Meet the king of kugelhupf

All rise: Leslie Brull and his winning kugelhupf.
All rise: Leslie Brull and his winning kugelhupf. Photo: Peter Rae

Last summer I saw a provocative sign in the window of the renowned Monarch Cake shop on Acland Street in Melbourne. "This chocolate Kooglehoupf is the best thing I've ever tasted and I've been everywhere - Daven Wu, Renowned food writer."

Forget the fact that Daven Wu is a Singapore-based reviewer whose writing is almost totally for Singapore-based lifestyle publications. The point is, Monarch was telling a big, dark lie. There are thousands of people in Sydney who will swear, on their cardiologist's grave, that this honour belongs to the Wellington Cake Shop on Bondi Road in Bondi.

Along with Klimt and KaffeeKultur, kugelhupf is one of the three great legacies of the Austro-Hungarian empire, and Wellington has played a major role in spreading its reputation.

The traditional kugelhupf is a chocolate yeast cake about 12-15 centimetres high, with thick rivers of dark chocolate running through a dense bready body. It's old-school - heavy, instant weight gain. My grandmother used to make it, her arms lathered in dark chocolate up to the elbows, the cake taking a whole day to finish. Eating it is like prospecting for gold - you don't know how rich the seam of chocolate will be until you slice through it.

For the past 30 years, Leslie Brull and his family have been making kugelhupf from his modest Bondi Road bakery, and its fame has spread far and wide. People come from Parramatta and St Ives; they take the cake overseas to the United States, South Africa and Indonesia.

"We sell 50 to 100 a week, and 500 a week at the Jewish High Holy Days [Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur]," Brull explains quietly one Sunday morning after he has finished his regular overnight shift. Sitting on upturned plastic buckets out the back of his shop, he proffers a selection of cheese pockets, poppyseed rolls, a mini-kugelhupf and other pastry treats. "Eat, eat," he urges gently, while we discuss the stories behind his own Austra-Hungarian empire.

Baking and pastry run deep in Brull's veins. His great-grandfather and grandfather were bakers in Budapest, his father made the switch to become a pastry chef, and Brull learned his skills at an apprenticeship with a famous Budapest pastry house, Jakfalvi, then worked with his father. "In Hungary, pastry-making has a very fine taste. They have a big tradition. It's not like Australia," he adds with a twinkle, "where after two months in a bakery, someone says, 'I am a pastry chef'."

The Brulls are Hungarian Jews who suffered like so many at the hands of the Nazis, and then endured years of communism. His parents tried to migrate to Australia in the 1960s, but the communist government in Hungary refused to give them permission.

In 1977, Brull married and moved to Australia with his wife and infant daughter. His mother had four cousins here already who helped give him a start. Was it hard to leave his parents? "If you have a choice, you want a happy life. Everything I want in life, I have here."

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On arrival, Brull made pastries for 18 months at the Gelato Bar on Bondi Beach while he looked around for a suitable shop to open his own business. When the Wellington premises became available and he opened the shop in 1979, the main offerings were Aussie cakes. "I bought the shop with goodwill, so I thought I have to learn about English food," he shrugs. "I served mainly Australian cakes - chelsea buns, finger buns, meat pies and sausage rolls.

"Ten years later we renovated the shop and that gave it a big boost, because the appearance improved and our business improved straight away. So we started introducing more continental food. When I took it over, it was 90 per cent local and 10 per cent continental. When we renovated, it was nearly 50-50, to cater for what was still a sizeable Hungarian-Jewish community, which is now slowly disappearing."

Brull did not make kugelhupf right at the start. "There was a woman called Mrs Fleischer working at the shop. She worked for me for 20 years and she was a very good cook and baker. In the early 1980s she went on a trip back to Hungary. When she returned, she told me that someone had given her a secret recipe for kugelhupf and cheese pockets. And because she loved the recipe so much, she wanted to give it to me," he says with a smile.

"Don't tell anyone this recipe,'' she instructed me. She was an excellent salesperson as well, so when someone came into the shop, they never walked away empty-handed. She made the Wellington kugelhupf famous, and I gave it a special touch as well. To make the best, we use only the best ingredients - Dutch cocoa."

About five years ago, Brull started making mini-kugelhupfs "for people who tried to look after their figure, or they wanted a little bit, because if they take it home, they can't stop eating it. They want the taste but not the weight."

The cheese pockets remain popular, as do the poppyseed pastries, which remind the East Europeans of home.

Brull is also renowned for his bagels, which he only started making in the early 1980s after his wife told him he needed to stay ahead of a newly opened Vietnamese hot-bread shop that opened next door.

"She bought about 30 bagels from somewhere else. They sold out straight away. She convinced me to make bagels, and they have become the biggest seller in the shop, along with pretzels."

Whether it's poppyseed, raisin or plain, Wellington's bagels have the classic firm-soft consistency that makes them a staple of the Jewish and eastern suburbs communities. "Now we are lucky, because Harris Farm introduced my bagels in its new Hall Street store [in Bondi], which was so successful that the other stores have them as well."

Brull now sells 500 bagels a day in his store and 1000 a day to Harris Farm. He is working harder than ever to satisfy demand, putting in 14 hours a day (from 8pm each night to 10am the next morning), seven days a week.

Behind the scenes, Brull's wife, Georgina, has been his partner and adviser all the way through. He says he could not have survived without her support. "She is involved in everything. In a small business you need your wife to do it, or else it won't work."

His three children work in the business, too. The eldest, David, who studied international law (and trained as a pastry chef), runs the team on the weekend. Brull is not sure yet whether David will stay or become a lawyer. The other two children, Marian and Tom, work in the front.

Despite these years of long days and constant work, Brull has found time for one recreation that has never changed. "Every day after work I go swimming at Nielsen Park.

"When I arrive, I look around and say to myself, what a paradise we have here."

Can he improve on paradise? Did Brull ever find a kugelhupf in the old country that was better than his? He shakes his head emphatically. "But I did learn about a new cake two years ago. I still have not had time to perfect it." He says it is sugar and gluten-free, but does not want to discuss it in detail just yet. "When it's ready, I will talk about it."

Wellington Cake Shop, 157 Bondi Road, Bondi, 02 9389 4555.