Bake It 'Til You Make It
You could say Johnny Baker is a stage name. It’s the alter ego of John Stekerhofs, professional chef, self-taught patissière and all-round
bon vivant. It’s also the name of the singular, bustling coffee stop and pastry heaven he’s run in the heart of Castlemaine since 2015.
Hidden at the rear of the Newnorthern Art Hotel, near the Castlemaine Botanic Gardens – look for the de rigueur small sign pointing the way, or just follow your nose - is where you’ll find the always-pumping Johnny Baker. It’s colonised the old drive-through bottle shop, where coffee and cakes have replaced champagne and chardonnay. And if the words “drive through” don’t strike you as the food world’s promised land, think again. These pies and pastries are the real, swoon-worthy deal.
“I was a chef by trade but realised I had more a affinity with sugar and our than meat and potatoes,” says Stekerhofs, who started in
the world of baking as an owner of Carlton’s acclaimed The French Lettuce. “I bought The French Lettuce because I was sick of working nights as a chef, but I didn’t really think it through because it meant swapping late nights for really early mornings. Live and learn.”
After Stekerhofs and his wife Annie moved to Castlemaine to pursue Steiner schooling for their children, they bought the old Templeton Café, changing the name to Apple Annie’s. When demand for their pie and pastry driven excellence outgrew the space, the search led them to the unconventional new digs.
“I thought I’d start producing there, and it just grew,” says Stekerhofs. “We don’t do table service and you can drive through if you like but there are a couple of tables and some stools.”
There’s also a cute retro caravan taking care of the caffeine side of things, using beans from Bendigo’s Barth Lane Coffee Roasters.
It’s worth the deprivation of ordering at the counter for the array of pastries vying for attention. There are fruit-topped tarts and chocolate eclairs, gravity-defying cakes and kid-bait biscuits. Golden-tanned and flaky croissants are the supermodels of the display, including the signature almond version with a centre of crème patissiere, amaretto and almond liqueur. Their popularity is hotly pursued by the pies, which are made the traditional way with crusts mixing lard and butter. Fillings also nod to tradition: crowd favourites include chicken and leek, beef burgundy, and a host of vego options.
The baking and café world has changed a lot since Stekerhofs first took up a spatula. Take croissants, for instance: “We used to just put a lump of butter in the middle, which is pretty funny to think about now. These days we
use Belgian butter that’s fractionated and all the rest.” The results speak for themselves. Johnny Baker runs through batches and batches every day, often running out well before close. Ditto the pies.
“A tradie used to get a mass-produced pie and a Big M, now they go for a wagyu pie and a decaf soy latte,” he says. “Times have changed.”
Rear 359 Barker Street, Castlemaine 03 5470 5695
Open daily from 6.30am to 4pm