When Laura Gurbhoo is developing a new recipe, she’s thinking about more than just texture and flavour; every technique and ingredient is weighed and measured against its environmental impact. Gurbhoo is the proprietor and head baker of Gâto Bakeshop, a new bakery at 819 Sargent Ave., where sustainability is king.
The concept was born out of a desire to practise what she preaches. At home, Gurbhoo, 25, and her partner bike as often as they can, consciously reduce the amount of garbage they create and eat seasonal vegetables from local farms. At work, however, she felt like a hypocrite for using wasteful practices common across the baking industry.
"Plastic wrap is a big thing and it’s sad that nobody has come up with something that works as well," she says, adding that the high cost of low-environmental-impact kitchen supplies and ingredients is a barrier to entry for most businesses. "Industries just have to come up with alternatives… and the more people that use them, the cheaper it becomes."
She hopes to set a new precedent at Gâto by eliminating plastic wrap in favour of reusable containers, selling pastries in compostable takeout boxes, starting a composting program and sourcing as many ingredients as possible locally.
It’s taken a lot of work to find Manitoba producers for everything from flour to fruit to chocolate.
"It’s crazy how many things grow here, but you just don’t know about it until you go around and find it," Gurbhoo says. "I source stuff from a lot of different people and it’s a headache, but that’s why we don’t have a big menu."
For now, the offerings are limited to items that fit her standard for sustainability and include croissants, pain au chocolat, cronuts, macarons and the odd loaf of bread.
Everything is made from a sourdough base, which negates the need for commercial yeast, and the majority of her baking is vegan — made with aquafaba, an egg replacer, and a butter substitute that arrives in Winnipeg by rail. To top it all off, Gurbhoo plans to rely solely on seasonal produce.
"During the summer, it’s always fun for me because every week you have a different fruit that comes in season," she says. "But you have to get way more creative in the winter when there’s nothing around."
Gurbhoo is from Mauritius, a small island nation east of Madagascar, about 2,000 kilometres off the southeast coast of Africa, and came to Winnipeg to study biochemistry with plans of becoming a pharmacist. Baking was a lifelong hobby and part-time job.
Back home, she worked in a bakery run by a Le Cordon Bleu-trained chef where she learned the basics of cake-making and decorating. While in school in Winnipeg, she held jobs at Stella’s Café and Bakery, A L’Epi de Blé and Frenchway Café.
Gurbhoo was looking into pharmacy programs when she had an epiphany.
"(Baking) was always my passion — it’s not like I ever stopped baking — but it was never a career in my head," she says. "I started working more and was like, ‘Well, why am I going back to school? I clearly like this.’ "
Gâto — which means "cake" in Mauritian Creole and is not a reference to Gurbhoo’s affinity for cats — got its start in 2018 as a side project. Gurbhoo had been experimenting with vegan baking while making birthday cakes for her in-laws, many of whom are vegan or have specific dietary restrictions.
"It was always a challenge to make them something they’ll like that doesn’t taste weird," she says. "And I thought it was something you don’t find often; I know a lot of restaurants are moving towards (vegan menu items), but not a lot of baking."
She started selling baked goods at a stand in the Wolseley Farmers Market and built a following through her Instagram account (@gatowpg). The positive response from customers got her thinking about opening her own brick-and-mortar bakery.
On Wednesday, after three months of major renovations, Gurbhoo opened the doors to her large, sunlit spot on Sargent Avenue. She’s looking forward to serving customers from behind her handmade bakery counter and getting back to what she’s good at.
"The whole process of opening a storefront is a lot of paperwork and that’s not really what I like," she says. "I’m really excited to get to bake again."
Visit gatowpg.com for more details.
Eva Wasney is a reporter for the Winnipeg Free Press.