Returning to her Barossa roots, pastry chef Cheryse Zagler's passion for her craft is enough to put anyone on a sugar high.
Cake and eat it too: Dinner with friends in the Barossa
It’s the kind of gorgeous autumn evening that cries out for a long table, a bunch of friends and endless plates of good food.
In the beautiful Barossa Valley, it’s been one of those sun-soaked days that cools to the perfect temperature and Cheryse Zagler is making the most of it.
As a pastry chef, she’s no stranger to an early morning, but today, on her day off, she’s relinquished a sleep-in to bake bread for tonight’s dinner. It’s been a day of prepping, but she’s swapped the kitchen at El Estanco, where she started late last year, for her home kitchen in Angaston.
Her bench space is overflowing with her freshly made bread, the crunchy bark crackers she’s whipped up, cheeses, fresh fruit and her incredible fruit bread.
On the stove, a pork and veal ragu is simmering away, but the real magic is chilling in the fridge.
Cheryse knew early on that she wanted to be a pastry chef; the moment of realisation came one morning at the Barossa Farmers’ Market. “Careme Pastry had a tiny little stall there and they were selling some tarts and croissants,” Cheryse says. “I called Mum and Dad and said, ‘I need to do this. I don’t know how to do it, but I know I need to.’”
At that stage, there was no pastry apprenticeship in South Australia, so Cheryse and Careme worked with TAFE SA to get a patisserie course started. She was the first to enter the course, with others beginning six months later.
During the apprenticeship, she worked with Careme, later moving to Mulots Patisserie on King William Road.
Making the move to Melbourne for five years, Cheryse got a serious taste of the world of patisserie, working with chefs such as Raymond Capaldi. The return to South Australia came after her sister had a baby. “I just felt like I needed to be home with her. I couldn’t do the phone calls and the FaceTime anymore,” she says.
After stints in the kitchens of Public and Magill Estate, she opened the Leabrook Bakehouse and Patisserie, but has now settled back in the Barossa at Greenock’s renowned El Estanco.
She’s returned home to the area but, the second time around, the 30-year-old has found a new appreciation for it.
“I love being back home. It’s made me wonder why I ever left.”
Cheryse has slotted right into the team at El Estanco and tonight has invited some of her colleagues, including owners Julian Velasquez and Abby Osborne, who have nothing but praise for their pastry chef.
“It’s incredible the way she puts flavours together,” Abby says. “She always has us at the back of her mind. With her hot cross buns, she did a fun one with chilli.
“She doesn’t settle for ordinary – she really thinks about everything she does; she’s pushing the boundaries.”
The philosophy at El Estanco is based on the old South American tradition of a shop window that sells a whole range of wares. Modernising the concept, Julian and Abby have brought together their restaurant with a coffee roaster and Cheryse was an important part of the puzzle.
“We know the guys at Careme and the introduction came through them. We met with her one day and it was all so natural and easy,” Abby says.
Everywhere you look in Cheryse’s home, dried flowers cascade from vases, lie in drawers and are strewn over the rungs of a vintage ladder.
After years of perfecting her pastries, she fell into cake making a year and a half ago, when her brother Jon threw a surprise engagement party for his now-fiance, Jay. The couple together own the Scenic Hotel at Norton Summit.
“He must have been pretty confident he was going get a ‘yes’ because he proposed in front of 120 people. I made the cake for it. He loves dried florals, so the creations I was trying and the people we were talking to about the concept of drying got me excited about flowers. It opened a whole new world for me,” Cheryse says.
“I discovered I can do cakes in a way that is me and with flavours I love, in a way that is inspired by all the things I’ve learnt as a pastry chef.
“I just feel so happy when I’m baking. There’s nothing else I could do. Even if I’m stressed or I’m concentrating and I’ve got a wedding cake or a function, it doesn’t matter what’s happening, you’re just in that moment creating something and you know everyone’s going to be happy.”
Being back in the Barossa has provided endless inspiration. “I love natives and I wanted to start using everything we’ve got there. I also love roses, hydrangeas, gypsophila and wheat. Carnations and dahlias also dry beautifully.”
What sets Cheryse’s cakes apart from any others is the astonishing attention to flavour. They might be breathtaking to look at, but it’s backed up by the care she puts into her ingredients and processes. Oddly, she doesn’t have a sweet tooth at all, but this gives her cakes the best possible outcome, saving them from being excessively sugary, instead bordering on savoury.
“I love balance; my creations have salt, tartness, vinegar and sugar. I’m using a lot of gins at the moment. My favourite thing to do right now are tarts. There’s so much you can put inside.”
Cheryse also takes inspiration from the wider kitchen she works in. “The kitchen at El Estanco is fun. The music is crazy and it’s Columbian and there’s always something smoking and chilli everywhere. My palate has changed quite a bit over the past few months because of what they’ve got in the kitchen every day.”
Once you get to know Cheryse, you can walk into her kitchen with your eyes closed and know just what she’s whipping up based on the soundtrack – a mellow number by Australian singer/songwriter Ziggy Alberts is always in the background for croissants.
Tonight’s music has been selected almost eerily perfectly for the mood. The songs ebb and flow between languorous and something on the edge of upbeat, but always harmonious with the unhurried atmosphere of the night.
Cheryse’s creations garner gasps of delight whenever they’re revealed, but her partner Daniel says the real magic happens in the hours, and even weeks, leading up to the cakes. “Everyone gets to see the finished product, but I feel so lucky I get to see everything before it. I get to see the inspiration, the determination and the hard work,” Daniel says.
“You know when she’s thinking about a recipe because she goes quiet for a couple of minutes and I just think, ‘What world were you in?’ because I’ll be talking to her and she just zones out.”
Over the COVID period, Cheryse was churning out five-inch cakes. “People wanted these beautifully decorated little cakes to photograph and sit in their lounge room and eat,” she says.
The main event tonight is more than a little cake though, but before the guests can devour dessert, it’s time for a savoury starter.
Cheryse has mastered perhaps the key ingredient for a successful dinner party – the befriending of a chef. There’s a table of hungry guests outside and a small kitchen in which to cater for them, but Julian is at the stove, calmly helping to pull everything together.
Tonight, he’s the sous chef to Cheryse’s head chef, asking her about each step along the way. The pair work quietly together to get the pasta cooked to the point of perfection, even whipping up a last-minute vegetarian dish they’d forgotten to allow for.
By now, everyone is sitting under the stars, candlelight dancing on the first round of dessert – a lime tequila tart and a berry and saffron cream tart. Next is honey and thyme cheesecake choux with raspberries and rosé.
The desserts are rounded out perfectly with a tower of six layers of chocolate sour cream cake, sandwiched between hazelnut mousseline cream and raspberry compote, and smothered in vanilla bean swiss meringue buttercream icing.
The night ends on a sugar high, everyone with wine glass in hand, congregating around the fire.
This story first appeared in the May 2021 issue of SALIFE magazine.
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