The popularity of the rainbow-hued treats called macaroons lining the shelves of boutique dessert outlets has always bewildered me.
Meticulously displayed in many cafes around the world, I sometimes think they are overrated and highly priced. Yet, these sweet tiney sandwiches never fail to be snapped up by the dozens.
While I appreciate my sweets, I could not fathom why anyone would pay more than A$3(S$3.30) for a bite-sized dessert - until I met Melbournian pastry chef, Bernard Chu.
"Although they have a modest appearance, each macaroon has at least six ingredients and every step of making them involves precise measurements.
For example, one of the primary ingredients for the pastry is egg white which has to be two days old. You have to separate the egg white from the yolk then leave it open for a while to evaporate and then whip it but very delicately. The icing sugar is hand-sieved and mixed with sugar that has been kept at a certain temperature," Chu explains.
That was a mouthful and he had yet to describe the recipe for the filling!
"It takes several days to weeks of trial and error to develop steady hands, precise measurements and meticulous effort to produce that 'wow' factor in the one or two small bites of a macaroon. But, it is worth it," he said.
As I learnt that the price of this dessert is largely based on the back-bending effort that goes behind it, I was more inspired by Chu, who is originally from Kelantan and now is the co-owner of his own patisserie, LuxBite.
The dessert outlet is in South Yarra, Melbourne and has been featured in a number of Australian publications. But the most impressive of Chu's credentials is when he appeared on the popular show, Masterchef Australia, showing contestants how to create the perfect dessert, his famous Lollybag Cake. After that episode, Chu became an instant celebrity chef and thousands of LuxBite cake slices sold like hot cakes!
While all this seems surreal, Chu has always been diligent and clearly recalls his journey before he made waves in thebusiness.
After he studied hotel management in a college in Malaysia and completed a one-year apprenticeship at Shangri-La Hotel in Kuala Lumpur, Chu and business partner, Yen, moved to Sydney. They completed a patisserie course at the Le Cordon Bleu French culinary and hospitality school.
While most of us clock in a maximum of 40 to 50 hours of work a week, Chu went on to work at some top-tier restaurants such as The Pier and Comme for 90 to 100 hours a week. Working at these restaurants taught Chu the hard-knocks of the industry and the true etiquette of cooking.
Four years ago, Chu and Yen decided to venture into entrepreneurship and LuxBite was born.
"We moved to Melbourne in 2010 and decided to take the plunge. We knew about recipes, creating and baking but we didn't know much about running a business. So we learnt about operating a business from running this business.
"I was all right with the 100-hour work week, but sleep was almost non-existent in the first three years of LuxBite," he says.
But the hard work has paid off as the business is turning a profit. The cakes and ambiance of LuxBite are all part of a degustation experience that draws a generous number of patrons on a daily basis.
"Every piece of cake and dessert in the patisseries is not a product of an oven, but the result of careful hands that have cut, layered and arranged each layer and piece," says Chu, who loves his job as he can bake his cake and have a slice of it too.
Chu's cakes and macaroons feature a decadent twist on traditional favours. There is Bamboo Oolong Tea, Mandarin Jaffa, Ribena lemonade, Pandan, Coffee candy (Kopiko) and Melbourne's favourite - salted caramel. The LuxBite menu will take you on a whirlwind of such unusual but perfectly married flavours and that's before they have even touched your taste buds.
Chu says that these are the kinds of desserts that Yen and he dream about - flavours they grew up with created in a way that they have mastered over the years.
They will continue this in the second outlet they are plan to open in the city, Tea by Lux Bites on Flinders Street in Melbourne's central business district.
"It is a concept store where the main feature will be macaroons, tarts and tea. I believe it is time to move on from overseeing LuxBites because my team can run the place as they have learnt well about making top-tier desserts," he says.
His team are his former apprentices, just like he once was. He passes to them the knowledge that he acquired about how to respect food and one another during his years as an employee .
A major example of this is respecting and working with other businesses.
"I feel that most people want to compete and outdo each other in Asia, but here I have helped and have been helped by other experienced chefs like Adriano Zumbo.
"We believe in collaborations to grow the business through friendship. Adriano is a good friend and we have worked together on projects and are always coming up with more ideas for the future."
While work is his hobby and hobby is his work, he implies that he would like his family in Malaysia to pay a visit to his outlet soon.
"I don't consider myself successful because in this industry like others, there is always someone who is better than you. But one of the greatest rewards for me is to have my family physically see what I've done so far," he says.