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Tahlia, queen of tarts

After an apprenticeship in Sydney’s best restaurants, Tahlia Hagege has found her true love - pastry. AVIVA LOWY devours the secrets behind her stunning sweets.
Aviva Lowy
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Published: 28 February 2024

Last updated: 21 March 2024

After an apprenticeship in Sydney’s best restaurants, Tahlia Hagege has found her true love - pastry. AVIVA LOWY devours the secrets behind her stunning sweets.

“There’s dark chocolate ganache with salted caramel, passionfruit and coconut with meringue, white chocolate cream with summer berries… ” Market stall-holder Tahlia Hagege is running through the list of enticing flavours to help a customer make the difficult choice from the table of jewel-like savoury and sweet tarts.

In a city where people queue for hours to get their hands on the latest pastry “thing” - think Lode in Sydney or Lune in Melbourne - it’s hard to believe that you can rock right up to a local market and be munching one of the best without waiting longer than it takes to make up your mind.

Until Hagege took her wares to market just over two years ago, you would have been more likely to find her in the kitchen of one of Sydney’s more toney establishments. Her previous gig was as head pastry chef at the luxury QT hotel in the city, but just six weeks into that job, “Covid hit, and we all went home. They shut the restaurant.”

During her three months of pandemic leave, “I started doing my own thing”, and before it was time to return, she’d created Dolce Tahlia. As an open-air market patisserie - showcasing at Double Bay (Thursdays) and Kings Cross (Saturdays) - the venture was less likely to end up a Covid casualty.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Well before Hagege established herself as the queen of tarts, she was an ex-Moriah student, enjoying a gap year in Israel with no idea about what career to pursue. . .

“When I finished school I went straight to Israel, learnt Hebrew and worked in an English-speaking kindergarten for about nine months. Every Friday, I used to go to Shuk Ha’Carmel, the market in Tel Aviv, with this massive trolley and carry all these bags of delicious fruit and vegetables that you’d get for peanuts. Over the weekend, I’d cook feasts. I’ve always brought friends together and cooked for them. It’s a really big part of who I am”, says Hagege.

When she was talking with one of those friends about what she should do when she came back to Australia, “she was like, ‘you’re a great cook, why don’t you go to Le Cordon Bleu and do a course’ and I thought, that’s exactly what I’m going to do!”

Within days of returning home, she was on her way. “My mum was friends with the owners of the Bondi restaurant Brown Sugar. She was telling them that her daughter wanted to be a chef and they said, ‘Why don’t we get her working in the kitchen.’ The week I got back I started with them and a couple of months later I began my chef apprenticeship at Ultimo TAFE.”

Hagege has a very close relationship with her mother, Brenda. Born in Paris, she came to Australia with her mother at the age of two when her parents separated. “My dad’s side is Tunisian, my mum is second generation Australian. With two grandmas and two grandpas we’ve got French, Rumanian, Latvian and Turkish. It’s a mixed pot. Most of my family migrated from Tunisia to Paris because it was hard being Jewish in Tunisia. They moved to France and made a life there.”

Once her mother had smoothed the way, Hagege found the heat of the kitchen exciting. “It brought out a lot of passion. There definitely is stress because it’s very time sensitive, but we are all in this beautiful primal state in the heat of the service. I learnt to manage things at a really fast pace and focus on what we had at hand.”

Nine months after coming back to Australia, she was working at Sydney fine dining seafood restaurant, The Boathouse on Blackwattle Bay. She started in the entree section where she became a dab hand at shucking oysters (her favourites are Sydney rock oysters which she likes with lemon and a little sherry vinegar) and then moved over to the pastry section.

Going to bed at 2pm when it’s daylight didn’t make sense and it took away from my social life.

“They made beautiful desserts. It was also a space, just for yourself. It was nice to have my own little hub.” Here she was given the freedom to be creative with petit fours, the small sweet meats offered at the end of a meal.

Hagege was still studying at TAFE and working full-time, “so it did get a little bit crazy”. Though her chefs’ course only offered one module in pastry, the class next door was just working on pastry and chocolate, “so I’d be hopping over in between classes and helping them out and learning new things.” Hagege thinks this is where her love affair with pastries was kindled.

Luckily, her next job at Felix, the classy French-styled bistro in the Merivale restaurant group, saw her working “right next to the pastry section, and I made really good friends with the phenomenal pastry chef there, Adrian Crabb. I was at Felix for nearly a year and a half and it was intense. We’d do up to 500 or 600 covers a day, lunch and dinner. It reached the point where it was too much for me and I took three months off to neutralise and figure out what my next step would be.”

It turned out to be a return to her Bondi backyard working full-time in the pastry section at Drake Eatery, a small local restaurant where the owner was also the head chef. “It was very nurturing. I didn’t even know I needed nurturing until I started there.”

Hagege recounts a favourite anecdote from that time: “One gloomy, rainy Sunday night, the famous British chef Marco Pierre White walks in. I recognised him and said to the other chefs, ‘Oh my god guys, that’s Marco Pierre White’, and we all hid under the bench. What do we do? We were so excited. He was in Australia working on a TV show and our humble restaurant became his favourite spot while he was here for three months.”

A stint in a cake shop, The Cook and Baker, followed before she moved to Shuk, an Israeli restaurant and bakery. “I learnt how to make bread first, and then went on to croissants and cakes. Shuk started off with the two shops on the same street in Bondi, and while I was there they expanded, opening two new venues in Chatswood and Elizabeth Bay.” As part of that growth, they moved all the bakers from the little shop to a huge factory in Marrickville.

“That was a massive change," she said, and it meant midnight starts to her day. “It’s not so easy getting into that rhythm. Going to bed at 2pm when it’s daylight didn’t make sense and it took away from my social life.” While she was grateful for the experience, it was time to move back into restaurants with their more lifestyle-friendly hours.

My signature tart is apple and hazelnut, but there’s no one tart that is the number one seller. People like to try different things.

Otto, the fine-dining Italian restaurant on Woolloomooloo’s fashionable finger wharf was the place. “As a pastry chef at Otto I found my niche. I learnt more there than anywhere else.” Hagege says she worked with the most passionate and patient chef, Kai Luo, who had “all these amazing techniques under his belt. He would be teaching us sourdough bread, chocolates for the petit fours and a huge array of desserts. His style was very elegant, fresh and seasonal.”

And then the first wave of Covid closures hit.

The restaurant lost staff and kitchen hands, but fortunately Hagege was retained as Otto pivoted to a pared down menu of foods available for home dining. Coming out of that Covid experience and moving into the new head pastry chef role at QT Hotel, only to face another shut down, prompted Hagege to reconsider how she wanted to be involved with food.

Her mother, who had been running a successful market stall for eight years, encouraged her to start her own business. “She said if it all fails you can go back to what you were doing but give it a shot. She used to have a Moroccan gifts and homewares store in Bondi for about 20 years but then decided that markets were really the way to go.”

Hagege is a bubbly personality who thrives on socialising. Most of her customers have become friends and stop by for a chat as much as to purchase her fare. She talks about maybe opening her own tarteria one day, but she’d probably miss the market bustle.

She is still exploring and experimenting with flavours. Is there a stand-out favourite with the crowds?

“I’ve got my signature tart which is apple and hazelnut, but there’s no one tart that is always the number one seller because people like to try different things, even my regulars. They end up all selling so I guess they are all favourites.”            

About the author

Aviva Lowy

Aviva Lowy started her career as a radio journalist with 2JJJ and the ABC. She has written on a broad range of subjects, from food and travel to science and health.


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