Pastry chef Gareth Whitton on how he found his sweet spot within the patisserie world, becoming a ‘batch boy’, and why Australia’s renowned coffee culture is part of a blank canvas approach.
Walking through the doors of Cremorne-based venue Tarts Anon in Victoria, could be mistaken for any inner-city suburban coffee shop. It’s small and cosy with a La Marzocco KB90 sitting on the benchtop. At the front of the shop, the aromas of freshly brewed coffee intertwine with the buttery, pastry goodness of freshly baked tarts, carefully displayed in perfectly cut slices that appeal to the customer eye, and tastebuds. At the back of the adjoining venue is Square One, a coffee roastery that conveniently supplies the patisserie out of its Probat roaster.
“It really is the best of both worlds – tarts and coffee – which I’m obsessed with,” says Tarts Anon Co-Founder Gareth Whitton.
Baking tarts was only intended to be a side hustle for the former Dinner by Heston Head Pastry Chef.
Gareth had experienced burnout in an industry he wasn’t feeling fulfilled in, and had considered leaving the hospitality sector for an accounts management role. Instead, when COVID-19 hit, Gareth lost his job and spent a few months packing shelves at Woolworths. Baking sourdough at home was his only cooking connection until he realised it was a passion he had taken for granted.
Gareth started Tarts Anon while working as Lune’s Kitchen Manager where he was responsible for the creative design of pastries. It wasn’t until he met restaurateur Nathan Toleman, Founder of The Mulberry Group and owner of Square One roastery, that he was offered the kitchen space and opportunity to take his hobby to the next level.
“Coming from the commercial kitchen world, I had been determined to stamp out night work altogether, so to merge my love of cooking with coffee through the development of a café and patisserie business was something I was genuinely excited about,” Gareth says.
“I always felt that coffee was something Dinner by Heston in Melbourne did so well because of its desire to excel (in partnership with Proud Mary Coffee Roasters), and now I get to integrate coffee into my business in a way I can be more hands-on and knowledgeable about.”
That integration is evident by Tarts Anon’s menu, which at the time of BeanScene’s interview, listed an espresso custard tart with a hazelnut caramel.
“The bottom half is like a dulce de leche that we mix with hazelnut praline; a firm, chewy, tacky kind of hazelnut caramel. The top layer is an espresso custard which is baked, then portioned and brûléed with a caramelised sugar on top,” Gareth says.
For the espresso custard, Gareth used excess espresso from split single shots.
“At one point we had a whole shelf in the freezer of frozen espresso because I couldn’t bring myself to throw away. You name it, we’ve done it: tiramisu, chocolate and coffee cake etc. We’ve toyed around with so many coffee ideas but the espresso tart has been the most successful,” Gareth says.
He says tarts are the most technical pastry application one can make without the need for specialist equipment, and a dessert that transcends across generations.
“We let the tart make sense no matter the context, but at the same time make it approachable, refined, and special. There’s also a lot of creativity in introducing texture and cooking techniques that you wouldn’t necessarily see in tarts,” Gareth says.
“We somehow work it into a tart shell, which I think is a great vessel because it’s easy to carry and negates any need for a biscuit or crumble for added texture.”
As a young pastry chef, Gareth says baking tarts was always his ‘go-to’ when he wanted to impress friends and family, and the one dessert he’d come back to because of its versatility and superiority over cakes.
“Baking a custard inside a dish is brilliant but baking it inside a tart shell and being able to eat the whole thing is an extra nice touch. That’s probably why I have an affinity with it,” he says.
Gareth may be known as the “dessert guy” to his mates, but he’s also been the “coffee guy” in every venue he’s worked at.
“It was always me who would make the morning round of coffee for the kitchen staff. There are five boys in my family, and I think at one point or other in our lives, we’ve all worked as baristas,” Gareth says.
“Coffee making is very much in my blood. Growing up, my mother was a passionate barista who ran her own café in Bowral, regional New South Wales, with a girlfriend. I would work part-time in the café after school, helping clean up and cook on the weekends. It wasn’t until I was a bit older, around 18 or 19, that I really started to enjoy coffee as an art form.”
Gareth spent his childhood in Bowral, and a few years living abroad, first in the Netherlands, then United Kingdom.
“Directories back then weren’t well equipped to give you an idea of where to find good coffee. I had to actively travel long distances to find something that was on par with what you can find 20 of in Collingwood. There were times I would travel from my house in Hammersmith (West London), up to Kings Cross, or across the other side of the city to Brick Lane in East London where’s there more Australians and an indie culture.”
In the Holland countryside, Gareth worked at a fine-dining establishment with an “atrocious” coffee program that served single-serve pods to restaurant diners. He didn’t find much better in France.
“If you look at Paris as this bastion of culture with amazing chocolates, breads, food, and wine – all the things they do so brilliantly – then you think surely the coffee is going to be of an acceptable level, but it wasn’t. It was the same in Bruges (Belgium), the home of chocolate and waffles. When I ordered a latte, it looked like a Nescafé commercial with a peaked foam on top. I couldn’t finish it,” Gareth says.
Instead, he cites New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Portland as having great coffee standards. In addition, he says Scandinavia delivered filter perfection, with coffee cities that were “more progressive, trendy and forward thinking.”
Coming back to Australia has given Gareth a deeper appreciation for the country’s renowned coffee quality, which he says is largely due to the country’s DNA and “blank canvas” coffee approach.
“I think it’s due to the fact we have such a young culture, and the relevance of Italians interwoven with people who have a passion for quality coffee. There’s also the fact that we’re not entrenched in tradition. A lot of it comes down to having a good Gross Domestic Product, and up until recently, good financial freedom that would afford you the luxury of good coffee,” he says.
“We’re never going to be at the forefront culinarily in Australia, which I accept, but I’m still very proud of what we have done. In terms of coffee, however, it’s something we’ve been able to move in leaps and bounds. There’s nothing we can’t access in Australia that’s available anywhere else. We have great dairy, can source great beans, and have the financial freedom to pursue coffee as a profession, which has evolved into a craft, and science.”
When Gareth first moved to Melbourne eight years ago, he stopped buying coffee out and opted to drink it at home. He got heavily into filter coffee, bought a Moccamaster, and almost moved away from espresso altogether.
“I was a ‘batch boy’ for the longest time. I went down a rabbit whole of tutorials and nerdy coffee reels on Instagram,” Gareth says.
He gravitates towards nut, caramel and toasty flavour profiles, opposed to red fruits, passionfruit or pineapple, and lighter roasts with more herbaceous qualities. Nowadays, his consumption depends on his location and time of day. In the morning, Gareth enjoys a flat white, made on his La Marzocco Linea Micra, a 10-year anniversary present to himself and his partner.
In the afternoon, he tapers to batch brew or long blacks, or enjoys a tall cold brew on a hot day.
Quite often, Gareth will enjoy a coffee post-cycle. His love for the cycling community has been the catalyst for his second Tarts Anon café and patisserie, located inside cycling apparel store Pedla.
“Sometimes in good weather, we’ll have 40-odd cyclists sitting around at 9am on a Friday morning drinking coffee and eating pastries. Coffee is really good for building community, and that’s what we’ve done with our cycling group,” he says.
This sense of community is also felt within the patisserie world, with Gareth’s appearance on MasterChef Australia fuelling the Australian community to support his talent for tarts.
He says timing has played a pivotal role in the business’s success, as has the people he’s met and established connections with along the way. He recognises that now is the time to make hard choices, and hopes a new cookbook, the search for a third and interstate Tarts Anon venue, and his appearance on TV Show Dessert Masters, will play a role in this next chapter.
“We want to focus on the things we’re currently doing and better them. Once we get a good foundation we will see what our opportunities are, and hopefully curate my own brand,” Gareth says.
“In pastry production, you’re constantly creating, which I enjoy. For the most part, I’m working with my hands, and I’m enjoying being back in the kitchen and having a work-life balance. I’m doing things for myself now, and I love it.”
This article appears in the December 2023 edition of BeanScene. Subscribe HERE.