C’est si bon in Hastings: The couple behind Y’a Bon French Baker celebrate love, food and living the French way
The combined cultures, competences and courage of a French-Kiwi couple have fueled a journey of love and food.
Words: Ann Warnock Photos: Florence Charvin
The technical construction of an almond croissant won’t cross the minds of too many pastry-eaters but, for Frenchman Moise Cerson, it makes or breaks the crescent-shaped treats.
“The hydration levels of the pastry are significant. It should be light and crisp on the outside with moist layering inside. An almond croissant should hold truth and authenticity,” he says, dusting icing sugar on a landscape of delicacies for delivery at Y’a Bon French Baker in central Hastings.
It’s well before dawn outside the bakery. Inside it’s floury, fragrant and warm. Moise’s deep passion for traditional French pâtisserie and bread has been honed over a progression of experiences that began during childhood holidays spent with his grandparents in Brittany.
“It was wonderful to visit them. They had a small plot outside their village with vegetables and fruit trees, they grew their meat — rabbits and chickens — and made their own terrines, butter, cheese and cider,” Moise says.
Moise grew up in Normandy and later in the 14th arrondissement of central Paris. His family’s evening meal preparation began with a morning visit to the marketplace. “Our kitchen would be a hive of activity involving the whole family, and I would often present dessert to the dinner table,” he says.
At the age of 13, he secured a weekend job assembling stalls at his neighbourhood market.
“I was only young, but I was strong. I loved the smells and the atmosphere. We started at 4am, and I would haul crates of fruit and vegetables off the trucks and help set up.”
Moise’s mother was French, and his father was from the Caribbean; both food cultures imprinted themselves on his psyche. On leaving school he studied classical French cuisine at a private culinary institute in Normandy.
“I found I enjoyed the discipline and technical precision of pâtisserie. Products such as entremets or petit gâteaux are elaborate, and there’s no room for distraction.”
Moise’s mastery of the meticulous skills required for traditional French pastries resulted in three years’ work at two notable Parisian establishments — one of them owned by the highly regarded chocolatier, Christian Constant.
A determination to improve his grasp of English triggered his decision to exit France when he was 20. He worked in Montreal and later Noumea, where a conversation led to a job at the former French restaurant Petit Lyon in Wellington.
“I met a representative from the New Zealand consulate at a party who said ‘you must come to our country’. I loved Wellington and felt there were an energy and strength here. On the day I flew to Australia (for a new job at the famed Sydney restaurant, Cicada) I sat on the plane and felt sad to leave. I hoped one day I could come back,” he says.
Could Moise have imagined the circumstances of his return? On a day off from his job as Cicada’s pastry chef, Moise wandered into the eatery, Bills. When he ordered coffee, he and the Wairarapa-born barista exchanged a glance.
“I saw that Moise was noticing every detail of the food, the people and the vibe. I made his coffee and also delivered it to him, which I didn’t normally do,” says Andrea Cerson.
“And I remember noticing your calmness and grace with all that you did,” says Moise.
Three shots of espresso in a small ceramic cup served in Darlinghurst kicked off Moise and Andrea’s romance. And 20 years on, their relationship is still based on love, coffee and food.
Not that Andrea set out to work amid the cut and thrust of the hospitality scene. A linguistics degree in Japanese at Massey University was her starting block, but during a placement teaching English as a second language in Tokyo, she found herself veering off course.
Gripped by the experience of full cultural immersion in Japan, she wanted more than a return to the university library in Palmerston North.
“It was fascinating in Tokyo. I was fortunate my parents had never made me feel there were things I couldn’t do. I went off to Sydney and through contacts got a job in one of the city’s hottest eating spots. Sydney was booming, and it was a place where anything could happen,” says Andrea.
And it did. Moise and Andrea worked for a lineup of iconic Australian chefs including Peter Doyle, Bill Granger and Mark Best.
Along the way, they spent time living in and exploring France and New Caledonia. “Our mutual love of traveling and the feeling of freedom it provides is the foundation of our relationship. Our backgrounds are so different, but we share a real love of experiencing the world,” says Andrea.
And there was one part of the world Moise hoped he might experience again. In 2000, with their 12-week-old son Noa, the couple departed their “crazily busy lives” in Sydney and returned to New Zealand and Andrea’s parents in the Wairarapa.
Andrea and Moise first captured the public’s attention when they offered their “taste of authentic France fare” in a tiny converted tearoom in Greytown’s main street. “We just happened to walk past a small shop for rent one Saturday,” says Andrea.
They took the lease, substituted asparagus rolls and stuffed sausages for handcrafted cinnamon brioche and tarte au citron, and offered Allpress coffee. “There was a little bit of scepticism when we first set up which was understandable, and we were known as ‘that fancy cake shop’,” she says.
But the township’s tentativeness to embrace mille-feuille, pain aux raisins — and the Frenchman with the local girl — quickly dissipated. “Greytown backed us and gave us the greatest support.”
So, too, did Andrea’s parents who were centre stage as the couple juggled punishing work hours with a family of three boys under four. Noa, Sol and Bruno are now aged 19, 17 and 15. “We couldn’t have managed without their amazing help, and the boys still have a great bond with them.
The couple’s pint-sized café expanded, then shifted across the road into a heritage villa, where it morphed into the award-winning The French Baker.
The well-known French bakery-cum-café was embraced by the wave of Wellingtonians and weekenders who descended on Greytown as the town mutated from modest provincial hub to popular mini-break destination. “We had 20 staff, and during peak season we served more than 600 customers a day.”
After a hectic decade in Greytown, the couple and their sons took time out to journey through France. In Provence, they relished the profoundly ingrained concept of slow food and good living. The trip was a turning point. “We returned home determined to find the equivalent way of living in New Zealand,” says Andrea.
Attracted by the Hawke’s Bay Farmers’ Market in Hastings and the region’s produce, they made a bold decision to move north. But the family’s relocation wasn’t without a bump.
For several years, they managed their Greytown business from afar while simultaneously building a new presence in Hawke’s Bay. “It was challenging, and the sale of The French Baker in 2014 was bittersweet.”
Back in Hawke’s Bay, the couple’s new café business, Y’a Bon, quickly outgrew two sites. In 2017, they opened the doors on a wholesale artisan bakery with an adjoining subleased café in three converted shops on Hastings’ main street.
The sleek premises have helped regenerate an out-of-vogue city block, and have been a source of revitalization for the couple. They are now able to concentrate on their baking operation without the complexities of running a hospitality business.
Andrea’s previous front-of-house experience inspired the bakery’s fit-out. It’s framed by glass walls allowing café-goers to observe the bakers in action. “I was always with customers but was wanting to see what was happening out the back in the kitchen because it was so fascinating,” she says.
“Thankfully, I don’t feel I’m on MasterChef because the see-through panes are soundproof and I can’t hear anything,” says Moise.
For Moise and Andrea, the transparency has a deeper meaning. “It reflects the truthfulness of our food — that we have nothing to hide. And it reflects the way we want to live — with openness to our neighbourhood and all people in our city,” says Moise.
Leading New Zealand cook and caterer Ruth Pretty (also NZ Life & Leisure’s food writer) has been a long-time admirer of the pair since the early days of their revamped Greytown tearooms. “Their bread is amazing. They are passionate, determined and truly authentic in their approach. They inject great care and have worked long hours to succeed,” she says.
Those long hours and pre-dawn starts have been second nature for Moise since his first job at the market on Avenue le Breteuil. But if Andrea, Y’a Bon’s operations manager, has some sway, the couple will track toward a less demanding work pace in future, including more time in the French region of Luberon, an area they both adore.
“Last time we were there we ate at a very basic routier where truck drivers were eating bread, cheese, freshly grated carrot salad and lapin (rabbit) with a glass of half water and half red wine. It was so charming, and the food was beautiful — simple and real.”
It’s now 6am at Y’a Bon French Baker. Moise is sharing a thermos of locally roasted coffee from the café next door. And an assortment of French goods — exquisite, simple and real — is boxed and ready for dispatch.
C’EST SI BON
Y’a Bon is a Créole expression and a nod to Moise’s heritage. It’s the equivalent of the French colloquial expression “c’est bon” and translates as “it’s good”.
Y’a Bon supplies bread and pâtisserie to 38 Hawke’s Bay cafés, wineries and restaurants. It employs 12 staff, including two drivers.
Moise and Andrea are propelled by three tenets — simplicity, quality and community.
Their food heroes are Israeli/English chef Yotam Ottolenghi. “We love his world view of food and merging of cultures. He popped into The French Baker in Greytown during a private visit to New Zealand. It was a real hospo highlight.”
They also admire Chinese/Australian food celebrity Kylie Kwong: “We love her generosity of spirit, her food philosophy and inclusive hospitality.”