When executive pastry chef Tariq Hanna moved to New Orleans 3½ years ago, he’d never tasted a king cake, arguably the city’s most famous baked good. He liked what he sampled, but his vast culinary experience caused him to ponder: What would he do differently?
Hanna started with a nice enriched Danish dough, added the traditional cinnamon, sugar and whipped cream cheese filling, and layered on a perfect glaze – not too sweet. Finally, he topped off the traditional king cake with the signature touch of his New Orleans bakery/pastry shop called Sucré, which in French means sugared. He finished the top of the king cake by adding luster and glitter to make it shine.
“For Sucré, it’s king cake meets Ziggy Stardust,” says Hanna, referencing the persona made famous by glam-rocker David Bowie in the 1970s. “We’re the glam-rock version of king cake. We want to make it sparkle.”
Adding sparkle has been a mission of Sucré since arriving on the New Orleans scene in 2007 – two years after Hurricane Katrina devastated the city – and their timing couldn’t be better. Business at Sucré grew 20% after year one, 42% after year two and 60% from last year. They moved from a 600-quare-foot shop to a 4,000-square-foot location after 1½ years. Now, Hanna says they are within days of making a final decision on where and when to open a second shop in New Orleans; their expansion plan calls for five locations within three years.
Capping off this explosion, on Feb. 7, the New Orleans Saints won the Super Bowl, sending the city into frenzy. Hanna spent the following Monday, his typical day off, shaping king cakes, piping wedding cake decorations and enrobing chocolates. “You can’t help but get caught up in the whole sentiment of what just happened to us,” Hanna says. “It’s black-and-gold fever everywhere. This is our time to shine.”
A New Kind of Dessert Shop
Boutique bakeries are one of the fastest growing segments of the retail industry, and Sucré is part of this important movement. Yet Hanna, who joined forces with New Orleans restaurateur Joel Dondis to open the bakery/pastry shop three years ago, cringes at any mention of Sucré following the trends.
“We’ve never really strayed too far from our original intent – a sleek, clean version of a dessert restaurant,” Hanna says. “We are all about product quality and making sure we are not keeping up with the trends, but that we are the trend.”
This multi-faceted operation features chocolates, macaroons, gelato, confections (like candied southern pecans and homemade marshmallows), and “reinvented” classic desserts. Carrot cake is a perfect example. The Sucré version of carrot cake is called C6 – Creole cream cheese carrot cake in a cup. They start by making a mousse of Creole cream cheese, incorporate a touch of orange marmalade into carrot cake, and layer the dessert like an individual parfait in a cup.
“When you eat it, it tastes like carrot cake,” Hanna says. “I’m not trying to do molecular gastronomy. As long as you execute carrot cake, for example, in a new and different way, it inspires you to feel like you’ve done something special. At Sucré, it’s everything you know, but nothing you’ve ever had.”
Here’s another example of their unique dessert creations. Bakeries always have leftovers from trimming chocolate cake, so Hanna figured out an appetizing way to mix chocolate cake scrap with sour cream custard that’s poured into flexible baking moulds and baked off. The finishing touch is bananas foster in the middle.
“Now you’re combining two desserts into one and doing it in a unique way,” Hanna says. “It’s reinventing classic desserts. And maybe I’m just putting lipstick on the pig, but people are buying it and loving it.”
A Great Problem to Have
In the days following the Super Bowl, sales of king cakes out of the retail shop swelled to 300 a day, which is nothing in comparison to the big retailers like Haydel’s Bakery in New Orleans (which sells up to 60,000 king cakes from Jan. 6 to Feb. 16, this year’s Mardi Gras day). But as Hanna points out, “king cake is just one of 220 SKU items that I do. We’re running a swing shift now that lets us stretch out our oven hours. I’m very happy to say that we sell out of everything every day.”
One goal of Sucré is to be inventive enough to turn anything in the shop into a plated dessert or even something new for the gelato bar. They are having huge success lately with “down-home” dessert creations like bread pudding gelato and peach crisp gelato.
Sucré sources dairy products from a local creamery and buys pure unrefined cane sugar from a local sugar plantation 100 miles away for use in their handmade gelato. The unrefined sugar adds a malty flavor to the gelato. Hanna makes a 6% fat content gelato base and mixes in natural flavors from there. The range of flavor possibilities is endless.
“We decide what’s feasible, what we can afford to do, and what we can’t afford to do,” he says.
“Ultimately, it’s the customer that writes the menu.”
An Unconventional Path
Hanna found his way to New Orleans after working as a casino pastry chef in Detroit. He recalls several years ago attending the National Restaurant Association show in Chicago when he visited with a friend who told him about an idea for a dessert restaurant in New Orleans. Soon, Hanna got a call from Sucré founder Joel Dondis, who shared his vision for the unique bakery/pastry shop that was in the planning stages at the time.
“When Joel called, I recognized the name Dondis and I asked him, ‘Do you have a sister named Elizabeth?’” Hanna recalls asking Dondis, who answered, yes, that was indeed his sister’s name. “’I said, well, she was my wedding photographer in New Orleans.’ We started talking and found that we had a lot of common interests and common influences. Then we met for lunch in New Orleans, and it was instant. I said, ‘I want to do this.’ Looking back, it’s been the most gratifying life I’ve done in my life. It’s not what I do. It’s who I am.”
Hanna is quick to point out that they owe the success of Sucré to everyone who works there. When he hires people, he looks for passion over experience.
Further, Hanna credits the premium ingredients they use like Felchlin chocolates and decorating items from Chef Rubber for making it all possible.
“There’s nothing glamorous about hand-dipping 3,000 truffles or piping 2,000 exclair shells every single day,” Hanna says, when he gives advice to pastry chef students from time to time. “Make it about who you are. I want people with passion. Sucré is really Sucré because of everybody who works for us. They put their heart and soul into their work every single day.”
The Sucré Team
TARIQ HANNA, EXECUTIVE PASTRY CHEF
To say chocolate is in his blood is not far from the truth. Growing up in Nigeria, Tariq Hanna’s family lived a mere stone’s throw away from the national cocoa processing plant where aromas of roasting cocoa beans always filled the air.
Upon graduation from boarding school in England, Hanna moved to the United States to attend Lawrence Technical University in Detroit in hopes of becoming the next great architect. In an unforeseen move, Tariq soon found himself enrolled in culinary school at Oakland Community College. It was here that he realized his true potential. While focusing on finding a job in hot food, Hanna dabbled in pastries on the side, soon discovering his talent and love for the art.
In 1993, he opened his own family-operated pastry and catering shop, The Northville Gourmet, at the age of 24. The Northville Gourmet was a labor of love, exploring all facets of cooking and baking he learned from not only his extensive work background, but also from his mother. In the second year of business, Hanna was awarded “Best Bakery” and “Best Dessert” in Detroit by Metro Times readers.
After six years of successful self-employment, he was offered the opportunity of a lifetime as the first casino pastry chef in Detroit. In December 1999, MotorCity Casino opened in Detroit to rave reviews for its foodservice. This gave him the chance to truly develop his distinct style and approach to what by now was his obsession. It was here that Hanna immersed himself in all things pastry, from taking and teaching classes to performing in competitions on a local and national level, by now getting national attention.
During his tenure at MotorCity, he participated in several cooking competitions on the Food Network including the National Bread and Pastry Championship, Chocolate Fantasy Competition, and Gingerbread Mansions Competition. In 2004, he was the first ever Central Region Pastry Chef of the Year and Runner-up National Pastry Chef of the Year by the American Culinary Federation.
After seven years at MotorCity Casino, Hanna joined forces with New Orleans native restaurateur and entrepreneur Joel Dondis. Sucré was a vision of Dondis’ for three years and as it came to life both began work to make the dream a reality.
JOEL DONDIS, FOUNDER
Joel Dondis began his culinary sojourn at the age of 11, serving classic French cuisine to his family and friends in Louisiana. Cultivating his passion and talent through his formative years, he attended the Culinary Institute of America in New York. Upon graduation, he traveled to Europe to expand his knowledge of the culinary arts, fine dining and impeccable service. He worked at the Michelin-rated Schloss Hotel and Restaurant Gargantua in Frankfurt.
Bringing his practical experiences back home, Dondis worked for the Brennan family at Mr. B’s Bistro. His next stop was at Emeril’s where he earned the responsibility and title of Sous Chef. Upon leaving his three-year stint at Emeril’s, Dondis founded Joel’s Grand Cuisine, Inc, now called Joel Event Catering and Event Planning (JCEP).
JCEP is widely regarded to be a local and national industry leader and the largest off-premise catering and event planning company in New Orleans. In 2000, Dondis founded Joel’s at the Hampton, which is the food and beverage provider for the Hampton Inn and Suites Convention Center.
Celebrating 10 years of Joel Catering and Event Planning, he unveiled La Petite Grocery in 2004. Now an institution, this French-influenced restaurant is a favorite dining establishment among locals and tourists alike.
The Louisiana Restaurant Association’s 2006 Restaurateur of the Year, Dondis continues to delight locals and tourists with the opening of Sucré, a one-of-a-kind dessert boutique in New Orleans’ historic Garden District. Sucré launched in April 2007. Immediately following Sucré, Dondis introduced Grand Isle in June 2007, a casual fresh seafood restaurant along Harrah’s Hotel and Casino Fulton Street development.
At Sucré, it’s everything you know, but nothing you’ve ever had.”
By: Tariq Hanna
Discovering New Orleans Bakeries
For much more on New Orleans bakeries, go online to check out the Baking Channel’s new Discovering America’s Bakeries tour – found only on BakingBuyer.com and sponsored by Dawn Food Products, Inc. The New Orleans 2010 tour stop features four bakery features, starting with Haydel’s Bakery where David Haydel Jr. offers their unique ideas on making the most of Mardi Gras season.
Other stops include a visit to Chez RuRene, a 2-year-old bakery started by Certified Decorator Terry Monk and husband Ray Monk Jr. Terry Monk shares ideas on how to put a unique twist on new bakery products.
At Café Perique in Gramercy, LA, just west of New Orleans, owner Charles Martin offers valuable tips on how to attract tourism dollars and turn your bakery into more than a place to just grab a donut.
And at the Cake Café & Bakery in New Orleans, owner Steve Himelfarb shares his stories of how he became known as the “Cake Man” of the French Quarter to opening his own successful bakery café that last year won local honors for its unique variation of king cake made with goat cheese and green apples.
Check out all of the latest Discovering America’s Bakeries videos at BakingBuyer.com.