It's 7.30am and Sonia Haumonte, looking remarkably fresh and polished for someone who's already completed half a night's baking, asks if I'd like a coffee. It's too early, so I opt for a simple hot water and lemon. "Why don't you try some Japanese yuzu instead?" she suggests. It's no suprise, given Sonia's imaginative approach to flavour, which forms the backbone of this authentic French patisserie.
Hidden down a Parnell side street, Vaniye is understated and classy. There are no shabby chic industrial fittings here, but simple dark wooden tables and chairs, a large counter bursting with richly coloured gateaus, macarons and savoury pastries, and a wrought iron fireplace quietly displaying a selection of teas.
Sonia, originally from Thailand, educated in New Zealand and Cordon Bleu trained in Paris, and her French husband, Laurent, fitted out the interior themselves when they opened in 2012, with each decision thoughtfully planned and executed, mirroring the exacting standards with which they have approached the entire project. I met them on a chilly July morning to find out what motivated them to leave Paris, where they'd been working for ten years until moving to Auckland in 2009, and the challenges and differences that come with the cultural translation of food.
I BEGIN THE INTERVIEW by joking that Sonia and Laurent should simply talk at me while I devour the crispy, gooey pain au chocolat they've placed in front of me. They laugh, but I find myself quickly engrossed in both their story and my morning pastry.
I can't articulate the warmth and charm the couple emanate. Even after five years of living in Auckland, Laurent still hasn't lost his French accent, which adds an endearing lilt and romance to everything he says. He sits beside Sonia in his work attire, after having spent the morning as he usually does making baguettes before heading to his consultancy job in the city. You can tell Sonia is a pastry chef by her held together appearance - not a hair out of place - I spend a lot of my time fixated on how elegantly she manages to eat a croissant.
I cut to the chase. Why did they move to Auckland? The pair had lived in Paris for seven years before making the decision, and Sonia had built a strong reputation for her imaginative and precise sweet creations, progressing from prestigious pastry school, Cordon Bleu, to popular high-volume bakeries, Michelin starred restaurants and upmarket hotels.
But the busy lifestyle and long hours became less appealing as the pair grew up together, "In Paris it's difficult to escape the buzz of the city - to relax your mind and not to feel stressed", justifies Laurent, whilst Sonia reflects it was always the plan to move back to one of her homes - Thailand or New Zealand - and the latter made sense at the time.
So did it give them the break they wanted? "Setting up a business here is so much simpler than in France, which is so bureaucratic and involves piles of paperwork. But the biggest challenge for us was understanding the market and educating the customer," notes Sonia. Inspired by their much loved regular cafes and patisseries in Paris, the pair wanted to open somewhere that would stand the test of time, and so took a slow and steady approach to setting up shop, beginning with a small hired kitchen in Onehunga to sell to weekend markets. But there were a few shocks that came with getting used to a new food culture, as Laurent found:
"What surprised me most about New Zealand, having never lived here before we moved, was how trendy and cyclical the food scene is. Things change very, very fast, at least in Auckland."
Sonia agrees, "In Europe things are much more stable, you want to go to a place that's been there for 10 years, and be nostalgic about when you first went with your partner all those years ago."
To combat this, the couple took their time and eventually found a site on a quiet side street of Parnell rise (at the time in an up-phase of the popularity cycle) , and were determined to educate customers that came expecting to find the same menu, service and style as trending as everywhere else at that time. Vaniye is truly French, in that everything is made fresh in the morning - apart from the macarons - Laurent informs me, which to be authentically delicious must be frozen and eaten the next day. If you want a baguette, though, you have to make sure you're there in the morning before they're gone. "Our regular customers have started to learn how we do things, and I encourage them to try new desserts all the time by changing the menu as often as I can", says Sonia.
The current trend for raw desserts, low-fat diets and sugar avoidance no doubt impacts on the wisdom Sonia attempts to impart to customers daily.
"People are scared of eating dessert in New Zealand, or have multiple dietary requirements that wouldn't be common in France. I love a challenge, but I won't serve something that doesn't taste good."
She's not totally averse, however, with four out of 12 desserts typically being gluten free. "Our approach has always been moderation - unless you're truly allergic to something - a little and not often will do no harm".
Laurent testifies to the theory, putting his slim build down to his varied approach to what he eats - "I eat a dessert everyday, but just one. They're quite rich so you don't want to eat more than that". Furthermore, the ingredients Sonia uses aren't as intimidating as dessert-phobics might imagine, with most recipes typically containing less than a teaspoon of sugar. "I try and use fruit purées when I can, it's not just chocolate and sugar".
Every thing on display in and atop the tempting cabinet is tried and tested to perfection. Laurent is fastidiuous in his approach to making baguettes - his speciality being the baguette traditionelle - a countyside baguette that you can keep for up to seven days. It has to be crunchy on the outside, with a nutty flavour and chewy texture. "The test is if you buy a baguette and you can’t resist to eat the top before you get home", he says, which I can testify to be true of his perfect creations.
I ask Sonia and Laurent what advice they'd give French friends if they were to set up a patisserie in Auckland, and they respond characteristically humbly, claiming not to be experts yet. Laurent simply reflects "Maybe in ten years I might have an answer, but all I know now is that the slow and steady path we have chosen suits our personalities, and our goal to be here for a long time". I think they've got the right idea, and hope that in ten years time I pop in, full of nostalgia for memories I've yet to create.
Vaniye Patisserie can be found at 1/7 Windsor Street, Parnell. Visit the website here, which also has details about their event catering.