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.

On why he left, Pang pauses for a long time, laughs nervously and says: "I wanted to create a place like Antoinette, which I couldn't do there. But I treasure the time I spent at Les Amis. I couldn't have asked for more - the support and freedom they gave me."

In November 2010, he founded the Sugar Daddy Group with two partners. Two years ago, one of the partners sold his shares to another investor for a seven-figure sum. Calling it a "restructuring change", Pang, who was previously the group's chief executive officer, became chief operating officer.

He still holds 33.3 per cent of the company's shares and says nonchalantly: "We had a willing buyer and nothing changes for the business. So everything is okay. A person to drive the brand is very important. You can have the same product, servers and chef. But if there is no driver for the brand, the brand becomes soul-less."

Very much the driving force for the brand, he says he is looking to expand overseas in Indonesia and Kuwait after getting inquiries from these countries.

He says pastry shops here cater to a niche market.

"In Paris and Tokyo, people need cakes and sweets. But in Singapore, it's an afterthought," he says. "People don't quite understand the effort that goes into French cakes versus a baked carrot cake that sells at nearly the same price. It will take years before people truly appreciate what we are doing here. The current cafe culture is a good start, but how many of them are actually good?"

When asked about Pique Nique, he sighs and says it is seeing "limited growth". Initially, he had bigger plans for the brand as he had "imagined it to be more mass market and relatable".

But he remains hopeful for the outlet in Ngee Ann City and has extended the lease for another two years. He plans to move the other outlet at JCube in Jurong East after the lease is up in April next year.

He is still looking to open an Asian confectionery store, something he has mentioned in interviews when the Sugar Daddy Group was founded. His dream is to have tourists buy confections to take home, like Singaporeans who buy confections from other countries such as Japan and France.

He says fervently: "Fortunately or unfortunately, I need to do more. I never like to think I'm successful yet. There's so much more we can do to build a stronger brand and provide better service. It has to reach the stage where you mention our brand and people have only good things to say.

"I cannot just do one thing. To put it bluntly, I'm very undisciplined. I get bored easily. I want to do everything and create new concepts."

By now, the baby-faced Pang is very serious and admits he is "always thinking" when he is in the kitchen.

But his demeanour softens when asked about his wife and daughters Chloe, five, and Charlotte, six, who help him de-stress after work and on his days off. They live in a maisonette apartment in Hougang with his in-laws, who help to look after the kids. He bursts into hearty laughter and says: "My daughters will pretend I'm an elephant. They will climb on me, pretend to give me a banana and say, 'Now move!'. That's how I de-stress after work. I would like to be a stay-home dad so I can prepare sweets and cute bentos for my daughters." On a more solemn note, he says: "I feel very bad that I don't spend enough time with my daughters. For a period of time, I was very saddened that I missed out on so much of their growing up. One week, they were too young to start talking. Then the next, they could say a lot of words. That's when it hit me that I was missing a lot."

He met his wife during his days working at the now-defunct Patisserie Chocolat cafe in Gemmill Lane. She worked in a bridal studio nearby.

Chuckling, he recalls: "During those days, I would let her try my new cakes so that I could create a conversation with her. Now she says she's the last one to try my cakes because I don't take them home. I tell her to go to the shop and buy them."

They married in 2006 and he prepared the dessert spread for their wedding and baked their seven-tier wedding cake. It was 1.7m tall and had an edible violet flower and raspberry marmalade base that weighed more than 100kg.

Another outlet for his creativity has been his participation in pastry competitions since 1996.

He is the vice-president of the Singapore Pastry Alliance and has taken part in the Food & Hotel Asia Culinary Challenge and represented Singapore in the World Pastry Cup as both team captain (2005) and team manager (2008 to 2009).

If his busy schedule permits, he will lead the Singapore National Pastry Team in the World Pastry Cup in Lyon in January next year.

On joining competitions, Pang says: "Competitions push a person to try things he has never tried before or would never think of trying.

But unfortunately, it is not something everyone is willing to take up because there's so much commitment on top of your work and you burn your days off.

"It's not about pride and glory. It's either make or break. When you see it through, you come out a better person."

He credits Resorts World Sentosa's executive pastry chef Kenny Kong, 56, for giving him the opportunities to represent the country.

Pang says: "I remember during a practice lunch for the Food & Hotel Asia Culinary Challenge, I was stuck quenelling ice cream. I'd never learnt to do it before as I was just an assistant chef then. I didn't know Kenny well, but he helped me to finish dishing out the dessert."

Chef Kong, president of the Singapore Pastry Alliance, says: "Pang is very determined and always has a strong opinion about what he likes. I used to have to remind him that we are preparing cakes for judges of different nationalities and not everyone may like what he likes. He listens and will monitor his work closely. He's not afraid to lose and is willing to put in the effort, even if we get negative feedback."

Pang is well aware that the creative streak chefs Tay and Kong speak of might not please some customers. He says that sometimes his favourite cakes at Antoinette do not sell as well as the strawberry and chocolate options.

However, he cannot stop the urge to make something new. He says: "I get an idea, make a reality of it and present it in my showcase. Then the excitement dies. The excitement is very shortlived for me. It's in the showcase, okay lor, let's move on."

euniceq@sph.com.sg


This article was first published on June 16, 2014.
Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to straitstimes.com for more stories.