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With the wonderful news that Mariah Grace and her partner have a very special bun in the oven, came the very sad news that they’ll be closing Grace Patisserie after four delicious years.
Jacqui Gibson met with Mariah last year to discover how it all began.
Thank goodness for Sylvie Hu Yang, I say, taking a second bite of the petit gâteau that bears her name. The 36-year-old server is the latest muse of pastry chef Mariah Grace, owner of Grace Patisserie on Tory Street, which is now nearly three years old.
Quizzed by Mariah about her favourite flavours, Sylvie, who hails from France but lived in Shanghai for a year, cited citrus and pandan, a Southeast Asian plant with subtle grassy vanilla and coconut notes.
A week of brain-wracking later, the “Sylvie” was conceived: a glowing finger of tart lime curd, infused with pandan, layered between vanilla shortcrust pastry, and topped with a toasted ruffle of coconut meringue. Dressed in shards of gold leaf, curls of lime zest, slivers of raw coconut and two tiny pea-shoot tendrils, the Sylvie, I can testify, is heaven on a plate.
There are eight petits gâteaux in the temperature-controlled display case, next to rows of pastel-coloured macarons and a cabinet of light flaky croissants and rich golden pastries. Each dessert is named after a staff member and inspired by their individual taste.
I ask which one Mariah likes best. “Generally speaking, I do love rose as a flavour, particularly when paired with lychee and raspberry,” the 27-year-old says, taking a seat during a late-afternoon lull in her cafe.
In fact, Grace’s most popular cake was a rose, lychee, and raspberry petit gâteau, called “Ruby” to follow a gemstone theme, which was served in the spring of 2020.
“Every season, I redesign the menu to match a new theme and what’s seasonally available. I start with the flavour combination – always a fusion of Asian and more traditional European flavours – before moving onto the cake design and ultimately the production. The part I enjoy most is coming up with new ideas, experimenting with new flavours, and surprising our customers with something different every few months.”
Singapore-born Mariah and Kiwi husband Andrew opened Grace Patisserie in April 2019.
The pair had not long returned from a month in the Ukraine, where Mariah studied French pâtisserie techniques at the Kiev International Culinary Academy under founder and pastry chef Tetyana Verbytska and visiting Dutch dynamo Frank Haasnoot.
For Mariah, the sabbatical added to a three-year culinary arts and business degree from Wellington’s Le Cordon Bleu and stints pastry cheffing at QT Wellington and Sofitel Wellington, where Andrew also worked.
Just months after opening Grace Patisserie, the duo snaffled the Dine Wellington award, one of Wellington On A Plate’s top three awards, for a Mariah-designed dessert called “The Egg.”
The passion fruit “yolk,” coconut mousse “egg white” and white chocolate “egg shell” had a few punters sure the sweet orb was in fact a real chicken’s egg. Judges, more familiar with awarding the Dine Wellington to the festival’s best main course, were, in the end, just too blown away by The Egg’s realistic appearance, as well as its utter deliciousness, to look past it for the win.
“As a young child, I knew I wanted to be a chef,” says Mariah, who grew up between Myanmar, Singapore, and Auckland before permanently settling in Wellington in 2014.
At high school in Singapore, she studied baking and culinary science, before “falling in love with pastry” during an internship at Absinthe Restaurant Française on Singapore’s popular Boat Quay.
“There are so many flavours and cuisines in Asia – that’s when I started to imagine the possibilities of combining those food traditions with French pastry techniques.”
In Wellington, says Mariah, locals tend to know Chinese and Thai food, but are less familiar with dishes and flavours outside these two dominant Asian food cultures.
That’s something she hopes will change.
And it’s why she was one of the first in the door when Mabel’s, a new Burmese restaurant, opened on Tory Street earlier this year.
“I was super excited to go. The mohinga, a lemongrass and fish rice noodle soup, was very close to what I remembered from my childhood in Burma. And, of course, the thargu, a coconut sago dessert, served with chilli, pineapple, and mango was also really good.”
As the days get colder, Mariah is looking forward to introducing customers to a fresh interpretation of the flavours typically associated with autumn. Think spiced apple, hazelnut and caramel.
Five days a week (except Monday and Tuesday), Grace Patisserie customers can sit inside or outside on the deck, drop in for a high tea (though you’ll need to book for that), or pop in to grab a box of takeaways for the road.
Before I head home, I hover over the glass display case one more time. I select two petits gâteaux (the Sylvie, of course) and two hōjicha macarons. That’s a sweet macaron infused with roasted Japanese green tea – another unexpected yet tasty twist on a classic French staple.