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An experimental delight with Formulab dessert chef JC Lua

Many of us have grown up watching Masterchef contestants attempt a Heston Blumenthal invention, or perhaps attacking the famous croquembouche masterpiece we saw on TV.

A layered green cake with a tempered chocolate layer on top. Edible pink flowers are used as a garnish.
Definitely not mine. One of Formulab’s stunning pistachio and earl grey cakes.

Sprawled out on a couch (likely eating microwaved chicken and rice leftovers from a few night’s prior), we’d thought the tasks easy. Chuck a couple of layers onto each other and Bob’s your uncle.

Three meltdowns later, a cake that looks more like a pancake, and an adamant denial of the attempt ever happening (I see you), those stunning, experimental desserts seem much harder than you’d initially thought.

Luckily, Canberra has its very own Zumbo, so you can put down that spatula – no, seriously, you’re likely to poke an eye out waving it around like that.

A black and white photo of a man in an apron placing deserts onto a platter.
Photo by James Souter, manager of The Boathouse

JC Lua – chef at The Boathouse and Ramen Daddy – is the incredible face and founder behind the experimental dessert business Formulab, bringing a whole new level of fantastical dessert creations to the Nation’s Capital.

An espresso chocolate brownie cake.
Q: How did Formulab originate? Any inspirations?

A: It started from making dessert at home on my day off – after first lockdown – and was just a small R&D project of mine and slowly the dessert I made got more and more sophisticated, and I thought why not just start a small side hustle business.

When I started Formulab, we were about to go in the second lockdown in Canberra. So, it was also a backup plan for my income source in lockdown.

The start of an entrepreneurship!
Q: What fascinated you about experimental desserts?

A: I think it is about using different technique and flavour profiles that is not commonly used or put together, and creating something new and delightful.

Pistachio and Earl Grey cake (top layer) and Blackberry chocolate cake (bottom layer).
Q: Can you describe the process beyond your creations?

A: It normally starts from trying new flavour at a restaurant or just simply from a home cook meal or recipe book. Then I will start do some basic research on the flavour profile to see which flavour matches. After that, is the experimental stage. Start making the dessert and sampling to friend and workmate. And then, finally, enhance the dessert and go in production stage.  

Q: What is your favourite flavour combination?

A: Strawberry and basil, if I must choose!

JC’s favourite combination – strawberry and basil.
Q: Why do you think people are so fascinated with reimagined dishes?

A: I think it is all about creativity and the new that contract to what you already know. That excitement of giving an oldie a new coating. 

Q: Is this career something you would want to pursue full time?

A: Yes and no.

Yes! I love being a pastry chef and there is something about being a pastry chef has given me this pride and motivation to keep driving me to create new things and maximise my creativity. But having said that, it drains me, mentally and physically.

No! Long hour of labour work is just not what I picture myself doing in my late 50s.  

A commissioned wedding cake.
Q: Do you think experimental food will continue to gain popularity?

A: Yes. As the market grows, consumer behaviour is changing from time to time. I think as long as you are serving good quality food at the best cost and the consistency is there, I don’t see why not. 

Q: What is the current market for experimental food in Canberra like?

A: I would say the market demand is definitely not as high as a bigger city like Sydney. But I do think Canberra still has big room to grow for the food and beverage industry. We need more different aspect food businesses to educate our consumers, to educate our community, to learn how to appreciate flavour, and how to celebrate them.