Merna Taouk is the Chef and Co-Founder of Homemade Fine Foods, an oasis of desserts located in a small factory in Sydney’s inner west.
I first met Merna at the Zeitoun Olive Oil launch. Later, I became acquainted with her range of artisan desserts when she invited Gourmantic to Master the Mousse, an intimate and hands-on class at the Tempe factory where she shares the techniques and ingredients of her award winning chocolate mousse.
In this interview, Merna talks about what inspired her to become a chef, the culinary influences of her Lebanese heritage, her passion for food, her guilty pleasures and she shares her opinions about the Sydney food scene.
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Corinne: Tell me a little about yourself, your family and where you grew up.
Merna: I’m one of six kids, 2 boys and 4 girls. I was born in Sydney, grew up in Sans Souci when it was still a very Australian neighbourhood before it became a multicultural suburb. My parents are from Lebanon. Dad is originally from Bcharre in the Cedars, the most renowned ski slopes in Lebanon. Ever since dad was young he has been an excellent skier and he passed that passion onto us kids.
My parents had a Free Range Chicken farm in Liverpool and we would go there from Friday night to Sunday night. We had ducks, roosters, sheep, cows, pigs, horses, ponies and a vegetable plantation- tomato, cucumber, eggplants, corn, beans, etc we lived off the land so to speak!
Both my parents came from a family of organic farmers, goat herds and cheese makers. I have very happy childhood memories. We were definitely spoilt by our parents.
C: Where did your passion for cooking come from?
M: My passion definitely comes from my parents. My mother is a self-taught cook and is the best cook I know. My dad is a real foodie but I think he’d rather eat than cook most of the time. Their passion and love for real food was a part of our upbringing.
Mum always cooked amazing food from experimenting and never used a recipe in her life. In the 70’s, she worked at the cafeteria at the Strawberry Hills Post Office and there she learnt about Australian cuisine.
My parents always entertained. They put on big dinner parties for the sake of having a feast. Growing up I loved being mum’s little apprentice, these days I think she is my apprentice when we are in the kitchen together. Life for us has always revolved around food! So it’s an understatement to say that food is in my blood. It’s more like baked, cooked and steamed into it!
C: Tell me a little about your foodie dad.
M: As far as I could remember, dad was always a real foodie and has always preached about organic food and the real health benefits of eating it. Growing u,p Friday night for our family was a seafood banquet. Dad would go to the fish monger and get an array of seafood. He had us eating caviar, oysters and all sorts of crustaceans from a young age. I loved Friday nights’ dinner as it was always such a treat. I remember when dad introduced us to sushi. We thought he was crazy, but before too long he got us hooked!
C: Growing up in a Lebanese family where food and hospitality are a way of life, how much of an influence did that have on you to become a chef?
M: That was the main influence. Growing up, the Lebanese culture and hospitality were instilled in me as it is all about food and sitting and eating for hours at a table where the centre piece is a colourful vegetable arrangement freshly picked from the garden and Mezze style platters to share. I loved how the maker of the dish would always explain to their guests where they would source their ingredients from and share their journey of making each dish. This is where I gained enormous respect and love for fresh food.
C: Was it always your aspiration to become a chef?
M: Yes, I knew from a young age that I wanted to become a chef, even though a friend’s dad tried talking me out of it, telling me it’s a bad career choice. I was always in the kitchen with mum. I just loved to cook. It made me happy! My family have always been very supportive of my career choice and have always encouraged me to live the dream.
C: Tell me a little about your work background, where you started and where you worked.
M: I’ve worked both overseas and in Sydney. I did my apprenticeship at The Sydney Park Hyatt Harbour Kitchen and Bar under Ross Lusted and Anthony Musarra – both so passionate and so humble about their cooking, even though they had very different cooking styles. Their elegant and modern approach to clean food has been a real inspiration.
C: How did the opportunity for Homemade Fine Foods come about?
M: Homemade fine foods came about in 2008, when we found a niche in the market and discovered that sweet yoghurt was being palmed off as dessert. What the customer wasn’t aware of was that this yoghurt actually had more sugar in it than a piece of cake! It was then HMFF was born.
C: How are you associated with Pepe Saya?
M: Pierre Issa and I started Homemade Fine Foods in 2008. Our first desserts were vanilla panna cotta, chocolate mousses and a range of crumbles. In 2010, Pierre branched out into Pepe Saya. I continued the passion of artisan dessert making by introducing a range of sticky puddings and bread and butter puddings and many other fine desserts.
C: For someone unfamiliar with your desserts, tell me a little about the range.
I pride myself on the real homemade style of desserts. All my desserts are made as you would make them at home: no preservatives, no additives, no colourings of any kind. We deal directly with farmers and understand there is no provenance without transparency. My range consists of cream desserts, such as panna cotta, chocolate mousse, rice puddings along with crumbles and sticky date puddings.
C: Did you grow up with traditional English-style desserts?
M: Yes, like most Australians, it’s pretty hard not to have a Sara Lee apple crumble at a BBQ or dinner party!
C: Where do your recipe inspirations come from?
M: I’m a strong believer that knowledge is limited to your experiences. So the inspiration for my desserts is simple – take an apple pie which is a dish most people know and use my culinary skills to turn it into an experience.
C: Your chocolate mousse has won a Gold Award at the DIAA and Silver at Royal Easter Show award. What did that mean to you?
M: Chocolate Mousse is one of the first desserts we made; it’s our baby. It was a difficult one to get right, now we have mastered it. Winning Gold and Silver has really been a highlight. It is such a fine dessert which entails real skill and technique. I still smile thinking about the medals we won.
C: You hold a monthly “Master the Mousse” class at the factory in Tempe. What does the class entail?
M: The class is held at our kitchen and it involves teaching people how to master the perfect aerated “Chocolate Mousse”. When people arrive, we greet them with some locally produced food and drinks to help set the ambience.
Once we’re in the kitchen, I go through each ingredient and explain why we use it and where it’s sourced from. I use three different chocolates to educated people about the different chocolate and its characteristics.
All three different chocolate mousses are made in 5kg batches, all made by hand, using traditional methods. Once the mousse is made, it is packed up to take home.
The class also includes a tasting for our whole dessert range and more food!
The mousse class is meant to be about fun and learning. I create a relaxed atmosphere for people so it’s more enjoyable for everyone and that way they can get more out of it.
C: Where can NSW consumers buy the Homemade Fine Foods range?
M: In New South Wales: Thomas Dux, Harris Farm Markets, The Diary store, Eveleigh Markets, Accoutrement in Mosman, Antico’s in Northbridge, Daily Fresh in Randwick, Maloney’s Grocer in Surry Hills and Figtree Greengrocer. It’s also available in other states.
C: How would you describe yourself?
Outgoing, friendly, passionate, perfectionist, facetious. Lover of all things food!
C: What are your other passions outside of food?
M: (laughs) Shoes! & travelling
C: Who has been an influence or a source of inspiration to you?
M: Definitely all the chefs I’ve worked with have influenced me in some way. My inspiration has been my parents as they cultured /educated me about food. Their belief in me and my ability really helped fuel my love and desire of good food and cooking.
C: You work six days a week at the factory in Tempe, some of it is physically-demanding work. What do you do to relax?
M: What’s relaxing?? Put it this way, I’m very good friends with my masseuse and chiropractor!
I love to eat, so I’m always eating. Nothing is nicer after a busy day than to sit down to a good meal. Food helps me relax! I also read cookbooks and magazines.
C: What do you cook at home?
I love cooking and entertaining when I can. I tend to cook a lot of seafood and vegetarian dishes and often try to cook some traditional Lebanese dishes. After a long day’s work, it’s generally something quick and easy.
C: Do you have a favourite dessert invention?
M: Sticky Coconut Tapioca, I absolutely love this dessert! Something I’ve been making for years and I don’t actually have a recipe for it.
C: Your work involves making delicious desserts on a daily basis. Do you have a guilty pleasure?
M: All the Time! I have a real sweet tooth!
C: Do you eat out much?
M: I love eating out and trying new restaurants. It’s always an exciting experience for me and sometimes I can draw real inspiration from the dining experience.
C: What is your favourite style of cuisine?
M: As for favourite cuisines, I’m not biased to any. I appreciate different cuisines and the flavours and ingredients they have to offer. I prefer the share concept of eating; maybe this is just a Lebanese thing, especially when eating out as you get to try more dishes rather than just entrée, main, dessert.
C: What is your opinion of the Sydney food scene at present?
M: I think it’s returning to basics, with outstanding local ingredients being the star. Focusing on provenance and working on relationships between farmer and cook to get the best produce from our backyards and cooking with more substance and respect.
By knowing the how, where and why of produce, we can better understand and appreciate our ingredients – you are less likely to destroy something you have a relationship with. Knowledge is a powerful tool and it gives cooks the opportunity to cook better with their ingredients.
C: Where do you see it heading in the next few years?
M: The Sydney food scene is forever evolving heading towards more real food. It will be more and more about provenance and respect for good clean food, and less about food being over thought and overworked.
C: Anything on the horizon for Homemade Fine Foods that you can share with us?
M: I have a pudding class “The proofs in the pudding’ during winter and will feature how to make different types of puddings. I work on at least two new desserts per week, very rarely do they see the light of day but when they do, they are awesome!
C: If you were to sum up Merna Taouk in one of your desserts, which would it be?
M: Fig and Ginger Pudding. Soft and sweet on the inside like a fig but with a strong bang and punch like ginger!
With thanks to Merna for her generous time.
Photographs 2, 3 and 8 are courtesy of Merna Taouk, used with permission.
Homemade Fine Foods