• Frederic Mariage brought 1,000 vegan macarons to his first stall at Sydney Vegan Market, and sold out in four hours. (Vivian Wei)Source: Vivian Wei
Frederic Mariage once was an écailler or seafood chef. Now he makes vegan versions of foie gras, pâté and other French classics.
Lee Tran Lam

28 Jun 2021 - 12:53 PM  UPDATED 28 Jun 2021 - 1:08 PM

Frederic Mariage is not your obvious candidate for a vegan chef: he started his career in France, specialising in seafood platters. Scampi, crayfish, lobsters, all types of shellfish unearthed from the ocean — he'd present and serve them to diners with great skill. "I used to work eight different kinds of oysters," he says. "Because I liked to work in the seafood, I kept doing that, so I did only that."

He became known as an écailler, a chef focused on seafood. "The person who opens all the crustaceans and puts them on a platter in front of you is usually called that," he says.

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"I did that for probably half my career," the chef adds. He also spent time on rich pastries and chocolate desserts, cooked beef fillets with morel sauce and made foie gras in the kitchen. His workplaces were far from vegan: he once was employed alongside charcuterie chefs. "Each week, they'd receive 400 kilos of pig," he says. That mammoth amount of raw meat was converted, by their hands, into cold deli cuts.

Mariage's upbringing wasn't very vegan either: he grew up in Essonne, an hour south of Paris, and cheese and charcuterie were often on the family table.

You can credit a move to Australia in 2011 (and a meeting with his vegetarian wife a few years later) for setting Mariage on the path to becoming a vegan chef.

Initially, when Mariage relocated to Sydney, he continued to cook buttery and egg-rich French food in restaurants: profiteroles, snails, nougat ice-cream, croque-monsieurs, cheese crepes.

But serving traditional French food helped shape his current vegan business, Le Gourmand, which offers butter-free and plant-based versions of staples from his homeland, such as macarons, foie gras and crème brûlée.

Macarons, with their delicate almond shells and rich ganache filling, are particularly hard to make — even in their non-vegan form. Mariage remembers cooking in France with a pastry chef who'd worked alongside the legendary Alain Ducasse. "He tried to make macarons, but they were all flat biscuits, because he'd never tried before. So we had to buy the shells of the macarons, frozen, ready to make," says Mariage.

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Producing macarons is "a nightmare" for every chef and Mariage admits it took some time for him to get it right. "So many times, I found so many batches [going] all in the rubbish, because they were flat, like crepes," the chef says.

But he eventually mastered the light meringue biscuit shells and chocolatey ganache — and he did it without cracking a single egg. The key is using potato protein instead of the usual egg whites. And he flavours the ganache with Belgian dark chocolate that's entirely vegan.

Mariage launched his Le Gourmand business last September, with a macaron stall at the Sydney Vegan Market in Moore Park.

"It was a very simple set-up," he says. The chef prepared all his macarons ahead of time and offered them in boxes of five flavours: raspberry, passionfruit, lemon, pistachio and Belgian dark chocolate. His stall was stocked with 1000 macarons – and they were all gone within a whirlwind four hours. "I sold out at one o'clock."

He’s since expanded the Le Gourmand range to include a plant-based pâté (enriched with mushrooms, nuts, lentils and “all kinds of brandy") as well as a "faux gras" in place of the traditional foie gras, which is typically made by force-feeding geese or ducks so their livers swell to an abnormally large size (sometimes 10 times their natural size).

This practice has been criticised by animal rights activists, and has led to foie gras production being banned in certain places around the world, with India stopping imports of the French delicacy altogether.

Mariage admits, for most of his career, "I never asked myself too much questions" about how foie gras was made. In fact, as a chef, he didn't really think about where ingredients originated. "When you see a piece of meat, you don't see a cow," he says. But this approach starts when you're young, he believes.

"I've been raised like that: 'drink your milk in the morning, before you go to school.' The milk comes from a cow that's always been pregnant to feed a calf, but it's to grow a calf, not to grow a human body," he says. "It's not the same need. A calf at some point is going to become a 600-800 kilo animal. I'm not going to become the same."

Reckoning with this led to him becoming a vegan around the same time he launched Le Gourmand.

"It's been more than 20 years that I've wanted to have my own little thing."

But taking French staples that get their flavour from rich animal fats and turning them into vegan-friendly products hasn’t been easy. His first attempt at plant-based foie gras was "very disgusting", he confesses. "It was like nothing compared to the real one."

He's since traded the ingredients from his first salt-laden experiment (where he relied too much on miso and Asian products he wasn't familiar with) for cashews, cultured butter, coconut and grapeseed oil, which help replicate the fatty, luxurious flavour profile of foie gras.

"I used to make my own crème brûlée," says Mariage, referring to the burnt-custard dessert he offered at Montparnasse, a French eatery in Randwick where he used to cook. "And people used to come there just for the crème brûlée in the afternoon." He's since switched out the classic recipe of eggs, cream and milk for a plant-based cream, turmeric and vanilla combination for Le Gourmand. "I've been working on that for a bit. I wanted it to have the right flavour."

There's also his vegan chocolate mousse and meringue, which has been approved by his non-vegan friends. "All the time, they asked me for chocolate to bring home," he says.

While Sydney has a thriving vegan food scene — with Le Gourmand's range available at La Petite Fauxmagerie, a vegan cheese shop located on a Newtown strip that also features a vegetarian butcher, vegan sushi and plant-based Palestinian dishes — things are a little different in his homeland.

When Lyon's mayor took meat off the school lunch menu earlier this year, conservative French politicians loudly criticised the move. Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin claimed it was an "unacceptable insult" to the butchers and farmers of France.

"It's like learning a new language for them," Mariage says of the old French guard who are resisting such progress. "But it's going to change, because of the [younger] generation."

That may be the case since they've welcomed a climate-action initiative by Barbara Pompili, France's minister for ecological transition, which includes pushing for more vegetarian offerings on school menus to reduce the country's carbon footprint. Going meat-free may be the way of the future — a big step for a country famous for boeuf bourguignon, steak frites, cassoulet and other dishes heavy in animal proteins.

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For Mariage, producing vegan food has been a significant move career-wise. "For many years, I wanted to cook for myself, but I didn't have the courage…it was too much of a risk," he says. In fact, he was planning to give up the hospitality industry altogether and become a plumber. But the launch of his vegan business has changed all that.

It's why creating Le Gourmand and selling his faux gras and macarons at markets and shops has been especially meaningful. "It's been more than 20 years that I've wanted to have my own little thing."

Follow Le Gourmand on Instagram for updates on stockists and market appearances — and to order macarons directly. Photos by Vivian Wei.

Love the story? Follow the author here: Twitter @leetranlam and Instagram @leetranlam.

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