November 10, 2020 – Stroll the streets of Liège, Belgium, and you’re sure to encounter small street stands and bakeries serving up the city’s signature sweet—decadently dense buttery waffles with a light caramelized crisp on their golden surface.
Born and raised in Liège, Fabrice Rondia frequently indulged. “I grew up with those waffles. I’d get them at the train station a few times a week,” he recalls. Now he’s eager to showcase his hometown treat—and his Belgian heritage—at L’Aubette Belgian Bakery in New Monterey.
“I’ve been here for 25 years, but it’s really special to be able to reconnect with my culture with food and share it with others,” says Rondia. “There’s not enough Belgian food here. I mean, there’s not too many Belgians, it’s a small country!”
L’Aubette’s story actually started five years ago, when Rondia announced plans for a partnership with Belgian brewers to bring Old World beer traditions to the Central Coast. The collaboration—Belgian Pacific and its flagship beer Leopold 7—was “Belgian born, California brewed.”
He teamed with Damien Georis and Jonathan Geisler—both also Belgian born—to coordinate imports of Leopold 7, brewed in Couthuin, a small village near Rondia’s family home in Belgium. The three brought the brand to the United States—to critical praise at local beer festivals—then both Georis and Geisler went on different paths. But Rondia set about on his ambitious project to build a new tasting room just off Cannery Row and, eventually, even craft Leopold 7 here on the Central Coast.
Work on the project has been moving slowly while navigating complex city regulations around water use. Two years ago, Rondia finally secured permits to drill new artesian water wells at the Wave Street property. That’s also when he expanded the project’s scope beyond the beer and wine tasting room to add a Belgian-inspired bakery and coffee shop—L’Aubette was born.
Construction on the concept was getting underway when the coronavirus pandemic hit. “Everything had to be held. It slowed down, but never really stopped, due to Covid.” Work has resumed and Rondia expects the tasting room and bakery will open in spring 2021.
Behind the scenes, that’s given Rondia time to conduct methodical R&D for L’Aubette’s offerings. He doesn’t have formal training as a baker—in fact, by day, he’s an ER nurse—but the brewery and bakery have become a passion project rooted in nostalgia for Belgium and a love of cooking he learned from his mother.
“My mom was a great cook. She passed away a few months ago. Looking back, it was unbelievable what we were eating as kids. We had amazing food—moules frites, snails, frog legs.” Leveraging family recipes and feedback from friends, Rondia has taught himself how to recreate Belgian favorites. “When you have a goal and say, ‘Hey this is what I’m going to do’ and work on it, you figure it out.”
The bakery’s specialties will be Belgian, naturally. “We’re focused on Belgian baked goods, very specific. That’s what I wanted to do.”
After securing a cottage foods permit, L’Aubette Belgian Bakery has quietly opened for pop-up bake sales on select weekend, while construction on the full bakery cafe progresses. Weekend waffle popups bring a bite of Belgium to New Monterey—and a preview of the forthcoming bakery. “I was itching to get something out there.”
The bakery’s signature? Liège waffles, just like Rondia remembers from childhood.
A quick detour to explore the taxonomy of Belgian waffles—what most of us consider “Belgian” waffles is technically an American adaptation of a traditional recipe from Belgium. A pair of Belgians introduced, then popularized, this golden waffle with a light batter, large pockets and deep grooves that catch any number of toppings loaded on.
But in Belgium, tastes tend toward two traditional recipes.
Brussels waffles are square in shape, with large, wide pockets. The dough is often yeasted, yielding a light, fluffy texture. Like the Belgian waffle we see on menus here in the United States, a Brussels waffle often arrives adorned with whipped cream, chocolate and/or fresh fruit.
The Liège waffle derives from southern Belgium—specifically, the city of Liège in the French-dominant Wallonia region. The dough derives from buttery brioche, so the waffle is rich and dense. But the key distinction is the addition of pearl sugar—coarse confectionary capsules that caramelize under the sizzling iron to produce a waffle studded with tiny pockets of sugar. These rustic waffles—often imperfect in appearance and served simply, without toppings—are favorite street snacks in Belgium and have recently become a darling of American cafes.
Rondia breaks down the key difference between the two, “Brussels is more like batter, Liège is more like dough.”
It took six months for Rondia to perfect both recipe and technique for recreating his hometown favorite. “I was born and raised in Liège for 20 years, so it was pretty important for me to get them right.”
L’Aubette’s Liège waffles are made fresh daily in small batches. The traditional yeast dough undergoes slow proofing for 14 hours for maximum flavor. Rondia imports Belgian pearl sugar and Mexican vanilla, but is careful to leverage local connections too. “They’re true to the waffle back in Belgium, but with a core of ingredients that are local.” Rondia believes it’s more important than ever to support local businesses, so he sources milk from Schoch Dairy, handcrafted sea salts from Big Sur Salts, local honey from Carmel Honey Co. and cage-free eggs from Glaum Egg Ranch. “These are people we’ve known for a long time, so it’s nice to use their ingredients and make it taste good. It really makes a difference.”
A 75-pound cast-iron waffle maker melts the sugar pearls to give the dough its characteristic pockets of sugar and caramelized exterior. Rondia sought out the prestige HVD, whose waffle irons are used across Belgium. He describes a trip back to Belgium to tour HVD’s facilities and purchase a waffle press. He brought his precious cargo back to the United States as a carry-on—“I wasn’t about to check it as baggage”—lugging the small, but heavy, iron into overhead compartments, “By the last leg, I almost couldn’t lift it anymore.”
He describes the nuanced nature of cooking Liège waffles for that perfect bit of caramelized crunch on the exterior. “It’s a bit of a misconception that the pearl sugar caramelizes. It stays whole and crunchy, really. It’s the sugar left over from the previous waffle that melts, so the trick is maintaining the caramel without it burning.”
For now, L’Aubette Belgian Bakery’s menu is limited to two items—the classic Liège waffle ($4.50) or Belgian chocolate Liège waffle ($5). Waffles are sold individually or buy a box of 12 for the price of 10. They’re cooked fresh, but can keep for two or three days. Rondia has also started to coordinate retail sales for the waffles, so look for packaged waffles at local cafes and shops later this year.
He teases another addition on the horizon for the holidays—Belgian speculoos cookies.
Like the Liège waffle, Rondia carefully considered his recipe. “It took quite a few months to nail that down.” Sugar sourcing turned out to be the trickiest part. “It was fairly easy to find Belgian pearl sugar, but finding the brown sugar that they use in Belgium was a little hard,” he recalls. Rondia’s connections to Belgian brewers turned out to be instrumental here, as he finally found a supplier through the brewing, not baking, community.
The spiced cookie is a favorite for the holidays and will be available next month.
Popups at the cottage have been Sundays from 10am to 2pm—or until sold out. Rondia expects the schedule will expand to include Saturdays too in a few weeks. Follow @laubettebakery on Instagram for updates.
L’Aubette Belgian Bakery • 419 Wave Street, Monterey • instagram.com/laubettebakery