans you have for the future development of the business?
"Vaniyé comes from the word adjective format of Vanilla in French (spelled Vanillé), but we changed the double “L” phonetically to a “Y” so that people in New Zealand wouldn’t mispronounce it. My experience at Vaniyé is a journey in itself. When I started, there were no modern contemporary French patisseries in New Zealand, but only traditional old-fashioned French boulangerie-type pastry shops. It was rather risky in that people were used to muffins, cupcakes, Lamingtons and Pavlovas. We started off selling and introducing our products at local markets, with my husband and I explaining to customers the art of fine French patisseries. It was very tough at the beginning. People were too scared to try and all we would hear was “it’s too nice to eat, they’re like jewels!” However, I was so passionate and eager to introduce people to this beautiful part of French culture and make everyone appreciate the craft, the ingredients and the salon de thé tradition. Eventually, those market days paid off. Eight years later, we have a reputable patisserie and a string of loyal customers."
In your work, are you also involved in charitable and voluntary activities and do you have an apprenticeship policy? What, more generally, do you see as the role of pastry making in society?
"From time to time, we work with small charities or provide some form of contributions to certain groups, schools or organizations. But as a small family business, there is only so much we can do each year. I am particularly sensitive to helping kids who are less fortunate, enabling students from low decile schools to visit our patisserie, experience our products and learn about what I do. I love seeing their beaming faces when they discover my world. I also love art and I enjoy being involved in events where I work with artists and create desserts that are geared to the moment. This allows me to play with my imagination and be more creative. I always love to say yes to any kind of voluntary event where I can give free rein to my imagination!
Unfortunately in New Zealand, apprenticeship is not common, especially in the patisserie sector, since this area is not as developed as in Europe, Asia or the Middle East. Hopefully, this will change. I would love to be able to have young apprentices and pass on my knowledge to them. I find it challenging and refreshing to have people from the younger generations in the kitchen to spur the momentum and keep our team on their toes. The best part about having people of all backgrounds and ages working together is that it teaches everyone about respect for each another.
Pastry making is now a big trend globally and pastry chefs are now getting more recognition than before. I originally fell in love with the art of French pastry because of its artistic and ‘artisanal’ aspect. With technology moving so fast, it’s so easy to lose touch with the pleasure of doing things by hand. Everyone wants to do things faster, more easily, and tends to choose convenience over everything else. I am grateful that my line of work can provide so much happiness and emotional gratification to people, allowing both young and old to appreciate the artisanal aspect of life. I think our role as pastry chefs is to transmit this knowledge and craftsmanship to future generations and help motivate them to become more creative and continue this tradition by adding new exciting techniques and discoveries, without abandoning history and tradition."
Tell us a bit about your relationship with Les vergers Boiron, both as a Brand Ambassador, but also in terms of the products you use and the essential qualities that you appreciate most?
Quality products are the basis for creating flavorful food and desserts. I choose to work with people and brands that are aligned with our standards and who share the same values. Having been raised in Asia, where I grew up eating beautiful exotic fruits straight from the farm, I doubted at first that I would be able to have purees with the same bold flavors as the fresh fruits I ate as a child. With Les vergers Boiron fruit purees, I am sure to achieve consistent results for each batch of my recipes. The fruit puree ranges are extraordinary, allowing me to be really inventive and experimental to creat new recipes. I am thankful and humbled to have been asked by Les Vergers Boiron to be a Brand Ambassador and am always excited to share my passion with other chefs and students in my Masterclasses. I always emphasize the importance of quality ingredients to create flavorful desserts, especially when it comes to fruits. Many fruits naturally stimulate our main taste receptors: sweet, sour, bitter, astringent and even a hint of saltiness. That’s why, when working with quality fruit purees to create desserts, we don’t need to add much sugar."