After four years of working at the école Médéric in Paris – 4 years of early mornings, black coffee, bake ache, 30,000 croissants, 10,000 profiteroles and finally qualified as a fully trained Pâtissière & Chocolatier. Oonagh Simms, ready to start a new adventure returned to London to work as a chocolatier for a leading luxury confectioner, it was there she realized that the French style of marshmallow was missing and she sought to create that style in the UK.
Oonagh Simms, therefore, became ‘The Marshamallowist’, creating fruit Marshmallows in grown-up flavours with a French, soufflé-like texture and a signature London edge.
The Marshmallowist was the first producer of gourmet marshmallows in the UK. Using premium ingredients – only whole fresh fruits, organic herbs & spices and boutique alcohol – combining classic confectionery with unexpected flavours. Like Passionfruit & Ginger or the new Spiced Tomato & Vodka. With a flair for the adventurous and a taste for success Oonagh Simms now sells her marshmallows to some of Europe’s fanciest stores. You know the ones – Harrods, Selfridges, Harvey Nichols- to name just a few.
Today, we interview her and ask her how she started. Fun fact: Oonagh is a human sugar thermometer, she can tell the exact temperature of a vat of boiling sugar- just by looking at. In the 5 weeks before Christmas Oonagh will usually whip up 250,000 marshmallows and has created over 500 different flavours of marshmallows.
For Creative Girls: Hi Oonagh, you’ve had an interesting journey in the Food business! Why are Marshmallows so important to you that you find it essential to create a new world of Marshmallows?
Well, I originally trained in chocolatier and patisserie. I adored every early morning, burnt fingered, flour faced part of it. When I returned to London I worked for a luxury chocolate company but I loved experimenting with confectionary for myself. In Paris, fruit marshmallows were a common sweet treat in patisseries and luxury food stores – but not in the U.K. I loved them and spent evenings playing with different flavours – inspired by cocktails or unusual desserts pairing herbs and spices with seasonal fruits. The marshmallow recipe I created is perfect for carrying flavours because it doesn’t use egg white and is soufflé like in texture so you can taste the different layers and notes of the flavour develop as you eat them.
Using only whole fresh fruits, organic herbs & spices and boutique alcohol, you’ve crafted a whole line of Marshmallow adventure. Do tell us the story of how you started Marshmallowing? What were the things you got wrong when you first started experimenting with different fruits and spices?
So many! I used so much Basil in one early batch that I couldn’t go into my kitchen for a week – it was SO strong. My flatmates were not impressed! Even now we get things wrong – it takes us a few times to get flavours to the perfect blend. I recently launched a Spiced Tomato and Vodka marshmallow ( just like a bloody mary) and it took a lot of experimenting to get that mix of sweet, smokey, salty and spicy just right.
Creating the awesome product is one thing, going to market is another. How did you embark on your ‘go to market’ journey and then moved from selling just a couple to selling a huge number?
I managed to snag a weekend market pitch on Portobello Road and began selling my marshmallows. I would make them when I got home from work and sell them on a Saturday. At first, it was just a way of me testing new marshmallow flavours (and making a bit of extra money) but very quickly the marshmallows started getting a lot of attention – Vogue Magazine, Harpers Bazaar, the BBC. Very soon Harvey Nichols asked if they could start stocking them. That was 5 years ago and now I have my own bakery, a small team of Marshmallowists and we’re growing more than I could have ever imagined. A market stall is always the best place to find out if you have a good product or not. If you can sell out week after week not only to tourists but have locals pop by and pick them up for dinner parties or birthday treats then you know you what you do is valued. Also, I wasn’t really interested in ‘brand building’. I was a young chef that needed some extra money to afford living in London. A market pitch is a great low-risk way to do it.
You’ve made over 500 different flavours of marshmallows! And you have a cookbook. Wow. Can you tell us how you stay productive and creative?
By making time in the week to be creative and experiment and sticking to it. It’s really easy to let spreadsheets and emails get in the way of creativity and you have to be strict and realize that being busy isn’t what grows a business. I also love cooking and eating out so I’m lucky that it all feeds into providing inspiration for flavours and recipes.
Also, share what a typical day in your life looks like, from when you get off the bed.
Although years of working in bakeries and kitchens meant that I had to be up at the crack of dawn, thankfully, I don’t have to do that anymore. I wake up at 7.30 and I’m in the bakery by 9. Being a ‘marshmallowist’ sounds quite soft and fluffy but my team and I seem to spend most of my day carrying out extremely heavy lifting. Attaching large mixer bowls to Hobart mixers, fixing broken strings on our ganache cutters, lifting kilo bags of sugar. The marshmallow process takes 3 days from chopping fruit to make the fresh puree to whipping up the sugar, pouring, setting, cutting, conditioning and then packing.
Our online shop sends alerts to my phone so as soon as someone places an order; it comes straight through to the kitchen. Making sure that customers come to our online store and are happy enough to order again is really important – 70% of my business is through our webshop. So I had to very quickly get out of the ‘chef’ mindset and think about design and creative aspects of the company. How we package and wrap the marshmallows + how customers feel when they get them.
I take all the photographs for our Instagram account and social media so I always have to remind myself to stop what I’m doing and take a picture of it instead!
We all eat lunch together as a team, which is fun since the weather has been so nice we eat outside. My office is right next to the kitchen so I can pop in and out when needed throughout the day – events planning and dealing with our wholesale accounts takes up most of my afternoons.
In the evenings I’m catching up on emails, invoicing and accounting – this has really crept up on me. At first, it was easy enough to manage but as the business has grown I had to get my head around spreadsheets a lot faster than I would have liked.
Your products are listed in Selfridges, Harrods and John Lewis. Do you find it awesomely trippy (in the “wow, I created that” manner) when you see your products?
Always! I absolutely love going into our stockists and seeing our boxes on the shelf, it gives me Goosebumps.
Tell us about 3 women you admire
Ooh, I just couldn’t pick 3. I’m lucky to have worked with amazing women and collaborate with some brilliant female-led companies. I’m so lucky that I get to run my own business and define my own workplace. We can create positive spaces for women, work flexibility around family commitments, pay well and dismiss traditional power structures. I wouldn’t be able to do this if it wasn’t for the collective movement of women’s organizations and women working together. Collaboration and collectivism are what forces change – I can’t single out 3 voices in that.
What’s your favourite food besides Marshmallows?
Korean BBQ is my go to at the moment. But I am fickle – my favourite food changes by the week!
Your favourite websites, resources, and books
Well, first up Instagram is a constant source of inspiration for me. I love it! From recipes to interiors to fashion and styling. I love Newspaper weekend supplements – my favourite weekend activity is to get lost in a pile of weekend supplements and cups of tea and I’m a huge fan of audiobooks and podcasts. I do quite a lot of driving and recipe testing so I couldn’t live without my audible app.
Complement this interview with Rafiat Shittu’s story about how she started making money via Food blogging.
Also, check out this fun project – matching food with your wardrobe.