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Kooks Only

Ariel LaMontagne bakes Aussie-American treats

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The Kookaburra (or, as locals say, The Kook) is a St. Augustine coffee and pastry shop that specializes in traditional Australian desserts as well as savory meat and veg pies. A first location, on Cathedral Place, opened in 2012; now the Kooks are preparing a fifth. Clearly a beloved spot, it’s no wonder it was voted Best Coffeehouse in our Best of Saint Augustine readers’ poll! (Congrats, guys!)

The Kookaburra coffee program focuses on sourcing single-origin, direct-trade coffee beans from family farms in Guatemala, Brazil, Mexico and beyond. Roasted in-house, they make for some strong, tasty brews.

Then there’s the food, including a robust pastry menu that refuses to be eclipsed by the coffee. Sitting down with head baker Ariel LaMontagne was a bit of a fangirl moment for me. You see, though she started with the Kook three years ago, this dough-master has been a force of flavor in the Oldest City for the last six years.

In 2013, fresh out of culinary school, LaMontagne found her first job—on Craigslist, of all places. Stephen DiMare of Hyppo Pops was looking for a baker to lead a new project. He told her he was opening Bon Ami, a macaron shop. Not to be confused with the coconut cookie, macarons are a delicate and difficult-to-make French confection, heavy on meringue and egg whites, that relies on precision ... and a lack of humidity in the kitchen. The fledgling baker cut her teeth on one of the hardest things to bake in Florida’s dense humidity.

Within a year of opening, LaMontagne had expanded the menu from six flavors to more than 30. The shop is the stuff of daydreams. And memories. Ask anyone in the area that year and they’ll tell you how much they miss Ariel’s macarons!

After Bon Ami folded, DiMare decided to open Cousteau’s, a waffles-and-milkshake shop that’s still kicking. LaMontagne built the menu there as well.

“Those were all of my recipes,” she said. “I’m pretty proud, too, because that place is banging.”

She is most satisfied with the Belgian Liège waffle, which calls for beautiful and special pearl sugar. Added to the batter, these mini-spheres of sugar are the things that give a traditional Belgian waffle its specific, wonderful caramelized glow. After that project succeeded, change was a-brewing, and LaMontagne was looking for a new opportunity.

DiMare knew that his baker was seeking a change. When he heard that another St. Augustine biz, The Kookaburra, was looking for someone to handle its pastry program, he made the connection. Owners Spencer Hooker and Megan Vidal brought in LaMontagne to make their traditional Aussie recipes even tastier, and to introduce some new items as well. When LaMontagne began her position there in 2015, Kookaburra was only two shops strong, and Vidal was making about 10 pies a day.

“The owner made what she could,” LaMontagne said, but they bought most of their pastries from a distributor. That would soon change. “[Now] all of our pie dough is made fresh every day.”

These aren’t your grandma’s pies, either. Australia loves their savory pies (as do Britain and New Zealand), but we Yanks never quite caught on. Other than a pot pie, we don’t get too creative. But at the Kook, you’ll find “brekkie pies” like Rashers & Egg (bacon, egg and cheddar) and the True Blue (egg and cheddar topped with rosemary) or lunch pies with Thai chicken and veggies, not to mention the good ol’-fashioned “traditional meat pie” with minced meat and onions in a tomato gravy. Now, on any given weekday, LaMontagne and co. sling about 200 delightfully full and flaky pies—twice that on the weekends.

“The pie fillings are all the owners’ families’ recipes,” LaMontagne explained. “We make them with what America has to offer, so they do taste a little bit different.”

Unless you’re Australian, you may never have had some of the sweet treats served at the Kook. There are Anzacs, which are cookies (they call them “biscuits”) made of oats and brown sugar. They’re “crispy on the outside, a little soft and chewy on the inside.” And the cutest-named cake of all time, the Lamington, is a sponge cake with strawberry jam filling, covered in chocolate and dusted with coconut.

Some treats are a blend of classic Aussie, the recipe imported by Hooker’s mom, and contemporary LaMontagne. The over-the-top caramel slices (which LaMontagne “tweaked to my taste”) are made from an Anzac base with a “layer of caramel and then chocolate on top.” It’s a decadent treat, double the size of your largest brownie!

LaMontagne is a hands-on chef who conducts a lot of experimentation in the kitchen. If she can try it, she will! After the team got the Aussie pie and sweets menu set, they moved on to things like cookies and scones. They even tried their hand at doughnuts. They make some huge muffins, too, and, to be honest, they’re among the best muffins I’ve had.

And if you have a food allergy, Ariel’s baked goods can accommodate.

“I always like to have a variety of items that anyone can have,” she explained.” If you walk in the door and you have some type of intolerance to something, anything food-wise, I like to have an option for you.”

“Just run with it” is something Ariel hears quite often. She has been quite fortunate that her first job right out of culinary school was one that afforded her lots of freedom.

“I work for some great people,” she said. “I don’t know what I’d do without them!”

As a jack-of-all-trades in the company, she’s a tremendous go-getter. But nothing helps her get through her to-do list more than listening to “straight-up gangsta rap.” That’s what helps her cross off every item on the paper.

She never wants to give up that flexibility and creativity. Working with Kookaburra has given her a chance to see every side of the business, from inventory to hiring to cooking to product development. She went from baker to unofficial general manager, and she’s loving every second of it.

LaMontagne’s favorite thing on the menu right now has an American twist. It’s the cheeseburger pie, lovingly called “The Yankee.” For something more traditional, she said she’ll gladly dig into the Jackaroo pie any day, and follow it up with a banana chocolate chip muffin or a Kookaburra chocolate chip cookie.

The Kook is all about sharing a little slice of Australia. Each location is comfy and welcoming.

“I’ve never had the feeling that I wanted to leave the Kookaburra,” said Ariel LaMontagne. You might feel the same way yourself.

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