Our taste buds stirred when we read that Amélie’s French Bakery was establishing a new outpost near our home in south Charlotte.
Amélie’s has been a wildly popular destination on Charlotte’s food map since 2008 when the flagship store opened in the city’s hip and historic arts district of NoDa. It stays open 24/7/365. The company recently scored big on BuzzFeed’s ultimate bucket list as #17 among the “23 Bakeries Around The World You Need To Eat At Before You Die.”
Bakeries play a big role in Bill’s and my travels, especially in Paris. My first activity most mornings is to head out from our rental apartment to our neighborhood’s patisseries and boulangeries for fresh-baked breakfast pastries. It seems like everyone else in Paris is on the same mission.
Participating in this ritual with people from all walks of life lined up to buy breads and sweets on their way to the rest of their day helps me feel like a true Parisian.
As we stay most often in the 7th arrondissement, Secco, Dalloyau, La Pâtisserie des Rêves, Maison Kayser, and Poilâne (in the 6th) are some of our favorites. Croissants (plain or chocolate-filled), chouquettes, palmiers, financiers, baguettes, fruit tarts, and the ubiquitous macarons are fair game to land in my shopping tote.
We do manage some restraint, however, saving our goodies until after we’ve eaten the healthier fare – cereal, fruit, nuts, and cheese. Some days we switch it up, first polishing off the better-for-you stuff and then soaking up the local atmosphere at Café Varenne over croissants and coffee (Bill) and tea (me). At first it was disconcerting to see gun-toting guards patrolling outside the premises, but a waiter told us they protect a major government office down the street.
Now our local Amélie’s has opened. The timing for us was fortuitous – right after our return from Paris. We’ve seamlessly continued our bakery routine, savoring their pastries, desserts, sandwiches, salads, soups, and our favorite tartines (ham and gruyere for Bill, wild mushroom duxelle for me). The salted caramel brownie is the best seller.
Just as integral as food to the success of Amélie’s is the décor, the brainchild and bailiwick of partner and designer Brenda Ische (rhymes with ricochet). The floors, walls, and ceilings are the canvas for her one-of-a-kind art. Although her style defies labels, Brenda says the look is fun, eclectic, quirky, witty, whimsical, and bohemian hipster. I think of it as France unplugged.
She acquires a vast assortment of antiques, novelties, and odds and ends, both intact and damaged. Be they broken, chipped, missing parts, or in need of paint, her finds have potential if she deems they have good bones. With her artful touch she has refurbished, rejuvenated, and/or repurposed everything in Amélie’s.
You dine amid a smile-inducing mishmash of furnishings.
Mona Lisa sporting shades. An outstretched Marie Antoinette outfitted in a quilted bustier and faux fondant icing skirt (actually composed of drywall compound) and flying high in her best Superman impression. An upside down wedding cake chandelier. A lamp fashioned from stacked cream pitchers. An end table comprised of vintage valises. A nine-foot tall ruler to measure your height against those of Edith Piaf, Picasso, and Mother Teresa. Busts of boys smothered in red kisses. Classic paintings mouthing irreverent thoughts. Tables with trompe l’oeil place settings. Gilt mirror frames surrounding blackboards featuring the daily specials. Fido, too, has a designated spot with a “Bone Appétit” sign.
Stopping into our Amélie’s recently after walking on the McMullen Greenway, Bill and I happened to meet Brenda and chat about her business. She’s also a seasoned traveler, we learned, finding inspiration for her work wherever she goes.
She and I have chatted several times since at both local Amélie’s stores. She’s also taken me to her studio, where her ideas and creativity run wild. Her vast inventory of cast-off stuff lies in wait for its metamorphosis into more how-did-she-come-up-with-that pieces.
Here are highlights from our conversations:
The Roads Traveled: Have you ever seen a Parisian bakery that looks like Amélie’s?
Brenda Ische: The Parisian bakeries I’ve been to are tiny because Paris has some of the most expensive real estate in the world. Amélie’s is the way I think a Parisian bakery would look if they could afford more real estate.
How do you describe your design sensibility?
I’m a decorative artist. We tend to have vivid imaginations, and mine has free rein. Even though I attended college in Virginia, I always considered myself self-taught because the majority of what I’ve become successful at I didn’t learn in school. One thing design school teaches you is that everything is something else. I look at something and think what it could be versus the function it was designed for. I used to be a designer for hire. I’ve had high profile clients, and when money is no object it’s boring because I don’t have to use my imagination. When we find a place for a new store, I’ll sit in the empty space by myself and let it tell me what it wants.
Where do you source items for the stores?
I’m a huge fan of repurposing, which I didn’t know until I started volunteering for Habitat for Humanity’s ReStores. I constantly shop there and at Goodwill, on craigslist and eBay, and during trips. I’ll buy table bases, take out the tiles, replace them with boards, and découpage the tops. I took an unfinished chair and turned it into a chandelier. I wallpapered the cake display case. It had a dent, so I made a replica of a macaron and smashed it against the dent like someone had thrown it. My biggest challenge is to be unique over and over again.
What are some of the signature items in each store?
The pot and pan chandeliers. Canvases with single letters spelling out LOVE. Mona Lisa with glasses. YUMM signs. The boy and girl with kisses. Oil portraits of Napoleon and Marie Antoinette I order from China. The big map of Paris. The corner mirrors. The gnomes.
What kind of a traveler are you?
I can’t say I love to travel because jet lag affects me, but I’ve traveled a lot and have seen a lot. I became a flight attendant when I was first out of school, which was a perfect job for me because my world opened up and my mind expanded. I’m a real efficient packer – lots of black and I roll things up. I go to bakeries, museums and art galleries. I love to people watch and see how they interact and what they’re wearing. I like to visit New York with my nieces and see it through their eyes. My next trip is Paris and I’ll go to Versailles to see the Hall of Mirrors. Everything inspires me.
Amelie’s also owns stores in Atlanta and Rock Hill, SC, and is planning a re-opening in uptown Charlotte with more in development.