When Jen Lo first began making chocolate, she used the cheapest ingredients she could find: blocks of Old Gold, Dream bars, whatever she could get at Woolworths – if it was half price, it went in her basket. She taught herself to temper with instructions on the Cadbury website and made chocolates that didn't set properly so the ganache oozed out.
That was then. These days at Bakedown Cakery, the business Lo launched four years ago and turned into a bricks-and-mortar shop in Sydney in 2017, the chocolate is couverture, the ganache stays put, and she's long had her tempering technique down. "I went to the Australian Patisserie Academy to do a crash course in chocolate-making and found out I was doing it all wrong," she says.
Rather than discount specials, Lo's bonbons, blocks and truffles are now made from Callebaut, Cacao Barry and Valrhona couverture. "It's the most expensive chocolate I've ever worked with – about $120 for 3 kilograms," she says. And it tastes how chocolate should: smooth, and receptive to other flavours rather than chalky, dry or overly sweet.
For Lo, making the decision to follow a sweet career path came after years of procrasti-baking while she was working on design jobs, typesetting documents and handling stressful animation work. Lo originally launched the business from home, turning out cakes and chocolates from a council-registered kitchen. "It started in a studio apartment and then I quickly outgrew it, so I moved into a one-bedroom apartment," she says. "Then the next year, we moved into a two-bedroom apartment, because it was taking over everything."
"We had packaging in all the spare cupboards. We had packaging under the couch," she says. "It was driving me and my husband crazy."
Any other partner and Lo would have been able to appease them with pralines and bonbons, but not her husband: "He's a type-1 diabetic," she says. "It's one of those things that everyone says is so ironic, because I work in a field of sugar and he can't process it properly."
What began as a project that used up to five kilograms of chocolate a month is now churning through a tonne a year. And where the business was once more cake-focused, Lo's interest has slowly shifted to chocolate. "It kind of exploded over the last four years," she says.
Customers have particularly taken to Lo's creative use of Asian flavours. Her pandan, coconut and lychee chocolate block draws on her family's Malaysian background, for example, while Japanese touches (like yuzu with ginger and apple, or genmaicha in the Oreo-and-strawberry chocolate block) are linked to the years she spent in Yokohama as a child, where her dad worked as a satellite engineer.
One range even evokes dining at a sushi train: there's a salty-sweet soy sauce block made with freeze-dried soy flakes; a dark chocolate block given heat with wasabi; and another flavoured with freeze-dried pickled ginger.
Her imaginative approach has paid off, too: her genmaicha, Oreo and strawberry block landed silver in its category at the Sydney Royal Chocolate Show in 2018, and her wasabi block, and her yuzu, ginger and apple flavour, scored bronze.
Lo's collaboration with data-visualisation company Small Multiples, meanwhile, was longlisted for the Information Is Beautiful Awards. Their project, called Not a Single Origin, saw Lo translate Census statistics into chocolate flavours representing Sydney suburbs. Greenacre, for example, which has a large Lebanese community, was expressed as a date, rosewater and pistachio praline, while Westmead's Indian population was represented with a chocolate flavoured with cashew, cardamom and coconut. The entire range sold out in two days, and more than six months later, Lo still gets asked for it.
Lo's Face Bark also reflects the community, albeit in a more direct way: it's a range that allows customers to have custom photos printed onto white chocolate shards. "No one's asked for anything that bizarre yet," she says. "It's dogs, boyfriends or themselves." Customers often send in unflattering images of their friends ("they're the most hideous but best photos ever," says Lo), and one person even had portraits from baby-age up to the present day emblazoned on the bark to mark their 30th birthday.
Bakedown Cakery is undergoing its own transformation, too: Lo will soon rebrand the business as Meltdown Artisans, closing the cake-making wing of the company and focusing only on chocolate made with natural, "true" flavours. Recent additions include hojicha banana (which resembles banoffee), as well as chilli, pineapple and cashew, coffee sourdough, and butterfly pea and lemon myrtle chocolates. Long-standing favourites such as pandan, coconut and lychee will stay, but she'll ditch the bright, artificial pandan paste that's typically used and start using freeze-dried pandan instead.
It's all a long way from melting supermarket chocolate in her home kitchen, but it's a chance for Lo to strip everything back and focus on the most important thing: taste. "Everything I do should be about flavour," she says.
62 Atchison St, St Leonards, NSW, bakedowncakery.com