Boris Portnoy and I are having a chat in the courtyard of his Northcote bakery, All Are Welcome. He came to meet me on his day off with his two-year-old daughter, who is nibbling on a croissant.
He mentions how his relationship with food has changed a lot throughout his life. “I was born in Moscow, in the Soviet Union, and food was viewed as a commodity then,” he says.
“If I was sick, I would have black caviar, otherwise, I would have salmon roe in the morning. I never thought of it as anything special, it was medicinal, but I really enjoyed it,” he recalls. “I remember being in the hospital and I was hearing my name. It was my grandmother. She was holding black caviar sandwiches she had made, with white bread and butter. She sneaked them into the hospital.”
Caviar also played an important role when his family moved to the United States via Vienna and Rome. “We had taken black caviar out of the Soviet Union in order to sell it because we couldn’t bring currency with us,” he says.
Boris, the Michelin-star pastry chef
Once in the US, he set his sights on becoming a pastry chef. After years of training and hard work, he became head pastry chef at a three-Michelin star venue in California, The Restaurant at Meadowood.
“I wanted to be a three-Michelin star pastry chef, but when I got that, I was kind of starved for real things because it got in the way of cooking, it became something else. It was time for me to rethink what I wanted,” says Portnoy. “We moved to Australia and it freed me. I didn’t have to be ‘Boris, the Michelin-star pastry chef ’ anymore.”
A bakery for the community
“I want to make sure that people we buy ingredients from have similar values to ours. We want to make sure we’re serving the community, that we’re giving back to the community,” he explains.
Before the bakery, the building was a Christian Science Reading Room. This is where the name All Are Welcome comes from; it was written in gold on the front door.
Portnoy thought the phrase was fitting: “Part of the ethos of the place is that all are welcome because I’m also an immigrant in this country. ‘All are welcome’ can resonate to anyone in different ways.”
All Are Welcome does bread, cakes and viennoiseries, going way beyond the usual suspects. “We don’t dumb things down; we try to tell the story as is. We assume that people are smart and our customers will ask questions. We have pastries with their original name,” explains Portnoy.
The offering changes often, but there are a few crowd favourites that you’re likely to find, like the chocolate babka, the Finnish rye bread and the bostock (which was topped with blood plum and pistachio when we visited).
It’s also one of the only places in town where you can eat khachapuri, a Georgian pastry filled with cheese.
Soon, when the weather cools down, the medovnik cake will reappear on the cake stand. The 10-layer honey cake covered in buttercream is a nod to Portnoy’s heritage. “I have seen people come in and count the layers. It’s a point of pride how many layers you can get into the cake. This Russian lady started counting, she counted all the way to ten and she was like ‘I make mine with 12!’ says Portnoy, laughing.
You can feel that this baker loves his craft and his customers. “One thing I think is cool with a bakery is that it doesn’t pertain only to a certain age or group of people, it's quite broad. It’s kind of like a club in Berlin, old and young hanging out together,” he says, still laughing.
190 High Street, Northcote, VIC
Mon –Sat 7 am – 3 pm, Sun 8 am – 3 pm