“Since graduating from Kul IN in 2016, I have slowly been building my own company of decorated cakes, and small-scale catering of sweets and desserts. I am very blessed to have the opportunity to have the use of the professional kitchen at my father’s café – I know a lot of people don’t have an opportunity like that. “Dancing Bean” is a coffee roastery and café, owned and founded by my father. I am very lucky to be able to have gained so much experience from my father, especially about business and working in the food industry. Brisbane has a thriving coffee industry, with many cafés, and so it is essential to always know how to stay ahead.”
Encouraged by the desire for professional discovery, she flew from Australia to Croatia. Although a linguistics student, her passion for professional pastry held her since childhood and she simply had to try her hand at it. Makenzie Mergard, a young Kul IN alumnus, today has her own pastry brand called Makenzie's Cake Co., and she creates the sweet menu for her family coffee roaster, the famous Brisbane Dancing Bean. Scented with coffee and freshly made Portuguese tarts, Makenzie brings us a part of the Brisbane atmosphere as she tells us about her entrepreneurship challenges and her professional pastry business.
Kul IN: How did your love for food start? Why pastries, why not culinary arts?
My love for food started at a very young age, around six or seven years old. My mother would let me “help” her make dinner, and gave me little pieces of vegetables to chop up with a small knife. As I grew older, I became more interested in baking – partly because I have a sweet tooth, and enjoy eating cakes and pastries, but also because I love to give other people joy by making desserts. In my opinion, eating cake (or pastries, or dessert) is a treat and should make you happy; and I love to make other people happy!
Kul IN: What do you do at the moment? How did you pursue your pastry profession?
Since graduating from Kul IN in 2016, I have slowly been building my own company of decorated cakes, and small-scale catering of sweets and desserts. I am very blessed to have the opportunity to have the use of the professional kitchen at my father’s café – I know a lot of people don’t have an opportunity like that. Currently, I am purposely keeping my company very small scale, and rely only on word-of-mouth as an advertisement, as I am still at university (studying a bachelor of Languages and Linguistics) and don’t have enough time to work full time. However, I do have plans for the future of owning my own kitchen and employing more people.
Kul IN: Describe your coffee place, what was the idea behind the coffee roaster?
“Dancing Bean” is a coffee roastery and café, owned and founded by my father. I am very lucky to be able to have gained so much experience from my father, especially about business and working in the food industry. Brisbane has a thriving coffee industry, with many cafés, and so it is essential to always know how to stay ahead. When you go to a café and they roast their own coffee, then you can be assured that it is fresh and that the staff members care about the quality of the coffee they are serving you.
Kul IN: What your menu looks like?
The cakes I supply for Dancing Bean tend to be single portion serves which are kept in a cake display fridge. This is fairly normal for cafés in Australia. For example, I am currently making brownies, caramel slice, mini frangipane and plum tarts, mini apple crumbles, cookies (they’re called “melting moments”, two large shortbread cookies sandwiched together with frosting), carrot cake and Portuguese custard tarts, to name a few. So they tend to be more like practical morning tea snacks, rather than fancy desserts.
Kul IN: What was the most important thing that you have learned since you started to work?
I have learned a lot (and still have a lot more to learn!), but one of the hardest lessons I’ve had to learn is not to get flustered when I make a mistake. I hate to make mistakes, and I have had to train myself not to get flustered, but to stay professional and also to find innovative ways to fix the mistakes, too!
Kul IN: Your biggest failure?
I have had a few failures when experimenting with new recipes…recently I was trying to create a gluten-free vegan chocolate mud cake. It looked and tasted terrible. Needless to say, there are only so many ingredients you can take out of a recipe before it fails! That recipe is still in the works…I haven’t perfected it yet!
Kul IN: Your biggest success?
Although it may not seem like a big deal to many other people, one of my personal successes was the very first time I was commissioned to make a birthday cake for a 21st birthday party – this was the first time someone had asked me to make a formal, tiered cake and paid me for it. I think that was the first time I realized that people were willing to pay for my creations, and it was such a confidence boost for me! Since then, I have been asked to make other celebration cakes, which I am very excited about as it is one of my favorite things to do.
Kul IN: What would you say to someone who plans to open a coffee shop, or a pastry shop, what is the most important thing to keep in mind?
I would remind them that it can be a very slow process – the market is very competitive in Brisbane, and it can take a long time before you build up a customer base and start to make process. However, the food industry, especially coffee and cakes, is a great place to be if you love it, as people will always want to drink coffee and eat dessert! And, of course, no matter how hard it may be to start, if you love doing it, it will be worth it in the end. :)
Kul IN: How often do you change your menu, and do you usually follow customers’ desires or your own instincts and knowledge?
I generally tend to follow my own instincts and will switch up the menu if I see an ingredient that is in season, or find a recipe that I like and want to try. However, it is important to keep classic desserts that customers understand (like brownies, apple crumbles, and carrot cakes, for example), and to make sure that I am making things that the customers want to buy (like gluten-free or vegan cakes)…there’s no point making a cake if no-one wants to buy it!
Kul IN: Since you have finished Kul IN you also went to pastry competitions, where, and how did it go?
This year, I entered the baking competition at our annual local “show” (like a country fair) with some of the recipes I learned how to make at Kul IN. There were many entries, and the competition is judged quite seriously. I was honored to receive second prizes for my Sacher torte, dark chocolate peppermint macarons, and a formal iced cake, and first prizes for decorated cupcakes and fruit paté.
Kul IN: How would you describe the Brisbane food scene, where do you see your coffee roastery in the future?
In comparison to Sydney or Melbourne, Brisbane can sometimes be considered to be a little behind the times. However, Brisbane’s coffee has now been rated some of the best in the country, and the food scene is leaning towards a more casual trend, with a lot of emphasis being placed on brunch, and food markets. There is also a growing trend for buying healthy, wholesome and homemade food (similar to the slow food movement).
Kul IN: What is the best seller amongst your pastries?
One of the favorites which I make sure to make every week is Portuguese custard tarts. Unfortunately, I don’t speak Portuguese, so I can only hope my recipe is as traditional as possible. However, I make the pastry from scratch (it is similar to puff pastry, except the dough is a lot stickier and the butter a lot messier), and the custard as well (which is quite unique to any method we learned at school!), and then bake them in a very very hot oven until they caramelise and burn on top. When they are fresh, they are deliciously crunchy and buttery and sweet, and I really enjoy making them.
Kul IN: What inspired you to enroll in culinary school? Were there certain steps/thoughts that lead you to the decision?
Two of my greatest loves in life are baking and traveling. For a long time, I had pretty much decided to keep them both as just hobbies. However, halfway through my first semester at university, I realized I should study patisserie while overseas! Although there are plenty of culinary programs and apprenticeships in Australia, I wanted to learn from new cultures and discover my own style of cooking. I was also very eager to discover whether my passion for baking was enough to create a career, or whether it should stay as a hobby. As it turns out, it was definitely career-worthy, and I am now more eager than ever find opportunities to learn!
Kul IN: What were your greatest challenges at school and how did you to overcome them?
One of the greatest challenges for me was learning to work in a team. This is an important lesson for life in general, let along working in a kitchen. But it was good for me to realize that although independence can be an asset when working in a kitchen it is imperative to learn to trust those working around you and lean on them for support. It is far more effective to work as a team to create many desserts than to spend all of your time and effort on creating one individual dessert by yourself.
Kul IN: If someone was hesitant to pursue an education in the pastry profession, what would you say to encourage them?
I would probably tell them to go for it! It’s impossible to know whether you will enjoy the industry unless you have tried it. However, being creative and working in a career which specializes in making people happy through food is a pretty great place to work!
Program: Professional Pastry and Confections
Internship program: Meet Mia
Facebook profile: Makenzie's Cake Co.