INTERVIEW: For Chef Pang Kok Keong, longevity in the food industry is not a cakewalk

·Lifestyle Contributor
·11-min read

SINGAPORE — First, a disclaimer. This is an interview I did with Chef Pang Kok Keong back in September 2019, which wasn’t published due to clashes in the editorial schedule. I met Chef Pang for this conversation at the now-shuttered Antoinette at Penhas Road, a cakes and dessert wonderland where he doles out desserts of grace and beauty, some deliberately void of filigree, but always, always nuanced with understated elegance.

Those days are now firmly behind him. After the closure of Antoinette on 30 June, at the tail end of Circuit Breaker measures, Chef Pang launched Hakka Pang to much fanfare and success as fans clamoured for a taste of his toothsome Hakka fare. On my last visit, I remembered seeing Chef Pang with an assured spring in his step, happy and ready to leave the world of pastries behind. In many ways, I couldn’t be happier, especially after this interview where I observed a muted ennui as he shared his thoughts on Singapore’s cosmetic love affair with cakes.

More recently, Chef Pang has relocated Hakka Pang to Sprouthub and opened a new seafood shack concept called Guppies at Arc380. He’s also a new partner at Sichuan Alley, a sister company of Birds of a Feather restaurant at Amoy Street. As Chef Pang takes a decisive step back from the world of sweets and into the bold galaxy of savoury fare, I felt it fitting to look back at this interview where he shares what longevity in this industry means to him.

(PHOTO: Ian Nale)
(PHOTO: Ian Nale)

How do you describe what you do to someone you’re meeting for the first time?

I’m a chef first and then a business owner. But I think my identity as a chef has always been more prominent. I suppose it makes sense because if you were to think solely as a business owner, you would want to buy things cheap and sell them at a mark-up. That is not how I see or do things in my patisserie. For me, the quality and integrity of ingredients are paramount, so it’s tough for me to use cheap ingredients even though I know that it raises my margin significantly.

It’s not just the administrative or the leadership aspects of the business that I’m involved with. I’m cooking, washing the dishes, taking orders, interacting with the customers, clearing the tables. I don’t mind doing all these small things because I know it’s all part of what being a business owner is all about.

Do you consider yourself an artist?

I don’t like to dramatise what I do, but I’m not just a pastry chef either. I created the food menu here as well, which a lot of people overlooked. Everyone knows me only as a pastry chef when, in fact, I have been cooking all this time in Antoinette.

(PHOTO: Ian Nale)
(PHOTO: Ian Nale)

Does that annoy you—that your reputation as a pastry chef precedes you so much that people cannot see you as anything more than a pastry chef.

It does. But better to be known for something rather than nothing, right? I don’t think pastry chefs are taken as seriously as they should be. People assume that all we do is create a recipe, bake the cake, and that’s the end of the story. The pastries we bake at Antoinette are on a whole other level, and there are still many people who cannot appreciate the things we do here. If you were to compare Singapore to places like Tokyo, Paris, then I think we are still very far behind in appreciation of craft. I said this ten years ago, and yet, things have remained the same.

Do you see your reputation as a veteran and renowned pastry chef as a way to bring up the name of other pastry chefs in the industry?

I don’t think I can. It’s people like you, the media, the bloggers, and influencers who have to start recognising a pastry chef as a specialist and a viable profession. The cakes we create here get compared to, of all things, a red velvet cake—which is essentially a sponge cake and cream cheese. Do you know how much work and how many layers of things go into the cakes we make here? But this is, unfortunately, the mentality of the cake-eating community in Singapore. To them, cake is cake, is cake, is cake. All the cakes are the same. It’s very immature.

What was your childhood like growing up?

I was fortunate enough to spend part of my childhood in an actual kampong. My mum was a hawker, so I grew up helping her at the stall. I helped her prepare the raw ingredients at home before she brought them to the stall every day. I think she was the most significant influence that made me decide to pursue this line of work. I was never good academically. I have always wanted to enrol myself into Shatec, even before secondary school.

(PHOTO: Ian Nale)
(PHOTO: Ian Nale)

Does it surprise you now that, having grown up in a kampong, you could do what you do now?

I was young then, and I never had a goal. Even after I got into this line, I never imagined or dreamed that I would want to own a Parisian patisserie one day. Throughout my earlier working life, I only had one goal: to learn as much as possible and be the best that I can be in all the places I worked in. That was it. I never had a grand dream of owning my own business until much, much later.

What was your fondest memory of the first job you held as a pastry chef?

It was at the Hilton hotel where I was the youngest pastry chef at 27 years old. Even until today, I don’t think there was anyone who headed a kitchen at that age. It was my first chef gig at a five-star hotel. How I got the job was also quite interesting.

I went for the interview and the General Manager, who is French, liked everything I’ve prepared. But he was pretty insistent on wanting to hire a Caucasian to head the kitchen because apparently, it makes the hotel look good. Back then, I was very gung-ho, lah. So I asked: “What is that a French chef can do that I can’t?” And then I got the job. I think my confidence gave them the confidence to hire me.

(PHOTO: Ian Nale)
(PHOTO: Ian Nale)

Can you remember when you decided to dedicate your life to pastry?

It was at a very early stage of my career when I was still a trainee. Maybe when I was 19 years old? In Shatec, I was culinary trained. During my work attachment in the hotel, the pastry kitchen was always short-handed. As a trainee, we were constantly thrown into wherever the kitchen needed the most help. It was a blessing in disguise that I was assigned to the pastry kitchen.

I was so fascinated by desserts and pastries. The more I learned, the more I wanted to know. It was so exciting. That’s not to say that everything else was boring. But you buy a slab of steak, grill it, and it’s ready to eat. A cake has to be made from scratch. Just from flour, sugar, and eggs, you can make a cake. How magical is that?

What do you think are the elements that make a perfect cake?

Texture, taste, and finishing. You can finish a cake beautifully, but if it lacks flavour, what’s the point? When we participate in a competition, the taste is given a substantial weighting of 60%, while the look takes up the remaining 40. Taste to me, as a chef, is paramount.

And what defines good taste?

There will never be one type or definition of good taste because taste is always subjective. But taste is not something that can be visualised. Recently, I made a cake with Jasmine tea, mango, and walnut sesame nougatine. To me, it’s nice, and the flavours are unique. But it doesn’t sell. Then, we made a cake with a salted egg yolk lava centre topped with white lotus mousse. So it’s like a French moon cake, you know? But that also didn’t sell well.

What’s the best seller? The chocolate cake, the rose. Customers don’t even need to see the description of what’s inside the cake. As long as visually it looks beautiful and it’s familiar, those cakes will sell.

(PHOTO: Ian Nale)
(PHOTO: Ian Nale)

But when people come to these kinds of places, it’s all very visual, don’t you think?

That’s why I say the cake culture in Singapore is still very green. If you go to Tokyo, the cake looks like a cake. For many other pastry chefs, less is more. It can just be a cake with a perfect glaze, and that’s all you need. There’s no need for any other frills.

But in Singapore, that will never work. Because how many people know how to taste and appreciate a French-style cake? Not a lot, really.

Do you think it’s because people equate filigree with value? Like, if I’m going to spend this much on a dessert, I want it to look exquisite, expensive.

Unfortunately, yes. It’s very superficial. Take my Kyoto cake, for example. The circular motifs on it take a lot of fine piping work. That cake has five layers. You need five steps just to make that one rectangle as compared to a red velvet cake which is just cream cheese, cake, cream cheese, cake. I keep referencing a red velvet cake because I’ve had a customer tell me that my cakes are so tiny for their price.

It’s disheartening, you know. And not just for me, but for all the other pastry chefs who spent time and money on R&D to make sure the taste is balanced, the texture is finessed, and the entire presentation looks good. So for someone to come up to us and say, ‘Oh, why is your cake so small and expensive?’, it’s very demoralising.

(PHOTO: Ian Nale)
(PHOTO: Ian Nale)

How do you balance the craft of cake-making with consumers’ expectations?

That’s the sad thing. We need to respond and do what the market wants. In places like Tokyo, the chefs are worshipped because the customer understands the work that goes into the product. It’s a matter of consumer mentality and maturity. But if people keep demanding cheap and good, then, of course, the industry will never grow. The culture will never progress.

Compared to, for example, French cuisine. Foie gras, everyone knows it’s expensive, so they don’t mind paying for it. The same goes for caviar. Consumers are more willing to pay top dollars for something they know. But if I tell them, “Oh, this chocolate cake is made with gon cru chocolate,” they won’t know what that means. There’s just a lack of education with regards to the finer aspects of pastry appreciation.

After so many years in the industry, do you still love what you do?

I really, really love what I’m doing now. This is not a PR answer, okay? *laughs* I’m still very passionate about desserts and pastries. It’s primarily due to job satisfaction. I mean, whether it pays the bill or not is another issue. For me, as I mentioned earlier, I’m a chef first, then a business owner. Sometimes it’s tough for me to find a good balance. I’m still trying.

I have chef friends who have great clarity about what they do. They’re very financially driven—not that I’m not, but it’s just tough for me sometimes. There’s always this fear that the quality of my food suffers.

Sure, I can just put a microwave in the kitchen and fire all my chefs. But I can never bring myself to do that. We have some loyal following through the years, and I think there are some expectations of what we make and sell here. I don’t want to disappoint the long-time customers who have come to expect the quality and standards synonymous with the Antoinette brand. For them, I will keep doing this, and more importantly, I will always love what I do here.

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