Giselle Courteau was headed in the direction of a completely different career—with salary and benefits—when she realized that baking was all she wanted to do. From there, there was no going back. With her then-husband and business partner, Garner Beggs, the couple moved to Japan to teach English and began saving with one goal in mind: one day they would open their bakery.
An adventure in Japanese bakeries
During these years, Courteau started investigating what was being sold in bakeries across Tokyo. She fell in love with macarons. So began her quest to make the perfect one. “At the time, making macarons at home wasn’t really a thing and finding recipes for a smaller batch was nearly impossible,” recalls Courteau. Far from being discouraged, she bought all the cookbooks she could get her hands on. She tested and improved her recipe for over four years. And remarkably, Courteau did so in a toaster oven—talk about perseverance.
Courteau wanted to learn all there was to know about baking. As a true autodidact, after mastering macarons, it was natural for Courteau to continue learning. When I told her that I thought she was gifted, Courteau insisted that she didn’t possess natural talent, that instead, she had been passionate enough to put in the hard work until she was successful.
Learning to become a professional
Macarons were one of the hardest things she had to learn. The second difficult lesson came when she opened her store—the Duchess Bake Shop—in Edmonton. Courteau knew how to bake at home, but then she had to learn to scale her operations for a store. “These are two different types of baking. Many things change, often starting with the recipe” she adds. “One thing was important though—the quality,” says Giselle. “We wanted every single pastry to be perfect and made from scratch. No shortcuts would be taken.” And this challenge required a whole new series of testing.
When Courteau and Beggs opened their shop, it was the first of its kind in Edmonton. The few existing bakeries sold pre-made pastries and standard North American staples. Giselle even pointed out with pride that they “were actually one of the firsts to offer macarons in Canada.”
The day they opened, back in October 2009, customers started to line up. First, out of curiosity, they returned for the quality and the flavours. It seemed like the macaron was an easy sell. “I mean who wouldn’t want some?” asks Courteau, laughing. “Macarons are colourful and fun, guilt-free little treats.” This is how she describes the emblematic French dessert. And her kids would agree, after all, macarons are their favourite afterschool snacks.
At the Duchess Bake Shop, they used their macarons to build trust with their customers until they were ready to introduce other traditional French pastries.
After a year or so, Giselle had started to spread her love for her childhood favourites: Paris-Brest, galette des Rois and Grand-Mère’s Florentines (for which she shares the recipe here).
From the beginning, everything moved fast
Only months after opening their first small bakery, the store next door became available. Even though it was already hard to keep up with the work, Courteau and Beggs thought it was too good an opportunity to pass up. That’s how they tripled their capacity and started hiring more staff.
Being with her mom in the kitchen and trying out cookbook recipes was how her dream began, so it made sense for Giselle to pass along all she had learned through a cookbook too. She wanted people to be inspired and start cooking for the fun of it, just like she did. Right when she started this project, she found out she was pregnant. She delivered the draft of her cookbook two weeks before her baby was born.
But things didn’t stop there. Her now ex-husband decided to open a restaurant, and she joined him on this adventure; while thinking about opening a baking supply shop with all the essentials she wished she had had when she first opened her store. Duchess Provisions, which Courteau describes as her “piece of heaven” is now open!
Last year, when the French TV show, Le Meilleur Pâtissier – Les Professionnels contacted Courteau to represent Canada in a professional baking competition, she said yes and flew across the Atlantic for the love of baking.
Because, like a dreamer, Giselle never seems to stop, she is now embarking on a new journey. She will be working on a new cookbook, more casual and personal, with the recipes she makes at home. All while running a successful 4,500-square-foot bakery, leading a squad of 62 employees as well as offering cooking classes all year long.
To learn more about Giselle Courteau, check this snappy interview.