Features, Podcasts

Engineer pursues passion with authentic French bakery

Nagree meets with a fellow chef to offer her advice.

Nagree meets with a fellow chef to offer her advice.

View more photos here and listen to the audio interview here.

A small, white house in the Bouldin Creek area is home to La Patisserie, a traditional French bakery. Instead of cakes and cupcakes, La Patisserie churns out delicate macarons and financiers. The rooms are bright and the entire house smells of sugar and coffee. At least a dozen press clips line the wall to the left of the front door.

The mastermind behind La Patisserie is Soraiya Nagree, 31. La Patisserie is one of three businesses that Nagree owns, the other two being The Kitchen Space, a large industrial kitchen for rent in East Austin, and Luxe Sweets, her wholesaling brand. But Nagree’s story is an unusual one because, before becoming a pastry chef, she was an engineer.

Nagree left Trinity University with a chemical engineering degree and soon started working as a urethane engineer for a bowling ball company, according to La Patisserie’s website. She worked there for about three years.

“I knew I didn’t want to be an engineer forever because I just knew that in an engineering environment I was going to work for someone, unless I did consulting, and I wasn’t good enough to do consulting, and so that was kind of the driving factor,” Nagree said.

After getting married and relocating to Austin, Nagree decided to go to culinary school at Le Cordon Bleu-Texas Culinary Academy. Halfway through, she began baking out of her home and wholesaling to a handful of people.

“It started going well, so we built a kitchen …and continued the wholesaling end of things. Then, three years ago, we found this house and knew that this was where La Patisserie needed to be. This is my little dream, I like the wholesale end, it’s good, it pays the bills… but this, I could be here every day. I love this place,” Nagree said.

The three businesses are all interconnected. Luxe Sweets sells pastries to shops all around Austin and La Patisserie is basically the retail space for that brand. All the pastries are baked in a kitchen they have reserved at The Kitchen Space.

Nagree believes the hardest part of running a business is knowing that it is not going to be an overnight success.

“You see all these people get successful…people are fascinated with the overnight success, that’s not how it happens for hardly anyone. You have to be your own accountant, janitor, marketing person, sales person, everything. You are everything, until you get to a point where you can finally hire people,” Nagree said.

Nagree currently has 15 employees including delivery drivers. One of them is Jacqueline Ha. She is a manager at La Patisserie.

“I’ve worked here about a year and a half, almost two years. I love it,” Ha said.

Nagree has two sons, ages 4 and nine months. She compares owning a business to having a child and says that the analogy is accurate because “they keep you up at night, you worry about it 24/7, you want to be with it 24/7.”

“I have poured everything into my businesses. I have slept in my car from being so exhausted but knowing that I need to continue baking, but I don’t have the energy to bake anymore… But at the end of the day, it’s mine. It’s my baby. And I couldn’t be prouder of it,” Nagree said.


Texas wine production flourishes in drought-ridden area

A fruity, sweet aroma fills the brightly-lit tasting room on a Saturday afternoon. A crowd of people clutch their wine glasses as they gather around the bar. On every wall, framed awards and clippings of magazine and newspaper articles are displayed. The vineyard’s pest control cat, Cotton, is asleep on an office chair in the corner.

A table in the center of the room holds various gifts: cheese plates and knives, jewelry, measuring cups, wine aerators and pastry mixes. The rustic decor, cream walls and red brick floors give an instant feeling of warmth.

James Nobles, the tasting room/office manager at Fall Creek Vineyards, rings up customers. Though he is busy, he connects with each customer as though they were the only customer in what is actually a very long line in front of the register. He quickly fills orders for cases of wine while happily holding a conversation with the patron. He is a skilled multitasker.

The vineyard was established in 1975 by Ed and Susan Auler. The first vines were planted that year and production started in 1979. Last year, they sold about 60,000 cases of wine, making Fall Creek the third largest winery in Texas.

Nobles grew up on the vineyard. His father has been the production manager for 33 years.

Fall Creek Vineyards is located in Tow, Texas, about 80 miles northwest of Austin. This area of the hill country is struggling with severe drought. Rainfall has been scarce. The water level of Lake Buchanan, which is adjacent to the vineyard, is dropping every year. The water is currently 26 feet below what it should be.

Boat ramps are completely exposed. Floating docks are resting on the ground. Rentable cabins that used to be considered “waterfront” are now at least half a mile away from the water.

According to Sherry James at Jesse James Real Estate, property values in the area have dropped five percent since 2008. Despite the buyers’ market, there are more people leaving the area than coming in.

“There are numerous homes on the market and there’s just not many selling. And it’s mostly because of the water. So we just pray for rain,” James said.

Tourism used to be a large part of the local economy, but James said there are nearly 100 small motels for sale around the lake. “A few have sold, but they have sold for less than half [of their value],” James said.

While the community grapples with issues caused by the lack of water, Fall Creek Vineyards is thriving. The ground is dry and cracked everywhere else along Lake Buchanan, yet the soil along the rows of grape vines at Fall Creek is muddy. Fall Creek doesn’t pump water from the lake; they use water from a well to water their vines.

“The drought situation in Texas hasn’t affected us… Red grapes typically love a dry climate. The drier the climate, the more it forced that vine to be strained. And so therefore you end up having a more robust red [wine],” Nobles said.

There are several wineries in the area and it is the only business that’s truly booming. The relationship among the wineries is a symbiotic one. Instead of fiercely competing, they work together and help each other.

“We’re a brotherhood. We couldn’t exist without each other,” Nobles said.

“One of the things that I think is really distinguishing us from California is the fact that when you go to California now, it’s kind of over produced…when it started about the wine. In Texas, It’s staying about the wine. And I think there’s something that’s very beautiful about that, but it’s all coming from the family network that we have.”