Meet The Locals: David Bitton From Bitton Gourmet

February 18th, 2022 - by Brad Gillespie

From humble beginnings in 2000, local Alexandria favourite Bitton has expanded to include three cafes (a fourth is on its way,) and a much-loved gourmet product range.

David and his wife Sohani bring endless passion to all their endeavours and also help others launch their businesses through Bitton Consulting.

I met up with David recently to chat about his influences, the ever-evolving dining scene in Alexandria and the incredible phenomenon that is Bitton Gourmet.

Hi David, as you know I am a great fan of Bitton, can you tell me what inspired you to become a chef and restaurateur?

I grew up in Paris and my mother was an amazing cook and very good at preserving meats and vegetables from the garden which had a big influence on me. I became an apprentice chef at 15 because finding a job was the only way to escape home. But I soon discovered a real love of cooking and I have never looked back. I cooked my way around the world before coming to Australia in 1991. Back then it was very easy to get a visa for Australia, they were looking for chefs. Six months later I met my wife, Sohani, and again, there has been no looking back!

You opened Bitton in 2000. Why did you choose Alexandria and what was your original concept?

We were already living in Alexandria, and a little coffee shop became available. Sohani is a South African Indian and I'm French with Turkish and Moroccan grandparents and we wanted to create a range of gourmet food products that reflected our cultures and influences. So that is how the Bitton Gourmet range started, then the café took over and evolved from there. We now offer French-inspired cuisine at café prices and have opened two more coffee shops, one in Oatley and one in Rose Bay! We also set up a consulting service, and our gourmet food products are sold internationally - in Dubai, New Zealand and Singapore, and nationally at 500 plus stores, including Woolworths.

Wow, you have been very busy!

Yes, we have been. During that time we also had two children, who are now 18 and 13.

What do you love about what you do?

People! I always say we're in the people business, not in the food business! Yes, food is important and coffee is important but what differentiates us from other coffee shops is the experience people have at Bitton. You really have an amazing experience from the time you walk in till the time you walk away. For me people are everything. Our guests come because they feel welcome and comfortable, they see the café as a home away from home. We encourage our staff to connect to the customers, it’s not just transactional.

It’s certainly a home away from home for my team! Alexandria was still quite an industrial hub when you opened, can you tell me about the transformation you have witnessed?

When we opened there were just a couple of coffee shops in the area, now there are over 40. The food precinct in Alexandria really began when we opened Bitton in 2000, it was the first destination, there was nowhere else to go then. Then Grounds of Alexandria opened more recently, and others after that, but it started with us. There is an incredible sense of community, it’s so friendly and family-oriented, which is what I love about having a café here.

It's not easy keeping a café running in the city for more than 20 years. What is the key to your longevity?

Customer service and making people feel welcome, we have a very loyal local following. We evolve, we listen to our customers and learn from our mistakes. Having our own range of gourmet products makes a difference too.

So how do you think Australian tastes have changed in the last 20 years?

Australia has definitely become more gourmet. We are lucky because of the amazing quality of ingredients in Australia, which provides good conditions for creating great food. We also have the best seafood in the world.

Australia was always ahead of many countries in terms of variety and availability of food because it’s made up of immigrants. There is such a wide range of influences, you can go from Indian to Moroccan, to Thai, to Turkish to Chinese - we don’t have that in France. When you go to King Street in Newtown and Enmore you find dozens of eclectic eateries offering amazing food from around the world.

Do you still do much of the cooking in your restaurants?

Sometimes, but mostly now I cook for charities and so on. I have been the Ambassador for Ronald McDonald House since 2013, so I do cooking demonstrations for them to raise money and awareness. I also cook for private functions, and for Magimix, I am the ambassador for their cookware.

What are your favourite products from your gourmet line?

The Strawberry and Vanilla Jam – this is where our story really began. The recipe came from my grandmother, she was Turkish and an incredible cook. I remember her macerating the strawberries to make her jam, it is still the best I ever tasted. I love the Chilli and Garlic Masala too, which was inspired by Sohani.

So how about COVID and lockdowns. How did you cope?

We had to close for a while during the first lockdown. We opened for takeaway when the whole of Australia became a takeaway shop and we all fought for the same slice of cake. Then we just learned how to do takeaway really well, and it was okay. We made it work. We have a lot of lost time to make up for, but we are determined to keep moving forward. We are grateful for the support of our customers, family, suppliers and staff, which kept the wheels of our business turning.

You now have a consulting service too, can you tell me about that?

That was Sohani’s idea and she’s running that side of the business. It was created because people kept asking us about launching products and business and so on. We specialise in the development of food-related products – from concepts to launch. We have certainly had a lot of experience with our own products. From humble beginnings in 2000, our range now sells over 20 top-selling gourmet food products and we remain committed to providing the same quality and integrity that we started with. Our mission is to share this expertise to help other businesses successfully launch.

How about a highlight of your career as a restaurateur?

Selling 60,000 copies of my cookbook ‘The Bitton Book’ was definitely a highlight. We released it to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the café, and it was the highest selling cookbook in Australia ever. I am also very grateful to still be open today. My wife and I had no business partners, we just learned day-to-day and it’s been a very successful formula.

Finally, what’s next for Bitton Gourmet?

We will be opening a new restaurant in April. I can’t say where at the moment, but it’s over the bridge! We have a big growth strategy in place for the next five years, including more cafes and products and we will continue with our popular consulting service.

Thanks so much, David, I appreciate you taking the time to chat today and look forward to visiting your new restaurant, wishing you the best of luck.

You can find Bitton Café and Bistro at 36 – 37a Copeland Street Alexandria. For more information check the website or follow on Instagram.