FROM DESIGNING RACING CARS TO MAKING CROISSANTS SEEMS LIKE A JAGGED TRAJECTORY, BUT KATE REID’S ENGINEERING MIND HAS HELPED HER BECOME ONE OF THE MOST ACCLAIMED PATISSIERS IN THE WORLD.
Kate Reid is the maker of the best croissants in the world. So says The New York Times and the people who have queued from 2.30am in the middle of a bleak Melbourne winter to get their hands on the buttery morsels. But that is not the most remarkable thing about Reid; it is how she came to make such croissants. For Reid is not only a baker, she is an aerospace engineer who once designed Formula One cars for Williams, and she is also a recovered anorexic.
Reid became “really, really sick” when it dawned on her spending 16-18 hours a day on a computer in the Williams office in the English Midlands was not the job she had been dreaming of since she was 12. “I thought I had my whole life mapped out but it wasn’t quite what I thought it was going to be so it sent me into a bit of a tailspin,” she says. “I felt like my life was out of control because of the decisions I’d made, so I started to control my eating and exercise. I developed severe anorexia.”
This was early 2008. Reid got sicker and sicker until her Dad flew to London and brought her home to Melbourne. “I think, in a sense, getting sick was one of the best things that ever happened to me,” Reid tells WISH. “It stripped away everything that I knew and made me start from scratch. I am a pretty stubborn person and I don’t like to quit. And one of the hardest things for me to deal with when I first came back from the UK was the feeling that I had failed, I had quit, I had given up.
“Even in my very dark days, I might not have ever given up if it hadn’t been for my Dad coming to get me. Somebody had to take that decision out of my hands. If had not gotten as sick as I did, I may have tried to stick it out to prove myself that I could overcome my feelings of not loving it because I worked so hard to get there.”
Reid is talking to WISH in her car outside the Fitzroy warehouse where Lune Croissanterie is housed. It is so busy on this Monday, pretty much like every day, that Reid has retreated to her car for a bit of quiet so she can do the interview. She also immediately apologises for any “stumbling over her words” because she had an unusually late night last night (by the way, she doesn’t stumble over any of her words). That’s because the New Zealand-born Grammy-Award winning popstar Lorde invited her to see her concert after seeking out some of Reid’s croissants. “Lorde’s tour manager came into Lune and said all that Lorde wanted while she was in Melbourne were Lune croissants because she is a big fan,” Reid says, still quite not believing it herself. “I thought how does she even know about us? [My brother] Cam and I used to listen to Lorde when we were based in Elwood, our first shop, at 3.30am when we were prepping and it was just the album we would put on every morning.”
It is almost 10 years since Reid landed back in Australia, her dreams in tatters and her health in an even worse state. She spent those early days seeing no fewer than four medical specialists a week to help her get well; a psychologist, a GP, a psychiatrist and a dietitian. Reid wanted to work again and she decided she wanted a job at a bakery – of all places. While working for Williams and going to France for meetings (aerodynamicists did not get the glamour of hanging out trackside), she had developed a serious passion for croissants. “I would know how many calories they were so I would plan my whole day around being able to have one because I just started to love them so much,” she says. “So when I came back to Australia – actually I’d only been back two or three days – I thought ‘I really want to work in a bakery’.”
So Reid started behind the counter at Philippa’s in
Armadale in Melbourne’s inner east. She loved it immediately even though it was a form of torture for her. “To be honest it was hell as well because just having access to all the food, there was that conflict again,” she admits. “But I did love it. The only thing I didn’t like was that I wasn’t actually making the products we were selling. It was a good indication to me that it may be something worth pursuing.”
In the end, she was too sick to do the long hours they needed at Philippa’s so she worked at another local café, run by a very supportive husband and wife, doing three to four hours a day, this time making the cakes and pastries. It was there that she started to get better and began learning to love food again.
“I think it was in July of that year, which was 2009, that I borrowed this book from the local library about Paris patisseries. I randomly opened it up and there was a double-page photo of a whole lot of pains au chocolat stacked up on top of each other. Every single layer was so defined and perfect,” Reid tells WISH. “It sounds ridiculous but I literally closed the book and got in the car and went up to Flight Centre in Camberwell and booked myself a flight to Paris.”
That patisserie was Du Pain et des Idées, in the 10th arrondissement, and run by baker Christophe Vasseur. When Reid finally landed in the French capital and walked in, her expectations were met: she saw dozens of different types of pastries, loaves of bread and of course, the pains au chocolat that started her on this quest in the first place. She stood there in the patisserie, so dumbstruck that a staff member came over laughing to see if she could help. Next thing she knew she was telling Vasseur in broken French how she had travelled all this way thanks to a mouth-watering photograph in a book, and a few days later, over email, she was cheekily/ bravely asking to be his apprentice.
“He wrote back to me within the hour and said ‘look, we don’t normally take apprentices, especially people who don’t speak French, but I can see the same passion in you that was in me. When would you like to start?’” recalls Reid. So she was back on a plane in the following February to work for him for two months. It was there that she found her place – the complete opposite of what she felt working in Formula One. “It was like finding the perfect dress that just fits every curve of you,” Reid says. “Being a pastry chef always felt like: this is what I supposed to do. Now sometimes I walk around Lune and I feel like the most confident version of myself that ever existed.”
When Reid returned home she spent her every day off hunting for croissants like the ones she had tasted and learnt to make at Du Pain, but had no luck. “I became the expert of little bakeries all around Melbourne and I just couldn’t find any croissants that I liked,” she says. “It then dawned on me, well, maybe I’ve got the skill. Melbourne has the most amazing coffee shops and little espresso bars and I want those places to have amazing pastries. Maybe I could make those pastries and supply them to those bars? That is how the idea for Lune started.”
Reid secured a site in Elwood, her Dad helped her
“I closed the book and got in the car and went up to Flight Centre and booked myself a flight to Paris.”
gut the kitchen and she bought the equipment she needed. She then spent the next few months making batch after batch after batch of croissants until she got it right. “I realised I knew about 15 per cent of what I actually needed to know,” she says. “So instead of going to pastry school or getting an apprenticeship, I just saw it as a matter of trial and error. I treated it like an engineering project and I figured out a way to do it.”
She made and delivered her first batch to a café run by her brother, Cameron, who had managed cafes and bars for a number of years. Reid cut them like traditional French croissants at Du Pain, which meant they were smaller than a standard Australian croissant. “I remember walking in with them and Cam’s business partner going ‘these are way too small’,” she says. “And I said ‘that’s what size they are in France’ and he said, ‘well, Kate, we are not in France’.”
To her credit, and having bought and measured croissants from almost every bakery in Melbourne (that would be the scientific part of Reid at play), she stuck to her guns and decided to keep her pastries smaller. She began selling the croissants to a hole-in-the-wall café called Clement Coffee run by Kris Wood at South Melbourne Markets after turning up randomly with a box of croissants one day.
“He took one bite and looked at me and said ‘when can you start delivering these?’” That was the start of 2012. Within weeks, Reid was selling to more cafes and people began queuing at those cafes each morning to get her croissants. She was doing crazy hours but could not keep up with demand. Reid was still battling anorexia and the exhaustion didn’t help. She stopped, flew to Paris for a break and came back with the realisation that she wanted to open her own bakery.
Reid called Cameron the night she returned and told him she wanted to open her own retail business but did not know how, while he had years of experience. Would he come on board? Cameron said yes and they added a counter to her 20sqm kitchen in Elwood. They opened in December 2013. By January people had begun queueing for the goods. The queues at first started at 6am but then it was 4am and 2.30am.
“Quite often when we would open the window at 6.30am there would be 100 people in the queue,” she recalls. “Lune is an amazing, established, quality business now but nothing for me will ever beat those insane days of Elwood.” It was during these days that Reid stopped thinking like an anorexic. She loved food again and she also loved what she was doing. “There just wasn’t room for it in my life any more,” she says. At this time, Reid and her brother were doing 80 hours a week but still not producing enough croissants to meet demand. So the pair decided to go into business with café/coffee guru Nathan Toleman (who runs Top Paddock and The Kettle Black in Melbourne) and who had a warehouse in Fitzroy he was not using. “He made us an offer to buy a minority share in Lune so we got Nathan and we got 119 Rose Street which was a pretty excellent deal,” she says.
It was a big leap going from a kitchen in Elwood to a 440sqm warehouse in Fitzroy. But Reid embraced the space and constructed a giant glass cube in the middle to make the croissants. It not only looks incredible but also allows Reid to control humidity and temperature to ensure the best baking conditions. Lune in Fitzroy opened in October 2015 and The New York Times published a story the following April headlined “Is the World’s Best Croissant Made in Australia?” in which writer Oliver Strand concluded Reid’s croissants “may be the finest you will find anywhere in the wold, and alone worth a trip across the dateline”. Reid and her brother were already struggling to keep up with demand, but after the story came out it went from the ridiculous to the totally insane: their ever-present queue wrapped around two corners of the block.
The pair now have 27 staff (including 14 pastry chefs). Reid is looking at opening a small store in Melbourne’s CBD and she has a “bit of a pipe dream” to open a Lune Croissanterie in New York. It has been some journey for the now 34-year-old – who describes herself as being “100 per cent recovered” from anorexia – and one that she still quite doesn’t believe. “I would have been rendered speechless,” she says, if someone had suggested to her a decade ago that she would be where she is today. “I probably would have laughed at them.”
“Quite often when we would open the window at 6.30am there would be 100 people in the queue.”
Kate Reid in her croissanterie Lune in Fitzroy, Melbourne
Reid works in a glass cube to control humidity and temperature; below, ham and cheese croissants, and finished products