Joy Chiam and Germaine Li go from working in top restaurants to starting their own online pastry shop.
How did your passions for baking ignite?
J: I’ve always liked to bake but I started doing a lot of it when I was 18 and studying for my International Baccalaureate (IB) exams. It was a distraction. While waiting to go to university, my mum got me to enrol in a short course at At-Sunrice GlobalChef Academy. I didn’t want to at first but when I went for the course, my horizons opened. I saw professional chefs in action and started thinking it was something I could do. But I still had university to complete. I baked a lot while I finished my degree and knew my next step was to go to Paris to learn more.
G: I started baking pineapple tarts for sale when I was 15 and continued this every year even when I started working. The orders gradually ran to about 200-250 bottles each season. I had a day job but it was always in my mind that I wanted to study and try working as an intern at pastry shops. I did a lot of research and decided that Ferrandi Paris was the place for me. I had to convince my family before embarking on this career switch, but I knew it was my passion. I was already always thinking about pastry ideas.
What did you learn most from your time in France?
J: We really liked going to school. Our days would begin at 7am and time would fly past as we learnt about the theory and practice of specific elements such as chocolate or ice cream. And after our five-month course, there were internships to go for. I worked in Hotel Burgundy, a boutique hotel in a small team headed by chef Pascal Hainigue. I did the mise en place for plated desserts and learnt a lot about how a restaurant operates.
But there was one time I was doing a panna cotta with a coulis on top. I thought the consistency of the coulis was a little runny. I asked the sous chef about this and he said it was ok. When chef came to check it though, he was not happy and poured the whole thing on the floor. I cried on the way back home on the metro. From this incident, I learnt that if I know something is not good, I should listen to my instincts.
G: I did my internship at Yann Couvreur’s production kitchen. The chefs trusted us to do a lot of the work so we got a great hands-on experience. We got to do cream, tarts or chocolates for 12 hours daily and once a week, we were posted to the shop. I have some memorable incidents too. We make everything in large quantities. One time, I was making a lemon agar, all 10 kg of it. But I poured in the agar powder at the wrong temperature. The chef was rightfully upset and I had to redo the whole thing. I was doubly careful from then on.
And what experience did you pick up when you returned to Singapore?
J: I was working at Joël Robuchon Singapore until it closed at the end of June. I was at the fine dining section, handling mise en place for sorbets and plated desserts. A lot of the desserts were quintessentially Robuchon and our job was to ensure consistency and make everything perfect. The experience helped me hone techniques such as piping and making quenelles. The Birthday Cake, for instance, which consists of a sorbet sphere and Italian meringue piped on the exterior, took a while for me to get right. It was the most stressful part of the day doing it, but after I got the hang of it, I enjoyed it most.
G: When I went to Les Amis, I moved from a production kitchen to a restaurant setting. It was a different environment and my first time experiencing the service routine in a restaurant. It took me a while to understand the kitchen culture, but I worked directly under chef Cheryl Koh and learnt a lot from her. For instance, she tasked me to do chocolate for two months. After that, I became more confident in the different aspects of chocolate-making.
Why did you both decide that it was the right time to strike out on your own?
J: Granted, if the restaurant I was working for didn’t close, I would have stayed on and might not have contacted Germaine so soon. But I think that there’s always so much to learn, even at this point. If you work for someone else, you will learn more too. There’s never a right time, and you just have to do it. We chose to start.
G: And I guess because there are two of us, it’s a lot easier. We can help each other and share with each other.
Why the name Pâtisserie CLÉ?
J: Clé in French means key. We hope our pastries will be a key to our customers’ heart. Because for us, the pastries are from our heart. In everything we do, we treat it like we’re making it for someone we love. Even if it’s a simple cake, we’d think about how the person would like it and how it has to be the best.
Who are your pastry heroes?
J: We look up to several pastry chefs but one is Philippe Conticini who has just opened a new shop in Paris. He makes unpretentious inventive yet classic desserts.
What’s Pâtisserie CLÉ’s baking style, if you had to sum it up?
J: We believe in classic flavours done well, nothing too over-the-top. We use good ingredients such as French butter and cream and chocolates from Valrhona and Cacao Barry. We want to make pastries that are very balanced in flavour and not just cream and crust. And we know you can’t transport recipes of French origin here without changing anything. It might be too sweet and creamy for local tastes. So we actually spend a lot of our time in the kitchen adjusting the flavours so that even if Grandma eats it, it’s not too rich or creamy, yet full of layers and textures to be discovered. Design-wise, we don’t think our pastries should be too pretty to eat, but they should be elegant and well-presented.
How do you complement each other?
J: Germaine was working in the corporate sector before so she’s better at accounting, while I handle more of the communications side of things. Baking-wise, we’re quite similar and help each other in the kitchen. Of course, we have certain preferences, for instance, I like to eat and make tarts. I love the crunch of a tart. They are simple, yet can taste good. You can really find many flavours and variations in a simple tart.
G: While I like entremets because they have a lot of different elements, a lot of flavours and textures to play with. Sometimes it takes a few days to complete one. It’s very fun, like you’re doing a puzzle, because you can’t envision how it’d turn out while it’s being done. Once you unveil it, you see the result and get a great satisfaction from it. But whether it’s coming up with ideas or doing the baking itself, we’d always discuss everything together. We try it out, taste it, let our friends and family give comments, and we improve on it from there.
Which was the one pastry that helped you realise you were going to create great things together?
J: We’d have to say it was the orh blanc tart (tart crust baked with coconut cream, fresh yam orh nee, vanilla chantilly and gingko nuts). That’s the first item we created together from scratch, in Paris. It was for an event organised by the Singapore Embassy in France where we did a few items that had the flavours of home. This one is reminiscent of the local yam paste dessert known as ‘orh nee’.
G: It worked the best. It’s our favourite one and the first thing we wanted to put in our catalogue when we started Pâtisserie CLÉ.
J: We use only fresh yam. We tried different yams and frozen purées in our R&D process, but the result was not as good. The texture simply can’t compare with using fresh yam with our own sugar syrup and coconut milk.
Other creations that you’re particularly proud of?
J: Our passion sesame tart is one. The idea came to us during lunch out of nowhere. We just thought passion fruit and sesame would go well. The sesame was very sweet, so we needed something tart to cut it. We already had lemon, so we needed another fruit so we gave passion fruit a try. It all went very well. And for our pink lady cake, a lychee and rose flavoured cake, we use real vanilla bean in the mousse and soak the lychees in vodka. The rose and lychee flavours go really well together.
What have you got lined up for Christmas and next year?
J: For Christmas, apart from a Black Forest log cake, we have a trio of mont blanc tart, chocolate reindeer choux and black forest cake. For 2019, we hope to release new items every three months.
G: Currently we have eight tarts and five cakes. We might possibly do a coffee cake or a praline tart next year. And for Chinese New Year, we definitely want to play with flavours like mandarin and pineapple.
This article was featured on Wine and Dine.