When Patisserie Clé opened at Paya Lebar Office on 13 March — amidst all manner of COVID-19 doomsdays developments around the world — the two chef-proprietors, Germaine Li, 35, and Joy Chiam, 26, weren’t expecting a fabulous response. Yes, their home-based online pastry business has been around since September 2018, and has been popular enough to earn them the capital to start this brick and mortar shop, but still, it’s extraordinary times. The next thing they knew, the two women were churning out over a hundred cakes and tarts a day, working from 8am until 10pm just to meet demand.
The duo met as roommates while studying pastry at Ferrandi Paris — dubbed “the Harvard of gastronomy” by French broadsheet Le Monde. Germaine (left in pic), who has a diploma in IT engineering and a degree in finance, was previously in the corporate sector for more than 10 years. Joy (right in pic) was a fresh graduate from Nanyang Business School in NTU who completed her tertiary studies only because that was the condition her parents set for paying for her pastry course in France. And both are baking nerds. While Joy spent more time watching instructional videos and websites than doing her course work, Germaine has been baking pineapple tarts for sale since she was 15 years old. After completing the year-long course at Ferrandi Paris, Germaine went to work in the pastry kitchen of Les Amis for six months, followed by a two-month inspiration trip to France. Joy, on the other hand, joined the now-defunct Joel Robuchon as commis chef in the pastry kitchen, and stayed for almost a year, until the restaurant shuttered in June 2018.
When Joel Robuchon closed down, Joy toyed with the idea of setting up shop. Coincidentally, Germaine had just returned from her trip around France and had the same idea too. The duo thus joined hands and launched online business Patisserie Clé (pronounced as “cleh”, meaning “key” in French) in September 2018. The rationale for the name? The hope for their wares to be the key to their customers’ heart. The business’s chic branding design and website was also done by the duo. Colour us impressed.
Baking from a rented home, Germaine and Joy started with a menu of just 10 items. Today, their repertoire has expanded to more than 20 items spanning cakes, tarts, choux puffs and cookies. Apart from new dessert items, Joy is also experimenting with savoury quiches — simply because she needs to feed herself something apart from sweets while working nonstop at the shop. The fully self-financed brick-and-mortar shopfront and production facility was always within their business plan. The idea is to sell miniature versions of their large 6 – 8-inch tarts and whole cakes to a wider audience. Their customers must really like this idea, for in the first two weeks of operations, they were constantly replenishing items to fill the display case, which was rapidly being wiped out of wares from enthusiastic office-workers and residents in the area.
Tucked within the compound that is newly converted from the 91-year-old site of the historic Paya Lebar Fire Station near Paya Lebar MRT station, the compact takeaway unit is a minimalist space that can at best fit two customers in front of the display case in safe-distancing times. Any more than that in the shop and they will need to ask you to queue beyond the door. At the back part of the narrow shopfront is an island counter space, which was intended for intimate baking workshops for four to six persons — which isn’t happening now, obviously. Just as well, seeing as how the ladies are currently inundated with orders. But only time will tell if this continues after the government’s circuit breaker measures kick in tomorrow (7 April).
It’s inevitable that comparisons would be made between their wares and those sold by Cheryl Koh — Les Amis’ pastry chef who also runs dessert concept shop Tarte (which Germaine did not work at, despite what some blogs tell you). But the duo insist that none of their recipes are inherited from their previous work places, and take pride in developing their own, to suit their own tastes. “I realised that my heart isn’t quite in fine-dining,” says Joy. “Yes, we learnt a lot about consistency and quality and food integrity. But what we want more is to give people a sense of comfort.” So, they don’t try to wow with complex textures that showcase technique, or avant-garde flavour combinations that boast of ingenuity. Instead, they stick to familiar flavours that are elegantly executed.
While they started with 13 items in the first few weeks, the offerings at the shop has been scaled down to four tarts and four cakes in recent weeks. The large cakes that you see on display are all pre-ordered — only the small ones are available for walk-in purchase. All items are made fresh on the day itself, and the ladies recommend enjoying them on the day of purchase. “The sable tart crust will get soft after a day, and cakes can dry out after a couple of days,” explains Joy.
Orh Blanc Tart $8 (8 DAYS pick!)
A riff on the classic Mont Blanc made with yam instead of chestnut puree, Germaine and Joy — both Teochews — first created this in 2016 at the request of the wife of Singapore’s ambassador to France. “It was for a business event hosted by the Singapore embassy, and we created an halia choux, a pandan financier, three types of macarons — kaya, bandung and pineapple tart, and the Orh Blanc tart,” recalls the duo. The tart was an instant hit, and one of the first items they put on the menu when Patisserie Clé started. If you are hoping for a tart filled with old-school, lard-enriched Teochew yam paste, you will be sorely disappointed. What you will find though, is a sable crust holding a layer of airy coconut cream chantilly, sugar-glazed ginkgo nut halves, and topped with a velvety, elegant yam puree that is only very lightly sweetened. “We tried frozen yam paste and frozen yam when we first stated, but fresh is still best,” shares the duo. “We only pick round yams from Thailand — after testing out many varieties we found that these gives us the best texture and flavour for the puree.” It takes one hour to steam the yam, and a total of about two hours if you add the time needed to blend, sieve, season and taste the puree. Savour it slowly.
Cognac Caramel Chocolate Tart, $8 (8 DAYS Pick!)
“Regular caramel is very one dimensional. We wanted more oomph, and we didn’t want to go down the salted caramel route. So, we made the cognac caramel,” says Joy. This boozy caramel deliciously spikes the smooth, dark chocolate ganache that fills the confection, while the crisp, buttery sable crust lends a salty counterpoint to the intense chocolate flavours. Aside: Joy and Germain insist on using chocolate from a French brand and upon hearing about France’s lockdown, went to procure 20kg of the chocolate they use. That’s quality control right there.
While Joy is all about tarts, entremets (small French desserts usually comprising a mousse finished with a mirror glaze) are Germain’s thing, and there is none more classic than the Noisette. A 64% dark chocolate sponge topped with a crunchy milk chocolate-and-hazelnut layer, dark chocolate ganache, dark chocolate mousse, all enrobed in a dark chocolate glaze, it is for French dessert purists who just want scoop after scoop of decadent deliciousness. “We just want to make it simple, familiar and comforting: the chocolate cake you’ll want to eat during a break-up, or a lockdown, for that matter,” say the ladies, whom we met just before the circuit breaking announcement. So, does it cut it as a treat during circuit breaking times? Well, it’s a good, rich cake if you’re into dainty mousse-y stuff. But what we’ll actually want to binge on during the circuit breaker or a possible lockdown is… well, read on.
Marble Cake, $25 (8 DAYS Pick!)
Before you start associating this with Sara Lee or some butter cake you baked during Home Economics class in school: this is the cake we want to eat now. Or in the event of a lockdown. While many marble cakes out there have just tiny wisps of chocolate swirled in, as if for decorative purposes, this is made with such a generous amount of chocolate that it is more a brown-with-golden-swirl cake than the other way around. On top of that, the moist, fine-crumbed pound cake is draped in a milk chocolate and almond coating. Home-style, familiar, yet kinda luxe, this is truly comfort in every slice.
This is an interesting cross between the creamy American-style cheesecake and light-as-air Japanese souffle cheesecake: encased within the pristine white cheese mousse is a slice of vanilla baked cheesecake. However, the two layers are quite similar in texture so the concept might be completely lost on those who tend to wolf down their desserts quickly. While the mousse and cake layers are both elegantly light in texture, the biscuit base of the piece we tried was a bit too crumbly and disintegrated like a failed sandcastle when the cake was sliced.
Given that Patisserie Clé is a small operation, it’s unfair to compare it to, say, Tarte by Cheryl Koh, which also offers French-style tarts at slightly higher prices ($8.50 – $10), but perhaps made with premium ingredients exclusive to the Les Amis group. Even so, Clé’s offerings are elegant yet accessible, and the familiar flavours comforting. Goodness knows, we all need some comfort food every now and then — especially that lush marble cake — in these gloomy times.
Free delivery above $80 (otherwise it costs $20). Or order takeaway at Patisserie Clé, 29 Paya Lebar Rd, #01-01 Paya Lebar Office Center. Tel: 8127-3925. Open daily except Sun. 12pm – 4pm (Mon-Saturday). https://patisserie-cle.com
Photos: Patisserie Clé
Article by: KOH YUEN LIN
This article was featured on 8 Days magazine.