A fusion of traditional family cooking and a passion for fashion put Caroline Khoo on a path to the whimsical wonderland of Nectar and Stone. The clever cook-turned-author shares how she turned a creative side project into a bountiful ecommerce business sweeping the nation.
Buttercream rosettes cascading down eenie mini cakes, delicately iced donuts and heart-shaped waffles laden with edible pretties and pastel pink meringues sprinkled in sanding sugar – Caroline Khoo lives the sweet life.
Growing up in a Greek family, big events such as name days, Christmas and Easter (interestingly not so much birthdays) were celebrated with gusto, and often centred around family.
My mum would always put on a big display of savoury food, but all the Greeks love sweet food. So my memories are of my mum in the kitchen,” she says.
“Mum was really good in letting me be involved and she would explain what she was doing. The Greek cakes are a bit more complex and when you’re doing the Greek bread, the dough has to be thrown up in the air several times and Mum would explain that process to me. That’s where the love of food and seeing how my mum loved to entertain brought a lot of happiness, that’s where a lot of those memories come from.”
But the creation of desserts, for which Caroline has become renowned for, came when she was in her mid 20s.
“I’ve always had a sweet tooth and appreciated desserts, but my exposure was mainly around the Greek sweets and when I married my husband Nick, who’s Asian, I got to enjoy a lot of Asian desserts and started to fuse everything together.”
In her youth, Caroline always wanted to pursue a fine arts degree, but as her parents had migrated from Greece to Australia in their early 20s, and struggled in their early life, they wanted Caroline to have a more solid education.
“I decided to go into politics because I loved public speaking,” she says.
“But then I got married in my really early 20s and needed to secure a job and the political degree required me to go into third world countries, it was Middle Eastern history.
That's when I went into fashion and learnt a lot about the handbag and footwear industry – the colours, textures, fine details and intricate patterns, that's where the desserts relate to, all of the things I learnt there.
“But my whole family is in the medical industry, and they kept saying to me, ‘You’re so good with people, the industry needs people like you and it pays a lot better,’ so I took a leap of faith and quit my job.”
Caroline worked for an American medical company in product consultancy, before taking the ultimate leap in launching her own business – Nectar and Stone.
The mother of two young boys, Caroline says her home had become overrun with boyish things and she found herself drawing on her feminine style from her time in the fashion industry, as a way of carving out her own identity.
She also found creative ways to interest her sons in food, who were toddlers at the time, focusing on the look as well as the taste of what she put in front of them. And this transformed into baking for friends and family, who identified something unique and encouraged her to explore more opportunities.
I’m naturally a perfectionist, so anything that might have a possibility of failure, I won't go toward that direction. It was my husband and family and friends who kept pushing me to give it a go. For a year I was like, ‘There’s no way I’m going to do this because no one will like what I do,’ so it took everyone a lot of time to break down my walls and convince me otherwise,” Caroline says, explaining the idea behind the naming of her brand.
“I’m very colour driven and my favourite colours; even though Instagram and everything indicates otherwise; are grey and peach and I wanted to create a name that I loved, but had no name of cake or sweets – if people like my work and if I’m successful, they’ll remember my name. I played with the name Peach and Grey and thought, ‘What else do I like?’ I like homewares, I like the fruit of the peach and that’s when the name started to develop to thinking about the stone inside a peach, which relates to fruit but also to colours I like.”
With 394,000 followers on Instagram and counting, Caroline has evolved her brand and earlier this year published her first book, I’m just here for dessert.
“The community over the four years have been asking me for information and I didn't want to answer it and be done with it, I feel like there's so much more explanation, so I’d always hold back and I thought if I ever get the opportunity to write a book I’ll explain it properly and I’ll do it once, I don't want to repeat myself over and over again. So I felt like this was the perfect platform to explain it and show the whole process from start to end.”
The end result is a detailed curation of Caroline’s most delectable sweet treats, divulging recipes, flavour and colour combinations, inspiration behind her designs and insider secrets she’s learnt along the way – including a chapter on the freshness of eggs and how they can affect the baking process.
I had all the ideas ready and they’ve been there for at least two years. So when the publisher asked me to do a pitch it was so easy, I knew exactly how I would do it and the reasons behind that. The whole process was like freedom; here we are, this is how it’s done,” she says.
“I’d like to do a sister book, it may not be sweets though, I’d like to do a savoury element, to show people what I can do, because I cook a lot of savoury, I just don’t share it (on social media), so I’d like to complete that whole entertaining experience for people.”
Having immersed herself in a culinary cloud, Caroline laughs that she’s gained 10 kilos in the past four years from frequently taste testing the balance of flavours and evolving her palate.
Her photography skills have also developed and Caroline can often be found snapping inspo shots around the streets of Melbourne and on her travels, looking at elements of landscapes and cityscapes to inject into her desserts.
“I’ve always had an interest in the camera. When I started on Instagram, the process was taking a photo on the camera, putting it onto the computer, seeing if it looks okay, sending it to my phone and then posting it on Instagram, it was a real cumbersome process and the pictures weren’t getting a huge amount of likes either and I thought for all that work, what’s the point?” Caroline says.
I remember saying to my husband, ‘I’m petrified of using my phone to take photos because I have a camera and it’s so good,’ but I made that switch and began playing around with different times of the day to see what I thought was the best photo and found the community immediately appreciated that more, and it took me so much less time.
“I use the Instagram camera, I don’t do anything tricky or difficult, I just make it easy for myself and take the photo and post it, if it’s a little bit dark in the studio, a little bit of editing in brightness helps, but I don’t make anything complex for myself. So I’ve just stuck with that method.”
Having created a recipe for success, Caroline now has the creative licence to continue on this tasty trajectory, one morsel at a time.
What is your favourite thing to cook?
I think I enjoy the macarons the most, because I found it so hard in the beginning when I was learning, I just couldn’t get it right. So when you do get it right, it’s really rewarding and I feel like there’s nothing like a fresh macaron – the ones in the store, if they’re not fresh and baked on the day they're not really that good, but when you make your own, and everyone who has experienced mine are always so shocked at the difference.
What is your favourite thing to eat?
Savoury: I’ll always go for pull apart pork.
Sweet: I’m a sucker for chocolate; chocolate tarts or chocolate macarons, chocolate ice cream.