The first time MakMak founder Carlos Heng saw a macaron was in 2009 on the cover of a magazine, and his first attempt at making them was a spectacular flop. But he persevered to perfect a recipe and master these beautiful, yet complicated little sweets, and 13 years on is still going strong, proving the macaron is no passing fad.
Tell us a bit about yourself:
I’m actually not from a pastry background. My background is actually cuisine—so savoury food—and that was always kind of my career trajectory. But then I left the industry—I’d had enough after two years of the crazy hours I was doing and all the macho chef egos I had to deal with.
Where did the idea to make macarons come from?
After I left, I did a bit of soul searching and was working—I had a TAFE diploma in commercial catering, which gave me a lot of transferrable skills in front of house and housekeeping as well as in the kitchen. So luckily, I could use that to do a bit of bar work and eventually became a bar manager. Because I had spare time then I decided to start to dabble in a bit of cooking again, and came upon macarons for the very first time in my life when Gourmet Traveller did a cover issue in 2009 of macarons. The first time I tried to make them, they failed miserably. Back then, there were very few macaron recipes in English—most of them were in French—so I had to do a lot of research. I didn’t understand why it wasn’t working out for me, and that kicked in this problem-solving mode I didn’t know I had. I had my French to English dictionary in one hand, trying to figure out all these different recipes that were out there and eventually iron out the mumbo-jumbo.
How did MakMak start?
After experimenting for three months I got the recipes working, and then I kind of Frankensteined bits I liked from each recipe, and figured out how to make them all work together. I had the opportunity to travel to Paris, London and New York at the end of that year, and doing that travelling made me realise that my recipe was ready to go.
I put it to friends and family first to get it going and at the café I was working at and not long after that, Zumbo showed up on MasterChef. I think we luckily had built this ship, and Zumbo brought the wave of interest in the product. It brought us into the radar a bit. I haven’t experienced anything like that since; the media and everything at the time was just super hungry for this product and getting to know it.
Was it difficult to start up a business based on a niche/trend product?
Another key point in our timeline was when TimeOut did a blind tasting of all the macarons in Sydney and we were fortunate enough to be included. That really put us on the map because it was literally us up against Zumbo and some other big competitors. I think all of that has been our recipe for longevity I guess—to be still doing this 12 or 13 years later just off the back of that core product—the macaron. I mean, we’ve got choc chip cookies now and cakes, but the star seller is still the macarons.
Where do you get your inspiration for new flavours?
I’d say it was holidays—back when we could travel. But I think a lot of people who work in the [food] industry build a kind of flavour bank in their heads of all of the flavours they’ve encountered before. Sometimes I might see a picture of fruits in a market, and I’ll start thinking of what I can pair them with.
What are your most popular flavours?
It’s hard for people to look past salted caramel. You can have all of these exciting flavours, but people just go back for their favourites. The next most popular is Nutella-Salted Caramel. Our signature flavour is the Jasmine Matcha, which is a beautiful dark green macaron with a hand-drawn flower motif. If you cut the macaron open, you’ll see that it’s also piped like a flower on the inside. We balance that very carefully—the jasmine ganache that’s on the inside is only used very sparingly because it’s very sweet. But it takes the bitter edge off the matcha very nicely.
What’s next for MakMak?
I did have plans, but they’re all up in the air right now with the pandemic situation. There is potentially a partnership happening in the future, but it’s still under wraps. We have a new website in the works, and we’re really just trying to deep-dive into our own processes to optimise even more form all the changes that have happened in the past couple of years. We’re still trying to survive! We’re lucky to have survived the past couple of years relatively well. There are a lot of opportunities out there, but there’s a lot of apprehension as well.