Sweet love

Sweet love

In an industry where chefs sometimes become businessmen and spend little time in the kitchen, there are some like the Sugar Daddy Group's chef-owner Pang Kok Keong, who can often be found making decadent sweet treats and challenging himself.

The 39-year-old chief operating officer of the company which owns patisserie chain Antoinette and American-style casual restaurant Pique Nique is still very much a hands-on boss.

He pulls 12- to 14-hour shifts to create new pastry collections, prepares menus for luxury brands and plans the intricate packaging designs for his products.

Perhaps it is the "control freak" in him that strives for constant perfection. Or maybe he just gets bored too easily, he admits.

The father of two daughters says: "At times, in the middle of the night, I would ask my wife if she thinks a certain combination is nice.

My mind will drift into sugar land in the midst of a conversation - whether it's the tea that we are serving, the type of material for the serviette, the size of the strawberries that go into the cake. I can't let things slide.

"We make more than 600 products from scratch in my kitchen and we use more than 1,000 types of ingredients. I make sure I know all of them, but I don't think I've done the best I can yet. I take everything very personally and I think with my heart.

"People have told me this is the wrong thing to do but I believe every aspect of the business can be better, so how can I coast along?"

Just after the interview starts, he shows his prototype for this year's mooncake season with much excitement, all the while talking about new menus and plans for Christmas.

Pang's usually serious face lights up when he speaks of his "classically French" creations such as the dainty cakes and macarons that Antoinette is known for. After all, he created the three-year-old brand to exude the "sweet luxury" associated with the queen of France, Marie Antoinette. The brand has three outlets in Penhas Road, Mandarin Gallery and Palais Renaissance.

But talk about his 20-year culinary career and the pastry chef turns serious. Calling himself a "day dreamer", he says: "I cannot complain about what I'm doing now - I'm doing what I love. The only grouse I have is not spending enough time in the kitchen. It's when I'm most happy and I feel a different kind of energy."

He became a pastry chef almost by accident, seeing how he was introduced to the stove before the oven.

Born to hawker parents who ran a fishball stall in Jurong, he grew up helping his mother in the kitchen and later took on part-time jobs in coffee shops and restaurants to earn pocket money.

By then, the youngest of four siblings, who attended Rulang Primary and Yuhua Secondary, knew the culinary world was right for him.

He enrolled in hospitality school Shatec at age 16 before enlisting for national service. He interned at the now-defunct Oberoi Imperial Hotel in River Valley Road and was assigned to the pastry section because it was short of people.

Pang, who is Hakka, says: "I grew to love pastry although I don't remember much, just stirring a huge pot of sago. My memories of cooking are clearer. I remember stirring congee for hours in a Hong Kong noodle house where I was working part-time when I was 16.

I was working in a Cantonese-speaking environment but I couldn't speak Cantonese."

After a few stints at various restaurants, he set his sights on joining Bakerzin, which was known as Baker's Inn back then and considered one of the biggest patisserie chains in Singapore.

Pang says he took a $400 pay cut to work with Bakerzin's founder Daniel Tay, just so he could learn "real cake-making" since it was one of the first standalone patisseries to do French-style cakes.

On hiring Pang back then, chef Tay, 44, says: "I will help anyone who earnestly wants to learn. He had a great attitude although I remember his funky dressing with earrings, and chains on his pants. I wasn't sure if I could take him seriously.

"However, he has an amazing palate and skill. But I would have to remind him not to over-create and make sure his artistic cakes are acceptable for the market."

Tay left Bakerzin in October last year to open food creation and development company Foodgnostic in December. He also runs online cheesecake shop Cat & The Fiddle.

Both chefs are part of The Inspired Chef online ice-cream business and Pang will launch an upcoming World Cup flavour under the brand.

He is still the funky dresser, a quirk which he says started in his teenage skateboarding days. For this interview, he wears a jacket over a flower-print shirt, mustard-coloured loafers and diamond ear studs. He sometimes gets fashion advice from his freelance make-up artist wife Vickie, 38.

After his stint at Bakerzin, he worked at hotels such as The Ritz-Carlton Millenia, Singapore and Hilton Singapore, and figured he was up for bigger challenges. He set his sights on joining the Les Amis Group in hopes of setting up a patisserie.

He recalls: "I sent Les Amis chairman Desmond Lim a proposal and got a very harsh reply from him. If I remember correctly, it was something along the lines of 'To be brutally honest with you, I think you are day dreaming'. I still didn't give up and continued to pester him until we finally came to terms.

"Eventually, I would like to think that it was my persistence and passion that convinced him. It definitely was not the business plan."

Pang calls the six years spent at Les Amis "the best time of my life" as he was given the freedom to build the Canele patisserie chain from scratch.

It made a splash with its stylish shops, yearly collections of fine French cakes and perfect macarons, paving the way for other home-grown French-style patisseries. It now has three branches at Raffles City, Paragon and Shaw Theatres Lido.

And when he chose to leave the group in September 2010, it was "one of the most heart-breaking moves" for him.

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