How social media shaped #dessert

Dessert-focussed bars, restaurants and shops have exploded across Australia’s food scene in the last decade – roughly since the time Masterchef and Instagram launched. Aleksandra Bliszczyk examines the roles the two have played in building pastry chefs’ careers and shaping Australia’s dessert landscape.

In 2009, one year before Instagram launched, a croquembouche on the first season of Masterchef turned Adriano Zumbo from Sydney bakery owner to patissier extraordinaire.

As the camera panned slowly up the backlit matrix of spun sugar that cloaked a mountain of profiteroles, jaws dropped across the country.

After the episode aired, the previously unknown chef went on to open four more Sydney stores, three Melbourne stores and a high-tea salon. He even collaborated on limited-edition Tim Tam flavours.

Today, almost nine years since Instagram was born, 50 million posts have the hashtag #dessert, and 5 million, #dessertporn (usually photos of doughnuts bursting with nutella, glitter-covered soft serve and anything giant and rainbow-coloured. You know the type). That episode of Masterchef was likely the first time many of its viewers had even seen a croquembouche, but there are now over 50,000 photos on Instagram with its hashtag.

In the last decade, dessert-dedicated venues have not only entered the mainstream in Australia, they’ve exploded, and Instagram and shows like Masterchef have played leading roles.

“We always eat with our eyes first,” says Shiu Siew Ling, head chef at Melbourne’s Luxbite dessert bar, who has seen demand for desserts grow alongside the Instagram boom.

Founder Bernard Chu made a name for Luxbite through Masterchef too with his Lolly Bag Cake in 2013. Had it been created today, the pink-coated beauty would undoubtedly go viral, but Masterchef’s coverage was as good as any influencer reposts.

With its layers of “Jaffa” ganache, “spearmint leaves” buttercream, “banana lolly” syrup, and “freckle” crunch, “musk” marshmallow, and a “Redskin” glaze, it certainly is something designed to be marvelled at first.

Luxbite’s tagline is still “Home of the Lolly Bag Cake as seen on Masterchef”. The dessert bar now has two Melbourne stores, offering everything from viennoiseries to macaron towers, to Lolly Bag cakes in several sizes – the XXL serves 30 and rings in at $170.

Siew Ling says creating a good dessert relies on an equal marriage of flavour, texture and appearance. But a willingness to adapt to consumer demands is also a key part of the job now, and following and targeting trends is how dessert bars thrive. This is why she creates croissants filled with boba (the jelly “bubbles” in bubble tea), and chocolate and hazelnut éclairs filled with black truffle custard and dusted with gold flakes.

Most food trends begin on Instagram, and the biggest global fads are photographable sweet dishes – hence all the glitter, rainbow colouring and gold leaf.

Luxbite’s boba and custard croissant

“Dessert is an affordable luxury,” says Melbourne pastry chef and owner of Glacé dessert bars Christy Tania. “It’s not a necessity, but it’s something that resinates with luxury and enjoyment. So to heighten that experience, it has to look good.”

Tania also owes her success in part to her Masterchef guest chef appearances.

After a career in project management, Tania turned to what she calls ‘food architecture’ and got a pastry chef job at the Ritz in Paris. When she moved to Melbourne, she found work with Vue de Monde and Jacques Reymond, before being offered the head chef role at Melbourne’s first dessert-only degustation restaurant, Om Nom, in 2013.

“The first time I got into Masterchef [in 2013], it was my second year in Australia so I didn’t know much about how popular Masterchef was,” she says.

“When the episode aired, I was working … and the front-of-house manager came to me and said ‘I just unplugged the phone, it couldn’t stop ringing’. I said, ‘what do you mean?’ and he said ‘they all want to come here and eat [your dessert]’. I think that was when I was like, this is going to happen.”

As a totally new restaurant concept in Melbourne, Tania admits it was a struggle getting people through the doors initially. They were charging $25 a plate, and had to justify the cost by making elaborate desserts with 20 elements – à la Masterchef challenges. But now, with the sweet market swelling, desserts both complex and classic are in demand.

“Cooking shows like Masterchef capture the wow-factor and the complexities in desserts,” says Reynold Poernomo, 2015 Masterchef contestant and chef-owner at Koi Dessert Bar and Dining, which opened after his spectacular desserts in the competition made him a season favourite. “Coming off Masterchef … of course it’d only make sense to do a dessert bar first. Desserts seem to be the go to these days.”

Poernomo says diners are more switched on about food than ever before, and having easy access to information is helping broaden our knowledge.

“People’s behaviour and the way they learn about food relies heavily on social media these days,” adds Messina Creative Department head chef Remi Talbot. “For this reason, we create lots of content for the Creative Department to show people our dishes and behind the scenes so people know what to expect when they come.”

Since Gelato Messina’s degustation restaurant opened in 2016, Talbot says demand has increased. It’s not all dessert, but it is all ice-cream – the chefs create an eight-course meal of sweet and savoury gelato.

“We know how much people love gelato, so the Creative Department is like the next step to this. It takes desserts to a whole new level and makes them into a meal,” he says.

Dessert is no longer subordinate to the main course; it’s become an entire cuisine with its own bubbling industry.

“The industry is seeing a greater focus on the need to have exceptional desserts on their menus,” says Sharon Altman, cookery team leader at TAFE NSW, where hundreds of new pastry chefs are created each year.

“The interest in patisserie courses has definitely increased over the last ten years, with more students wanting to complete TAFE NSW qualifications,” she adds.

Since Om Nom’s opening in 2013, dozens of dessert-dedicated venues have popped up around Melbourne, Sydney and beyond, and the pressure to create a relevant dessert offering is mounting.

Tania says the key to a good sweet offering, regardless of the venue, is to always consider what the diner has eaten before. If that wasn’t at your venue, ask them, and make sure your dessert menu has options for every palate and stomach.

“We want [guests] to be surprised, challenged and involved to the experience we offer,” adds Talbot, who believes dessert is the pinnacle of any meal and what diners look forward to the most.

Poernomo says that to finish a meal, the last thing you want is a pile of sugar. “Balance and explore unique flavour pairings or concepts,” he says. And remember, not everything has to be chocolate.

This article was first published in foodservice's August 2019 issue. Read the digital magazine here.