Food & Drink

Darren Purchese | A Burch & Purchese Close Encounter

By Stephen A Russell - 14 Apr 2014

Amidst the cornucopia of colourful confectionery in Chapel Street's fabulous Burch & Purchese sweet studio, the Easter range is particularly enticing, with freshly hatched bright blue edible Easter chicks, a fried egg hat for regular Pablo the penguin, and double-layered eggs in bright red and sunflower yellow.

Owner Darren Purchase and wife Cath love playing with the regular range, tailoring it up for whatever the season entails, whether it's fried egg chocpops or gold burnished salted caramel eggs. It's one of their favourite times of the year, though it's never a bad day for chocolate indulgence. Purely for quality control purposes, of course.

Three years on from opening on what was then the quiet end of Chapel Street, hordes of dessert lovers pop into the store looking for cakes, chocolate bars and jars of jam, Melbourne City Rooftop Honey or salted caramel, with regular tours dropping in for a sweet distraction.

This intrepid TUL reporter may well have had his face stuffed with several of their finest concoctions during the course of this interview with British born Darren, but these are the trials we endure to bring the inside goss of the dessert world.

TUL: How did you get into the sweet studio business?
It all started on our dining room table, really. Cath and I had plenty of experience plating desserts in restaurants (including Darren's stint at Vue de Monde) and we knew we wanted to open a sweet business. Initially we wanted to open a dessert bar, but the numbers didn't stack up, so we came up with this concept. We knew if we could get it to work, we could add to it later – we have our twice-monthly Sweet Studio sessions, which are great and sell out immediately.

TUL: How easy was it to change from a restaurant kitchen to one at the back of a cake shop?
I'd never worked in a cake shop before opening this, so there was a little bit of a learning curve, but we've tried to take the hospitality mentality to retail. Whenever someone comes in we greet them with something sweet to taste and run them through the highlights, with a bit of a sightseeing tour. We'll tell them about the rooftop bees and the edible artwork on the wall, gradually bringing them towards the kitchen and the chocolate area. Our customers go away really excited, then they bring their friends back and start doing the tour on our behalf.

TUL: Where does the inspiration come from for your creative cakes?
A lot of our desserts and creations in our four-metre cake cabinet, which is the hero of the shop, come from my days plating desserts in restaurants, when I'd come up with some amazing flavour combinations. I've put them into cake form. Then we have a lot of other ingredients that complement the cakes, like orange malted quinoa crumble, salted caramel spread or honeycomb. We encourage our customers to pimp up their pud.

TUL: What's one of your most unusual flavour combinations?
We've got avocado, black sesame, banana and avocado paired with caramelised white chocolate. We cook the chocolate at 120 degrees and all the sugar goes all toasty, caramelly and golden brown. It's a cool one.

TUL: What are the best sellers?
Our three most popular desserts are the chocolate, mandarin and salted caramel cake, which was our first ever one, then there's the coconut, passion fruit, ginger and mint cake which is virtually everyone's favourite once they've tried the whole range, and also the explosive raspberry cake with popping candy.

TUL: How big is the range on offer?
It changes all the time and we try and have fun coming up with new products. Our product list is so large; we've never got everything in stock. We have about 35-40 ice cream flavours, for example. If we made all of them at once we wouldn't have a freezer big enough to put them in, so we chop and change, particularly with seasons. For Easter we've put salted caramel inside chocolate eggs brushed with gold, which will be really popular, as well as our egg-decorated chocpops.

TUL: What sort of volumes are you dealing with?
We've come a long way in three years. When we first started making the salted caramel we'd do about 20 jars at a time. No we're making about 80 litres a week, which is huge.

TUL: What do you think grabs people's attention most when they walk in the store?
Visually it's amazing, but it also smells pretty good most of the time. This morning we had hot cross buns, which is a bit of a highlight smell-wise. We also do salted caramel by the gallon, and all these smells contribute to the experience.

TUL: How long a day do you put in?
We start the day at 6am or sometimes earlier and the shop closes at 6.30pm, with pack down and prep after that. Sometimes there are evening events too, so it's rarely less than a 12-hour day. Cath and I are here virtually every day; you'd be unlucky not to see one of us.

TUL: How do you keep that hard slog up?
We're passionate about what we do. You have to have fun. We're working with chocolate, sugar and happy people all day. Then there's our sweet soundtrack. Every single one of 179 different songs has sweet connotations. We've listened to it for three years now and we're still not bored. It's what we love doing, so it's not that hard.

TUL: Do you find yourself taste testing all of the time?
We do eat quite a bit, partly for quality control, partly for the love of it. You have to watch out for the occasional sugar crash. I am prone to my mood swings! If we had a taste of everything that came out we'd be huge. You have to have a bit of discipline. But obviously we have to make sure our product is good enough to go out.

TUL: What are your favourite shopping spots?
Cath and I love going to Books for Cooks over on Gertrude Street and having a rummage. They have all the latest cookbooks, but also some classics.

TUL: Where do you go for breakfast?
We go to Top Paddock because they're our neighbours just over the bridge, with great coffee and food. They're smart operators, doing it so well. You can't just walk in there on a Sunday, you've gotta plan that.

TUL: What's your favourite restaurant?
We go to Attica for a special occasion. I love Ben Shewry's food, it's world-class. We're lucky to have him in the city. One of Cath and my favourite spots is Di Stasio for lunch. We'll go there every New Year's Day and for events like birthdays. We always get looked after there, which is great after a long shift.

Want more Easter goodness? Check out our pick of the best local and boutique choccie companies!

Image Credits: Tash Sorensen, The Urban List.

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