The way the cookie crumbles (Patisserie Gaumond)

(Originally published in The Gazette, January 19, 2006)

by J.J. Locke

The last croissant has been rolled at Patisserie Gaumond in Verdun. After providing treats to generations of Montrealers, the Wellington St. mainstay had its contents auctioned off in a bankruptcy sale last week.

I worked there one year ago.

“Bankruptcy of Gaumond Pastry!” I blurted out when I spotted the notice in The Gazette. I could hardly believe it.

But the writing had been on the flour-covered wall when I was laid off last May.

As I read the list of equipment to be auctioned off, I identified each piece with the person who worked with it. “That’s Michel’s oven! They’re selling Serge’s table!”

Serge Bouthillette grew up in Verdun and worked here for almost 40 years, starting full-time the year of Expo 67. He washed his table religiously before leaving each night. A new 8-foot maple work table can cost more than $1,000.

Then it really struck home. “That’s my sheeter!” I cried out. I used this machine, also known as a laminator, to make the butter-layered dough for nearly 2,000 croissants per week. My heart sank.

I can still remember Serge’s instructions the first time I used the unfamiliar machine. “Two speeds, only one safety guard – watch your fingers.”

On auction day last Wednesday, I returned to my old workplace. In the viennoiserie department where I worked, an order form dated Oct. 4 – possibly the last one – hung on the production board.

During my short six months of employment at Gaumond – I had started in October 2004 – I had invested sweat and blood, having cut a finger or two while slicing 50-pound blocks of cold, hard, unsalted butter for making croissants.

It was eerie to walk through deserted walk-in coolers where creamy desserts had been stored.

When the auction started, the shop front was packed. Auctioneer Jerome Baril estimates he had more than 200 people. If only Gaumond had had so many customers.

Rosaire Jacob started the patisserie in 1941, then sold it to employee Patrick Gaumond in 1960. It was called Patisserie Rosaire then. The name didn’t change to Patisserie Chez Gaumond until 1988, when Jean-Pierre Gaumond took over.

Pierre Quesnel began working there when he was only 13. “I started here in 1962,” says Quesnel, now co-owner of a gourmet food market in Chateauguay.

“One Christmas, on Dec. 23 at 10 p.m., Patrick Gaumond came to where we worked holding a bottle of gin. He said that we had to make 100 dozen patty shells. He opened the bottle and we worked all through the night.”

In those days, Quesnel said, he made 65 cents an hour, with time and a half paid for any hours worked after the 60th in a week.

The bakery had long been associated with quality. It was also a community gathering place in the old days, neighbourhood residents say.

“We used to go every Saturday to buy our cakes,” says Dorothy Ashworth. “In those days, it was wall-to-wall people. It must have been in the ’50s or ’60s when we would buy nice mille-feuilles with real cream.”

The bakery holds more than just memories of sweets. It’s a place that has marked milestones in the lives of people.

“We bought my son’s birthday cake there. It had a hockey player and a hockey stick,” said Myrtle Gallagher, a Verdun resident for more than 50 years.

“I bought a tray of sandwiches and cakes, for my husband’s funeral, at Gaumond,” she recalls.

Since 2001, the bakery at 3725 Wellington had been owned by 4196406 Canada Inc., a company operated by Robert Greer and his son Mathieu, who laboured long hours to make the place viable. In the end, the cake collapsed.

Ashworth remembers when Rosaire’s competed with other bakeries. “There was Mains, Marathon, and Muir’s pastry shops. Now they are all gone.

“In those days people worked at Northern Electric or the CNR. We weren’t rich, but we weren’t poor either,” she says.

When I came on the scene, Gaumond was noticeably lacking in walk-in customers. Most of the production was shipped to other locations. But not even wholesaling could keep the Verdun icon afloat.

“It’s sad, but that’s business,” says Quesnel.

I like to think a bakery is more than just business, but maybe Quesnel is right.

Serge’s table sold for $200.

© J.J. Locke 2006

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