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Interview: Mahali & Co

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17th March 2021

Mahali & Co. is an independent collaboration between two partners, Ru-Yan Foong and Miguel Jocson, who are pastry chefs originally from Sydney.

With a combined 18 years of industry experience, they want to diversify London's cafe culture to reflect its growing multicultural community by embracing their own cultural backgrounds which have influenced their palettes. Inspired by their love for pastry and a shared passion for experimentation, they aim to provide a fresh take on laminated dough pastries by introducing unique flavour combinations. "We wanted to create a space where people can find the finest sourdough bread, venoisserie and condiments all made freshly in-house – ultimately, everything you need for the perfect breakfast, with a twist". Their main focus is to provide a solid range of high-quality products that will be innovative, yet familiar, and difficult to replicate elsewhere.

‘’If we can make it in London, we can make it anywhere’’. The Sybarite speaks with Ru-Yan M. Foong, one of the Founders of Mahali & Co about her new adventure in the culinary industry.

From a career in medicine into the world of pastry. What made you take a step forward and move from such a different path to this one?

At university I studied biomedical sciences and so going into medicine seemed like a natural choice. But while there were many aspects of medicine that appealed to me, I realised that my passion lies in combining my love of baking with the opportunity to innovate, drawing on my personal background and world travels to create culinary treats for people to enjoy. My decision to pursue a career in the culinary industry was solidified after working in my first pastry kitchen in Singapore. After that, I enrolled at Le Cordon Bleu in Sydney and began training and building my foundation in patisserie at 2am: Dessert Bar. I loved the concept of people going somewhere specifically to experience dessert, and was inspired by the creativity of the chefs that were responsible for both the creations on the menu and the edible art projects we produced. Since that experience, I have never looked back! I have had the opportunity to work with some very talented chefs – Janice Wong at 2am Singapore, Carmen Hernandez from The Fat Duck by Heston, the team at Ottolenghi in London and the Langham Group in Sydney.

What was the most challenging situation you’ve encountered on your path to today?

Starting a business involves a multitude of challenges, I am constantly impressed by entrepreneurs who have been successful at building new brands. I think one of the hardest things I’ve encountered is managing self-doubt and realising how it creates unnecessary setbacks. When you are your own boss, all the responsibility falls onto your shoulders, making it easy to second guess yourself in every decision, especially if the business isn’t running as smoothly as you want. At the end of the day, Miguel and I have overcome a lot of setbacks and still really love what we do. Our business is an extension of who we are – we pour everything we have into our business – it’s like our baby and that is what keeps us going.

How would you define success as an entrepreneur?

To me, being a successful entrepreneur is more than coming up with an idea and starting a new venture. It’s the ability to maintain the focus, determination and integrity to drive that idea and new venture to growth despite all the no’s you receive along the journey; it's about constantly adapting, challenging yourself to think differently, and persevering through unexpected roadblocks. My dream is to see our business impact others in a positive way – or maybe even inspire others to follow their passions.

What is your favourite pastry to bake?

Anyone who knows me well will know that I have an obsession with cookies; my waistline has yet to forgive me for this! But in the last year or so, making sourdough bread has become a real favourite and a regular pastime for us. Making sourdough is such a lengthy process and one that requires patience, technique and a lot of practice. There are days when we will fold dough way past midnight and in those moments, we sometimes wish we had just gone out for a loaf of bread from the market! But when we do the morning bake off, see the oven spring and the smell of fresh bread fills our apartment, there is nothing more rewarding – and that’s before we eat the bread!

What progress have you seen on gender equality in your life and throughout your career?

A lot of kitchens in the hospitality industry are run by men and I have worked in a few where there was definitely a ‘’boys club’’ kind of atmosphere. In my experience, there is an unspoken rule that chefs need to prove their worth by working long hours from the bottom up, and this can sometimes be particularly hard if you are female, especially if you have aspirations to have a family, too. Saying that, I do consider myself lucky, as I have always gravitated towards and been given the opportunity to work in kitchens where there is a strong female presence. In fact, the first two kitchens I applied to work and train with were led by talented and ambitious female chefs. And I do believe that we are seeing a shift within our communities more broadly, with more female chefs (and female leaders across many professions) increasingly being recognised publicly for their work.

Why did you decide to leave Sydney for London to set up your business? And what has the experience been like especially having done all this during the height of the pandemic? How have you had to adapt?

I have always loved London – it is such a dynamic and multicultural city with a rapidly growing food scene that is inventive and fosters creativity. Making the decision to leave Sydney was difficult, but when our entrepreneur visa was granted by the UK government, we took it as a sign and decided to take up the adventure. I think there is definitely an element of ‘’if we can make it in London, we can make it anywhere’’.

We never expected to start our business in a new city during a global pandemic though – that really threw us for a loop! I think everyone will agree that the past year has not been easy. For small businesses like ours, the restrictions on the hospitality industry have really had an impact. Without a permanent retail site, we have had to shift our focus to wholesale, but we have been fortunate to have friends in the industry who have supported us by taking on new products, and for who we are so grateful. Lockdown has also given us the time to focus on our marketing, branding and building a greater online presence, and to refine our plans for a permanent retail site, once we are able to get that open. We still have a lot of work to do, but have an incredible support network and, more importantly, are absolutely ready to make our mark in the pastry world as soon as lockdown lifts.

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