Michelle van Rensburg remembers hiding in the bathroom of her South African home as a child, hoping the police wouldn't find her.
"I was born into a political family," says van Rensburg, who currently co-owns La Petite Fauxmagerie, a vegan cheese shop in Sydney's Newtown.
"I grew up in Johannesburg. Both my parents are politicians, and that's how they met. They both fought apartheid."
It was this very system of racial segregation that led to her hiding from the authorities. Even though van Rensburg is white, the family's housemaid, Grace, and her son, was not. Their freedoms were severely restricted because of the colour of their skin.
"At that time, the black servants — the cleaners, gardeners, all the tradespeople — had to have passes to get into the cities. They weren't allowed to live in the city with their children or husbands. It was completely ridiculous … They'd go home maybe two or three times a year to visit," says van Rensburg. "My mother being the rebel she is … she decided that she would allow Grace to have her son live with us in the house."
Not everyone shared their vision of racial equality, though.
"Obviously one of the neighbours had complained, my mother quickly shooed [us] into the shower in the master bedroom, to hide us from the police," says van Rensburg.
It wasn't the only time she joined her parents in protesting the system. "I would go into their political office and help them stuff envelopes and hang posters around the neighbourhood. I was very aware from a young age about equalities and inequalities," says van Rensburg, who lived in Johannesburg until 1986, when she was a teenager.
"Going into veganism seems a natural progression," she says.
She recently opened her artisan vegan cheese shop with partner Carl Coyle, who grew up in London with an Italian-Irish family.
"I knew Carl loved me 100 per cent, because what Italian gives up salami and prosciutto and mozzarella for a girl? He was willing to go vegan to help me."
Van Rensburg adopted her vegan diet for health and ethical reasons, but launching La Petite Fauxmagerie wasn't a lifelong goal for this former interior designer. Nor was it for Coyle, an architect who once was known as DJ Silverfox.
"I gave him that nickname, because he was starting to get grey stripes on his head," says van Rensburg, and laughs.
DJ Silverfox used to perform at the famous London nightclub, Heaven. "So many people played there. All the big names." Famous DJs, such as Carl Cox, Sasha and John Digweed, headlined the massive front section. "We had the little back room," Coyle admits.
The couple, who met in London and got married in 2004, aren't the most obvious candidates for running a vegan cheese business.
"Carl grew up eating gnocchi at the age of five. I grew up on fish fingers," says van Rensburg.
But eight years ago, they switched to vegan diets and, in 2018, a sceptical friend inspired them to experiment with plant-based dairy alternatives.
A French friend from Paris dared them: "Make me some butter and I may become vegan."
"It was the first butter we ever made," says van Rensburg.
So how did their friend from the homeland of buttery croissants and Camembert respond?
"Virginie is her name, she said, 'mon dieu, this butter is terrific!'" says Coyle.
Not long after, van Rensburg created her first vegan feta.
"We really are novice cheesemakers," says Coyle.
The idea of professionally making vegan feta or mozzarella really wasn't a consideration until the pandemic hit last year and van Reysburg's role as a Westfield project manager was made redundant in April. She found herself questioning where her career could go next.
"Over three or four months, I made [vegan] cheese after cheese after cheese. I experimented with so many recipes," she says. "I was at home filling the whole world with [vegan] cheese and butter."
She also bought every plant-based cheese she could find from the supermarket — and many of them were "not very good".
Van Reysburg and Coyle could do better, and they did. Their first La Petite Fauxmagerie stall at the Sydney Vegan Markets took place in October, and showcased their "ooey, gooey, melty, stretchy" vegan mozzarella sandwich and their cultured butter, which has a plant-based probiotic to give it a "European tanginess".
They didn't think there'd be much demand for their stall. "My cheese toastie isn't going to do that well," thought Coyle. "We sold out by 12.30, I couldn't believe it. Michelle's butter was flying out the door."
They doubled their batches for the November market — and sold out again.
They tripled everything for the December event. "And then those markets got cancelled."
It wasn't just their own product that suddenly needed a home – they'd also bought vegan cheeses from artisan Australian producers, such as Artisa and Dilectio, to sell as well.
"I had about $5000 of stock … plus all the stuff we'd spent time making. Carl was getting up at three in the morning to make his mozzarella before work. I was up until midnight making butters and cheddars and things. So we freaked out," says van Rensburg.
The local vegan community came to the rescue and helped them stage pop-up sales events. It also paved the way for their pop-up La Petite Fauxmagerie shopfront in Newtown, which opened for proper trading in late January.
They admit it's "crazy" to open a store only three months after their first cheese stall, but the store is an ideal showcase for the couple's range of dairy alternatives. They offer vegan feta (an almond-based creation that gets a strong flavour hit from its garlicky oil marinade), labneh made from creamy, tangy soy yoghurt (which is sold with a za'atar spice mix) and there's also kechek el fouqara, a fermented bulgur wheat product also known as "poor man's cheese" in Lebanese. "We're experimenting with a vegan ricotta," says van Rensburg.
They also sell a truffle cashew brie from South Australian producer All The Things, a herbaceous Freycinet from Tasmania's Artisa, and a creamy soy mozzarella from Melbourne’s Hello Friends. They're keen to showcase small-batch producers from across Australia, in addition to their own range. You can drop in for a free cheese tasting on Thursday evenings at the shop.
Even non-vegans have been impressed by their selection. "The response is always the same: 'Wow, this actually tastes good'," says Coyle.
"The response is always the same: 'Wow, this actually tastes good'."
And for anyone previously scarred by plasticky vegan cheeses or ones that taste overwhelmingly like coconut oil, don’t worry. La Petite Fauxmagerie's selection is excellent. At the shop's very first sale, there was a queue that stretched out the door for three hours. Someone even drove from an hour away to try the range. That's a pretty good result for cheese-making "novices".
So how long will this pop-up shop be around?
"That's the most-asked question so far, is it six months or is it longer?" says Coyle. He admits it depends on how things play out and what demand is like.
"We want to be here forever."
412 King Street, Newtown
Thursday 12pm – 8pm, Friday 12pm – 6pm
Saturday – Sunday 10am – 4pm