The first time Gena Karpf discovered that confectionary lollies didn’t just come from the supermarkets was at five years old. She recalled watching on a group of ladies at the school fete pour out boiled liquid candy, flavoured it with aniseed, coloured it red and green, cracked it into shards, before packaging the liquorice flavoured candy into jars.
Around the same time, her parents gave her an Easy Bake Oven kitchen toy installed with a light build, and it came with cake mix and an aluminium tin, which allowed her to bake her own cake.
“I remember that, and I remember I was fascinated by the whole idea I could make a cake,” she said.
Today, Karpf runs her own confectionary business Sweetness The Patisserie, and has been growing it for the last eight years.
The business now has built a cult following, mainly for its pillowy soft marshmallows that come freshly packaged from the Epping-based kitchen, and sold not only through the tiny store at the front, but on weekends at farmers markets and one-off food events.
The business has grown so much that it now produces 36 marshmallow flavours, including original flavours of vanilla, lemon, and strawberry, along with other sweet treats including fudge, toffee, truffles, tarts, and biscuits. It’s also become a wholesale business, too.
“It was just something that grew, but who would have known there was this kind of interest in marshmallows,” she said.
“Now you’ll see more people make more marshmallows, but we’re kind of known as the marshmallow people, and it was always our signature product. But there are a lot more things we want to explore.”
Growing up in Chicago, Karpf recalls always naturally having a huge sweet tooth.
“I’ve always been geared towards sweet food. I love the expression of it. I love what you can do with it. I enjoy cakes. I love making spectacular slices. I love confectionary, in particular because confectionary takes sugar — one ingredient, and you can express it in so many ways,” she said.
“If you look, sugar is English toffee, nougat, fudge, peppermint patties, and marshmallows, which are all different textures.”
Karpf was enticed to move to Australia for love, after meeting her now-husband on a four-month solo walking expedition on the Pacific Crest Trail in the mountains of California.
“I met someone from Castle Hill, and so the first day we walked together and found out we share a birthday, and it was very much meant to be.
“That was in July 1996, and he finished his section of walking and I continued on my section of walking. In December of 1996 I came here for a visit and I just never left.”
The initial decision to go on the “long walk” was to help Karpf uncover what she wanted to do, after having spent three and a half years as a peace corp volunteer that took her to Anchorage, Alaska – by then she had also given up nine years as a hairdresser.
“I had an attack of conscious, and decided that I wanted to do something that was more philanthropic,” she said.
After moving to Sydney, Karpf thought she would give suiting up a go and joined IBM in a marketing operations role, and stayed there for nine years.
“It was towards the back of that I decided I wanted to pursue this thing that had been the underlying feature of my entire life, and that was sweet food. It was always sweet food,” she said.
Unable to leave IBM at the time but still persistent on the idea of pursuing the dream to cook sweets, Karpf travelled to the Loire River Valley, France to take a short-course studying patisserie at Ecole des Trois Pont.
“I went to France because when I looked at courses to do in Sydney, everything you looked at ended up with Le Cordon Bleu, and I couldn’t do it because it was vocational – three days a week, full time, and three terms of study to do your three certificates, and I couldn’t do that because I worked for IBM,” she said.
But not long after returning from France, and realising she had some self-funded leave at IBM, she enrolled into a basic term with Le Cordon Bleu, eventually quitting IBM and graduating with a Diplome de Patisserie
“I did my first term to see how I would go, and to see if I was a domestic cook, or not, but a commercial cook, and it was very apparent that when I was in the kitchen, it was absolutely where I needed to be,” she said.
In fact the very first time Karpf cited she made her very marshmallows was in the classroom kitchen of Le Cordon Bleu. With the positive feedback she received from her teachers, she said it fed her idea of wanting to start her own business, which began in the kitchen home.
Despite getting this far, Karpf’s interest in social enterprise still remains high on the agenda. She said it’s mainly because she notices there is a lot of guilt when people buy sweet things, and often hear murmurs from bypasses whispering they shouldn’t buy treats because it’s bad for them.
“We say you are of value and you are worthy of buying this particular product, and spending that $10 on something that is extraordinary. But I ask, ‘how do you take that message and translate that to something that does social good?’
“I’m not sure yet; with social enterprise my company doesn’t fund it but it’s something my company drives. It is its own enterprise, and I don’t know what shape that will take and I’m really interested in that,” she said.