Croissants, baguettes, brioche buns and tartlets are just a few of the delicacies selling out every day at L’Atelier Gourmet
Liliana Varela and Stephane da Costa lived in a town close to Paris for over 30 years when they decided they wanted a new life.
Originally from Mirandela, Liliana was just nine months old when her family moved to France. Around 14 years ago she was working at an office when she met Stephane, who also had Portuguese parents and owned a restaurant close to the French capital. In late 2019, they decided to return to Portugal to raise their two daughters and to open their own business — a bakery.
According to the couple, they were looking for a city with a different quality of life, more peaceful and away from the hustle and bustle. “We thought of Lisbon, but when we arrived, we realised it was quite hectic, too many people and too much traffic. It was similar to Paris, and we wanted something quieter.” That is how they opted for the Algarve, even though they had no local roots whatsoever. First, they considered Vilamoura, but when they got to know Loulé, “an authentic, typical, calm town with less beach tourism”, the choice was clear.
Before returning to her home country, Liliana Varela was already aware of her love and even aptitude for baking. “When I had my second daughter, I took an online Pastry course. I have always loved making cakes but had never really given it much thought. I looked at the course as a challenge and as soon as I started, I noticed right away that I got the hang of making things pretty quickly,” she recalls.
It was precisely this aptitude that, in July 2021, led her and her husband to open L’Atelier Gourmet, right by the famous Loulé Municipal Market, where the couple buys most of the products they use to make their desserts every day.
“All the recipes are our own and everything is made daily in our kitchen with fresh produce. In the beginning, I would describe L’Atelier Gourmet as a typically French bakery, but now it’s a bit more difficult to put a label on it. It’s a more elaborate, refined and detailed work and, because of this, I say that it’s a bakery that reflects us, it’s not just Portuguese, nor just French, it’s ours,” Liliana explains. “It’s a creative pastry shop, which works only with fresh, seasonal products. And it’s different every day because it varies according to the inspiration and the fruit we find at the market.”
There is room for two sections in the shop windows: Liliana’s pastries, and Stephane’s baked goods. “Our best-sellers are the croissants, which we weren’t expecting, especially since we didn’t even want to make them initially because they’re a lot of work. For 10 croissants it takes five hours in the kitchen. Every day, we make 100 simple croissants and 50 au chocolate, which also sell very well. Then there are the brioches, the cookies, the chocolate fondant, the tartlets, éclairs, semifreddos, etc. There are about 100 of them every day,” she adds. The growing list features birthday cakes, which are also made every day to order.
And because around 90 per cent of Liliana’s inspiration comes from her French roots, the butter and chocolate they use come directly from France. However, everything else comes from Portuguese and local producers. Work starts at dawn in the kitchen, between 4am and 6am, and even after the doors close, the couple only returns home around 11pm. “Because it’s all fresh, we have to leave everything prepared for the next day and work daily.”
As for the key to their success, Liliana can’t pinpoint one thing, but the truth is that almost every day the majority of her products sell out, and by lunchtime, the shop windows are practically empty. “Almost every day we end up with nothing. We’ll see how it goes in the off-season, but for now, it’s been going very well, and we didn’t expect it to work so well right at the start,” especially when taking a chance on a new brand in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The most loyal customers are Portuguese, mainly locals, who visit the shop several times a week. However, many foreign residents choose to please their sweet tooth at L’Atelier Gourmet every day. And this was precisely the couple’s main objective when they opened the bakery, “that people would come daily, or several times a week, and not just when there’s a birthday or a ceremony and they need to buy cakes”, says Liliana Varela. And it seems they are achieving their goal.
“The feedback has been really positive. We are told that they are not overly sweet products and therefore not cloying at all. That is by default. A raspberry tartlet, for example, has the tartlet as its base, with an almond cream, a thin layer of vanilla cream and the raspberries on top. If it’s too sweet, the flavour of the raspberries won’t stand out and what we want is to let the fruit shine”, she explains.
As for the future, there are plenty of ideas: “We’ve been asked for gluten-free, lactose-free and healthier options. We’d also like to focus on deliveries. We’re people who don’t say no to anything, but we don’t say yes either. We’ll see what happens in the future.”
Those who want to try their sweets can opt for the take-away option, or eat in the shop, which can seat 100 people, either inside or on the esplanade. To order cakes, simply contact the page through social media.