Photography by Alaina Walder
Not long after the COVID-19 pandemic changed our lives, I started to really look at the town I live in. Before the virus I would drive up and down these streets every single day without really seeing, without truly taking in any of my surroundings. It wasn’t until taking a drive through downtown became an escape from quarantine, a literal lockdown of the senses, that I began to really observe the people and the places of Covington, Louisiana. It was around this time that I noticed something interesting happening at the intersection of Tyler and W. 21st Avenue. A little bakery was being born under the most dire of circumstances. I love a good bakery. Having eaten in authentic French bakeries in Europe and having a sister that relentlessly studies pastry, I knew what I was looking for. There was something immediately magnetic about Tournesol Café and Bakery. Perhaps it was the audacity, the courageous move to start a business at a time of global uncertainty. Perhaps it was the clear and bold concept, bright yellow walls, all-encompassing natural light, fresh flowers at every table. But more than likely it was the quality, the thoughtfulness, the passion baked right into everything that Carlos Sanchez creates, that keeps me and many others coming back.
The first time I ever tasted one of Carlos’ raspberry croissants, I was sitting on my couch after putting my daughter to bed. I immediately whipped out my phone and texted my sister, “I’m actually having a religious experience eating this croissant right now in my living room.” There is no exaggeration. I tasted fresh raspberry in the light and airy pastry cream. The croissant itself was crisp and buttery, savory in nature, a perfect compliment to the not-too-sweet interior. It was everything I had ever wanted in a pastry, beautiful to behold and the kind of treat that makes you reconsider everything you have ever eaten in your life. You can taste the lived experiences, the years of hard work, the talent, the love of baking in every bite. It is one of life’s greatest pleasures, experiencing special food made by good people.
And so I kept coming back. I bought pastries for myself. I bought pastries for my friends. I bought pastries for my family. I told everyone about the sunny little café nestled right in our downtown area. What a treat, what a privilege to have such a gem so close to home. I knew right away that I wanted to tell their story, to bring others to their doorstep so that they could also have the same experiences I had. I didn’t know how I was going to do that at the time, but the very first person I thought of when I started the Elysian Stories, was Carlos.
I would go on to not only meet Carlos and to speak with him, but to meet his family; the faces, the smiles, the hopes and dreams behind Tournesol Café and Bakery. Carlos and his wife Linda, along with their children, are those faces. I observe that this is much more than just a bakery to this family, it is everything they have hoped for. When Linda speaks of her husband’s work she is overflowing with pride, her smile cannot contain it. When Carlos brings us his pastries for photographs, he gently explains everything to us, recounting his process so that we fully understand what he has created. As I absorb that information, I imagine the years of hard work it must require to achieve this skill level and understanding of pastry. It is not an easy thing to understand and even more difficult to execute.
Originally from El Salvador, Carlos began to cook and study pastry in California. After 10 years of cooking, Carlos became interested in the world of bread making. “As a child I always liked eating bread. I wanted to learn the process,” Carlos remembers. He learned the ropes as an apprentice in an upscale bakery in Calabasas, California. Spending his recent years in New Orleans, Carlos and his family began planning a life on the Northshore, and felt it was the best home for their bakery and café concept. “I always wanted to open a café and bakery. I kept adding ideas to the concept by combining savory dishes with sandwiches made with fresh baked breads. Tournesol means sunflower in French and because I bake French pastries we decided it needed a French name. It’s also my wife’s favorite flower.” The love between Linda and Carlos is felt in every detail of Tournesol. It is in the thoughtful styling, the hand-written menu boards, the pastry case always full and inviting and gorgeously arranged, the fresh baked breads in many varieties on the shelves behind the counter. Their vision for this place is clear.
Their love for their new community is also felt. It seems that this family truly understands our way of life here, the slow-paced, charming small town way. “The reason we chose Covington was because it’s a beautiful small town with friendly people. My wife and I are green thumbs. Our plan was to find a home with more land so we can grow our vegetable garden and fruit trees. I’m tired of big cities. I lived in Los Angeles for 13 years. I only miss the weather. Covington is a great place to raise children.”
I am astounded to learn that everything served in the bakery is made on site at Tournesol by Carlos. He is not a man of shortcuts. “When I create pastries I want them to be beautiful and delicious at the same time, that’s why I enjoy making every single pastry in the shop myself.” As he presents us with a turkey that he has roasted for lunch service, he explains that all components of the dishes served at his café are thoughtfully made. It seems that places like Tournesol are often an anomaly amongst our fast food culture that worships quick, convenient foods. A trip into the café is an experience, a lesson in tradition, of values that honor where and how our food is created.
Behind his pastry case he proudly displays his breads, a point of personal accomplishment. “I have many things that I enjoy baking but nothing beats a perfect croissant, a beautiful sourdough boule, or crunchy baguette.” Artisan bread making is a journey, one that requires a skilled touch and patience. It is an undertaking not for the faint of heart or easily discouraged. It requires resilience and a love for quality and finesse. “My philosophy is that food should always taste good not mediocre. I consider my food high quality. I want the best for my customers.”
People have noticed this attention to excellence, this genuine love for good food. From the time I began frequenting Tournesol I have noticed that others have discovered what I have. I have stood in lines to their door, I have eaten alongside other families in the café, and I have seen others fall in love with this place just as I have. This makes my heart skip a beat, to watch this little place succeed. “It’s been up and down. Slowly increasing sales. Considering we opened in the middle of a pandemic we are doing ok. It could be better, but everyday a new customer comes in and people are spreading the word and recommending us,” Carlos says modestly. “I have customers that come from Mississippi that have ‘heard’ about us. I can’t keep up sometimes. The community has responded in a good way. It’s been hard to find help but we’re still here and happy to serve the community. We hear all the time how happy they are that we opened and love our place.”
This is reflective of many small businesses at this time, navigating a near impossible situation of trying to stay healthy, keep good staff, and rise to fight another workweek. And still Carlos has exciting new ideas for the future of Tournesol. He wants to expand his bread selection, purchasing a deck oven to bake fresh baguettes, adding more pastries, and expanding the breakfast menu. Personally, I can’t wait. Carlos continues to support his fellow local businesses and hopes that others in the community will do the same. It’s about feeding what you care about, giving to the places that make our lives so rich and nuanced. It’s all about backing the little guys, investing your coin in what makes the human experience special.
As I scan the case after the photos have concluded, I admire all the pieces, the different cultures represented in each and every pastry. There is French influence, Latin influence, local Louisiana influence; so many stories and traditions told through the art of baking. I select my recurrent favorite, the meat pie, which consists of a filling not unlike an empanada, sweet and tangy and savory in every bite. I choose another old favorite, the lemon croissant, filled with lemon pastry cream and topped with brûléed meringue swirls. I also choose something new, the guava Danish, filled with sweet fruit compote and cream cheese. There is always something new to discover at Tournesol. I make note of the things I will choose next time and will continue to choose every time I want to be reminded of the good life.
100 S Tyler St #10B, Covington, LA 70433