Words Gordon Ritchie
Photography Kirk Truman
“The Croissants are heavy, more substantial, more of a meal. That recipe we’ve been using since 1871…”
Maison Bertaux in Soho. To a confirmed Cappuccino Kid, it looked much more suitable for tea and cake. Should you judge a book by its cover? Can you judge a café by its cake? I met the editor, the chocolate éclair was superb, and in an upstairs room, the art was raw and the decor retro. It was Soho Bohemia, and certainly not twee. “One of the reasons the cakes are so nice now, we never bastardised the recipes. We never went over to sponge mix or anything like that, all the shortcuts you can do with pastries. Everything is made upstairs. There’s nothing in here that’s not made here,” says Michele Ward, the current owner.
“Even some of the staff are made here, conceived here,” she adds cryptically, with a laugh. “The cakes and recipes are the key. The Croissants are heavy, more substantial, more of a meal. That recipe we’ve been using since 1871.” Maison Bertaux, a Soho institution: I’d seen it reviewed and revered, but had never been. I even knew they once had a shop called Shop in the basement run by part time pop stars. Now I sit with Michele and, in between coffee and croissants, the story begins to emerge: how Monsieur Eduard Bertaux came here from France and began to write the first chapter in a great Soho story. The doors first opened in 1871 and Maison Bertaux has been here ever since; in 145 years, it has been owned by just three families.
“In 1909, Bertaux put it up for sale with an advert in the Paris Soir, a daily newspaper in Paris, and a Monsieur Vignaud came and took over. It was his son that I worked for. When I was in my teens, in the late 1970s, I only worked on Saturdays. Then I went to college; then I worked a little bit. I studied theatre, went to RADA and by the time I left I had a lot of jobs and a little money. Madame said she wanted to sell the business and I thought, to run a cake shop, that would be lovely.” Madame was Madame Vignaud, an Englishwoman who’d met her husband on a blind date. “At first, she said ‘Don’t be ridiculous!’ But I managed to raise the money and bought the business in 1988. I worked side by side with Madame Vignaud for such a long time. She was very strict and very severe, but she was good to work with, she was always the same. She didn’t have any flowers or anything in here. She had a white apron with a zip up the middle – she was completely no nonsense, which was good. She was a good person. She believed in the quality – it was all about the quality.
“The way I tie the cake boxes. I still tie them in the way Madame Vignaud taught me. She was taught by Mr Vignaud snr, who was taught by Mr Bertaux. I like the idea that in 1871 someone was here tying the boxes in the same way I do it now.” Steeped in history but not stuck in the past, Maison Bertaux has moved with the times. Michele tells me about the famous chefs who come for tea with their mothers before the theatre, and the kitchen staff of numerous famous food establishments who are regulars at this petit Maison. As the night-time economy in Soho has grown, Maison Bertaux now stays open until 10pm on weekdays and 11pm at the weekends.
“Soho’s got later and later. When I was young we used to close at 5.30 – there wasn’t any business after that – but now we are very busy from 5.30 onwards. Sometimes we’re very busy after 8 o’clock. I remember in 1992, sitting outside at a long table and making everyone pasta. There weren’t many people around. Someone was playing the guitar, strumming and singing along. It was almost like a little village.” Soho hasn’t lost its edge for Michele. She still sees that young gay man on his own, new to London, new to Soho, arriving in Maison Bertaux – although perhaps not so often since Central St Martins moved. Gwen Stefani, Kylie Minogue, McQueens from different eras… in the 60s it was Steve; in the 90s it was Alexander, sitting upstairs furiously sketching, inviting Michele and her sister Tania to see his first collection. Although Michele misses the students from Central St Martins, she wonders where they would sit now. No regrets, she says, as the Maison fills up again with young Asian, Chinese and Japanese girls. Michele stows their Rimowa ribbed luggage cases safely out of the way for them, as they look a bit nervous.
“We have a big Oriental clientele. We’re very lucky. A lot of students, they appreciate cakes and things. I love all the customers – even the tricky ones.” She’s the perfect host, looking after everyone, keeping up a natural flow of conversation with customers from different tables and different lives, with different reasons to be cheerful, or not, as the case may be. Maison Berteaux is full of Soho’s spirit, the drama of daily life. There are chairs recycled from Kettner’s famous champagne restaurant round the corner, and a table that Edward VII played cards at. Paintings by The Mighty Boosh’s Noel Fielding – tribal faces in bright colours, strong powerful pieces – hang on the walls of the rooms and up and down the stairs. ”My sister looks after all the art. She met Noel Fielding in the street outside.” Across the road, a new breed may claim the title, but this is a real Soho house. Although I don’t drink tea, I’ve found a new Soho stop – a Maison that’s been a second home to many Soho denizens over the years.