THINK afternoon tea and the dazzling Palm Court at The Langham, London pops to mind. But here's a little known fact: the chef behind the exquisite confectionery at the famed hotel is a born and bred Singaporean. Cherish Finden studied pastry in Shatec and cut her teeth at Pan Pacific Hotel Singapore and Raffles Singapore before moving to London 15 years ago to carve a niche for herself.
Today, the award-winning pastry chef is one of the most recognisable names in London. The executive pastry chef for The Langham, London (since 2009) led the hotel to take home the prestigious Tea Guild's Top London Afternoon Tea award in 2010 with an afternoon tea set inspired by haute couture jewellery brands such as Cartier, Bulgari and Asprey - yes, they were among the first to do that. The hotel also started the trend of dusting diamond powder onto their cakes. And those cocktail flavoured macarons that are so popular right now? You probably have Finden to thank for boozing up the French confectionary five years ago.
"Afternoon tea is such a big thing in the English culture and there are many Michelin-starred pastry chefs who visit to see what we're doing at The Langham, London. We've set the bar very high to be ahead of our competitors," notes the pastry chef with more than 20 years of experience. Ever the innovator, she's recently worked with Wedgwood to produce Instagram-worthy desserts that pay tribute to the luxury fine bone china company.
Indeed, Finden is baking up quite a sweet success story in London. After taking home the Dessert of the Year award in 2001, she returned as a judge in 2014. Her long list of accolades also includes being named Craft Guild's Pastry Chef of the Year 2012. Heston Blumenthal has given her afternoon tea creations his stamp of approval by featuring them on his show, Heston's Great British Food. Besides appearing on BBC's Masterchef and Junior Bake-off, she was invited to judge the MasterChef final competition in the UK alongside French pastry masterchef Pierre Hermé. To date, she has won 25 medals, including 18 golds, at international competitions such as the International Culinary Olympics.
"You need to be quite tough and fight your way through especially when you come from Asia," says Finden. When she first moved to London, she downgraded from being the executive pastry chef in Sheraton Singapore to a junior position in the Great Eastern Hotel. Undeterred, she clawed her way back up. The gutsy chef also showed that she was not just sugar but plenty of 'spice' when she challenged the decision of the judges who only awarded her a silver medal for her flawless petit fours in a competition. She later received a revised perfect score.
Finden is reluctant to say that there are better opportunities in London but admits that there was less emphasis on pastry in Singapore 15 years ago. She flew under the radar even though she was representing Singapore in international culinary competitions back then. Now, she observes that the local dessert scene is becoming trendier. "Every time I come back I see something new but there are also many generic pastry shops selling macarons and éclairs. When someone does something well everybody rushes to copy," she adds. For Finden, one needs to push the envelope to stand out.
"There is always a story behind my desserts," shares Finden. Sweets have become a form of art. Her newest 'a-maize-ing' creation is full of clever puns - crunchy popcorn meringue, salted caramel, sous vide apple, cloudy apple juice gels, chocolate sticks, and cinnamon sponge cake are meticulously arranged into a swirly maze-like pattern.
"A lot of pastry chefs will make things very pretty and use all sorts of complicated techniques but I think they have forgotten that taste is the most important thing," adds Finden.
Perhaps what gives Finden an edge is her Asian background. Consider her classic Victoria sponge infused with sake plum and sakura, or the airy mousse with silver needle jasmine tea and apricots. She's also made pandan panna cotta and added pulot hitam to Swiss rolls.
After missing the action in Singapore for so many years, the chef will be returning to be a part of the upcoming World Gourmet Summit 2015 in April. And after that, who knows? Finden might just find herself with a bigger local fan base.
By Tiong Li Cheng
Stairway to dessert heaven
Opening in April
WHEN she was pursuing Geography and European Studies at a local university, little did Cheryl Koh know these subjects would come in handy for a successful career as a pastry chef.
But exposure to world maps, tectonic plates and the French language armed her with exactly the globetrotting dare and linguistic flair to thrive in several kitchens around the world - from Paris and Italy to Dubai, Macau and Hong Kong.
Come April, the petite Les Amis chef is ready to take on her next challenge - this time in a little stairwell between Italian restaurant La Strada and wine bar Caveau on the ground floor of Shaw Centre, three doors down from the flagship restaurant.
In that tiny 331 sq ft space which doesn't quite have a name yet, she will be selling desserts with flavours and aromas that will hopefully bring a little slice of heaven to her customers.
Her current work in Les Amis, as well as the previous restaurants, has well prepared her for that.
"In Les Amis, I make a lot of desserts based on fresh seasonal fruits, so a lot of them are light and refreshing... I (also) do warm soufflés, mille-feuilles and rum babas," says Koh.
But her proudest creation - which is also the bestselling dessert at Les Amis - is Le Mikan, a whole candied Mikan orange (Japanese orange) cooked till tender in sugar syrup, and filled with a blend of panna cotta and sorbet. It also has bits of Earl Grey jelly for a touch of bitterness to counter the sweetness.
"To me, the orange is the simplest of fruit. And for Le Mikan, we use every part of the fruit for the dessert," says Koh.
For the new dessert shop, Koh will offer a range of flavoured tarts and mini-Carolines, with prices ranging from S$8 for an individual tart and between S$28 and S$34 for a large tart that can be shared among four people. Koh also hopes to eventually add madeleines to the menu, because of their popularity among Les Amis customers.
Embarking on her culinary career right after university, Koh eschewed the traditional route of attending culinary school by simply showing up The Raffles Hotel.
"I just turned up, said I wanted to work there, and they took me on!" she recalls with a laugh. She didn't know that she wanted to work with desserts when she started, just that she wanted to be a chef.
When asked if she would move to the hot kitchen now, she shakes her head, saying: "It's like asking a dentist if he wanted to be a heart surgeon."
After a year, she moved to the pastry kitchen of restaurant Lassere in Paris partly because she had learnt French in her European Studies course in university. She had already worked with Lassere's Michelin-starred chef Jean-Louis Nomicos, when he'd visited Singapore for the Raffles Wine, Food and Arts Festival.
After two years in Paris, Koh left to spend a year as Chef de Partie at the Burj al Arab in Dubai, and then relocated to Macau, where she worked under the well-known Chef Don Alfonso Iaccarino.
"Iaccarino was very produce-driven, and even had his own organic farm," says Koh, who learnt a new approach to cooking from him. "Instead of using cream for his pasta sauces, he would blend a zucchini. He then used that paste to provide the creamy sensation. He really believed in healthy living."
Those lessons served her well.
She says: "I now use an olive oil sponge cake to make my classic French Fraisier instead of butter, so I take elements of what I've learned, but the flavours stay authentic."
Subsequently, Koh had a four-year stint in Hong Kong's Cepage, part of the Les Amis group. But at the end of Cepage's lease, Les Amis chose not to renew it. So Koh returned to Singapore to work for Les Amis here, under its head chef Sebastien Lepinoy.
Despite having worked in so many restaurants abroad, Koh has no plans to leave Singapore for now. She says: "Working with Les Amis has given me so many opportunities to do the things I want, and there's no better place than right here."
In fact, Koh says that she often goes cycling with Lepinoy and the Les Amis team three to four times a week after the restaurant closes. On weekends, the team can clock distances of up to 60km. That frequent exercise could help explain Koh's petite frame, despite working with calorie-laden confection.
But Koh chimes in: "Being baker and a pastry chef is more physically demanding than most people realise! I'm actually trying to gain weight!"
By Avanti Nim
Mad About Sucre
27 Teo Hong Rd Tel 6221 3969
Open Tue to Thu, 11.30am-10.30pm; Fri to Sat, 11.30am-11pm; Sun, 10am-5pm; closed on Mon
STEP into cake shop Mad About Sucre on Teo Hong Road, and you'll see a petite woman, her face full of concentration, kneading dough or laying slices of sponge cake on top of blocks of cheese mousse.
That woman is Lena Chan, Mad About Sucre's cake couturier. Chan, 40 and a mother of two, has been baking actively for the last 15 years.
Back then she was working in a bank, and baking was her way of de-stressing.
"Lena would go into her 'zone' when she's baking," says Eric Chan, her older brother. The siblings, together with another two other partners, set up the cake shop, which opened last Sunday. "Baking made her feel rested."
Chan began making allergen-free cakes and breads, so that her children could enjoy the goodies too.
Often, she would be working in the day and baking at night. But knowing that her passion was really in baking rather than crunching numbers, she decided to give up her job and went to train at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris.
She spent some years working at Sugarplum Cake Shop where she was head decorator at the top wedding cake specialist. After about two years living in Paris, she decided it was time for her family to return home.
"Opening a cake shop has always been a dream," she says. "I used to ask myself, why don't I open one, but I didn't have an answer then."
Eric felt that at her age, his sister might have a difficult time finding a job and encouraged her to pursue her passion instead. The result is Mad About Sucre. Lena takes charge of the kitchen while the other three partners take care of the non-culinary matters.
Chan has about 40 cake recipes in her repertoire but for now she is introducing five. "The five are my family's favourites. They have also passed my kids' taste test," she quips.
There's the Passionne, a very light passion fruit cheese cake, and the San Domingue, shaped in a ball topped with a dainty chocolate box. This cake is made of mousse made from 70 per cent single origin chocolate, with caramelised plantain, vanilla cream and a crunchy base made from butter from Brittany.
Another favourite is the Coco Citron, a coconut mousse on top of a lemon curd, with sprinkled crystal drops made from melted sugar on it. On first bite the citrusy lemon taste comes through followed by the familiar taste of coconut.
On how she came up with the combination, Chan says: "Coconut tends to be rich, so I wanted to pair it with something light." She tried lemon and key lime but found that the former worked better.
Regardless of her recipe, she makes sure that the sugar level is kept low, and only unbleached raw sugar is used. Ms Chan also uses only organic, unbleached flour and Himalayan pink salt. She doesn't used any premixes, artificial flavourings or stabilisers. Her cakes tend to be in muted colours, because no artificial colourings have been added. Instead, she uses fruit puree to create colours.
Some bakers or pastry chefs may bank on making their cakes look better than they taste, but for Chan, "taste and texture are more important, but how a cake looks matter too. So I try to strike a balance."
She describes her style of cakes as simple and elegant.
Asked what makes her different from other bakers, Chan says that most either do pastries and cakes or just cake decorating. "I do both," she says.
As a cake decorator, she works with fondants, and the cakes are popular for anniversary celebrations. Her sugar flowers look amazingly real. It turns out that Chan had taken floral arrangements lessons before and is very familiar about working with flowers.
She declines to go into specifics but says that her pastries and wedding cakes are sold to a few top hotels as well.
Together with an assistant, Chan bakes in small batches throughout the day to keep her cakes fresh. But unlike before when she was baking to de-stress, "now I have to work faster to keep up with demand", she says. Thankfully, her training in Paris means she knows best how to manage her time.
As a baker, her hours are long, sometimes up to 15 hours a day. "I was also working such long hours when I was working in the bank, but I'm much happier to be spending so much time in the kitchen," she says.
By Tay Suan Chiang
333 Kreta Ayer Rd #01-14 Tel 6536-8087
Open Mon & Sun, 12pm-5pm; Wed to Sat, 12pm-9.30pm; closed Tues
MOST first time entrepreneurs would take the safe route: spend some time working in say, a bakery, before starting their own business. Georgina Sim is one confident woman. Together with her sister Glenda, she recently opened Euopean-styled patisserie, Les Delices, in Kreta Ayer.
Georgina, 26, does all the baking while Glenda, 30, runs the front of the shop.
Younger sister Georgina's passion in baking started five years ago.
"I'm into French pastries and come up with my own recipes," says Georgina. "The French value their pastries and pastries make people happy, which is what I want to do too."
Georgina trained at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris where she learnt the basic techniques for making pastries and cakes: "I learnt how to make everything from scratch." She found making sugar art the hardest as she had to work with the sugar at high temperatures and sometimes ended up with burns.
Armed with skills and inspiration, she returned to Singapore and started an online cake business with Glenda selling American cakes, also known as layered cakes. "After graduation, I knew I wanted to open my own shop, but I needed time to perfect my recipes, hence the online cake business," says Georgina.
She stuck to her dream of opening a patisserie, and the opportunity to do so came last year when they found a suitable space in Chinatown.
Glenda says they'd always eyed the Keong Saik area but found the rents there too expensive. Their location now is across the road from Keong Saik and they've managed to capture that crowd. "Most people would head there for dinner and come over for dessert," says Glenda.
Rather than offer customised cakes which are all the rage now, Georgina has focused solely on French pastries to showcase her skills.
Choux pastries are her specialty. "The choux pastry is a simple yet classic French dessert," says Georgina. "I feel most people would want something simple."
For now, her choux pastries come in three flavours: earl grey, matcha and chocolate. "I've plans to introduce more flavours," she says.
Georgina says the Heavenly Chocolate Dome is a real test of her skills. It comes with a five-layer Valrhona Guanaja, 70 per cent chocolate and hazelnut mousse, crispy praline coating, hazelnut dacquoise, and a dome glazing. "It's a time-consuming process to put all the five layers together," she explains.
Her parents are her tasters and ironically they don't like eating cake. "They are very particular and if they want to eat my cakes, then I'm quite confident that they must taste good." Georgina made the Choco-Nana, a chocolate and banana cake, for her father's birthday and he liked it so much that he told her that it should be on the menu.
Where possible, Georgina adds surprises to her cakes. For instance, popping candy makes an appearance in the base of a cheesecake to give it an extra element and crunch for her Berry Popping Cheesecake. "I'm constantly on the look out for unusual ingredients that I can add to my cakes," she says. "Recipes are always running through my mind."
The sisters also worked with a tea expert to come up with pairings for their cakes. They don't just pair the cakes with the usual English teas but with Chinese tea as well. For example, Shuixian tea goes well with the Heavenly Chocolate Dome. "The tea helps to cut the richness of the chocolate," says Georgina.
Inspired by French cafes, Les Delices is decked out to resemble one. A long bar table by the window allows diners to people watch while enjoying their cake. More seating will be added in the next month. On the walls are photographs of Paris taken by Georgina.
As first-time entrepreneurs, opening the shop has been a learning experience for them, from working with contractors to fit out the space, to getting the right equipment for the kitchen.
"Now the focus is on the cakes, and creating more recipes," says Georgina, who doesn't mind that she's spending everyday at the shop.
"I've no time to go out now, so I tell my friends to all meet me here."
By Tay Suan Chiang
A refined plate
Selfish Gene Patisserie
40 Craig Road, Level 2 Tel 6423-1324
Open Wed to Thu, 6pm-10pm; Fri to Sat, 12pm-5pm, 6pm-10pm; Sun, 12pm-5pm. Closed on Mon and Tue
IT'S been six years since Gene Mok began his career in the F&B industry, and things have come full circle as he returns to his first love - sweets and pastry.
"My initial goal for learning how to cook was to become a pastry chef, but I got redirected by my chef at the time," says Mok, who studied at Le Cordon Bleu in Australia before getting a job at a French restaurant in Singapore.
"He encouraged me to try savoury first then go back to pastry, to get more exposure, so I just ran with that," he said.
So it was just two weeks ago that Mr Mok finally started his own dessert restaurant - Selfish Gene Patisserie, on the second floor of the shophouse in Tanjong Pagar that also houses his three-year-old cafe, Selfish Gene Cafe. Unlike the cafe, which offers counter service and a more laid back, casual vibe, the patisserie is cosier with its wooden furniture and is more suited for slow post-dinner conversation.
The patisserie is "not a cake shop and (is) never going to be a cake shop" however, clarifies Mok.
"The name 'patisserie' in this case just means we bother to make stuff - we do our cakes, our ice cream, our sauces, everything. We don't just put a scoop of ice cream and serve it to people, it's plated desserts where we have different components that we make ourselves," he says.
Which is why his menu is a specialised one of just seven plated desserts (S$12 - S$14), most of which are his own original creations.
He says: "I'm more of a savoury cook now, and the thing about plated desserts is that it's a savoury cook's take on patisserie." He goes on to explain: "A pastry chef looks at things as a singular unit - a cake, a pudding, a sauce. But non-pastry chefs deconstruct desserts. This method allows them to make the different components separately and bring out flavours and textures better than with just a slice of cake."
It's not something that Singaporeans are used to just yet though, observes Mok. Most customers do not know what to expect when they place their order, which is why he keeps the desserts as uncomplicated as possible, and simply names them after their main ingredients.
For example, Lime Lychee is made up of lime ice, lychee ice, lime ice-cream, lychee, and nata de coco. Soya is made up of soya components like tofu cheesecake, red bean, mochi, red miso, and green tea ice-cream, while Chocolate is made up of dark chocolate cake, chocolate ganache, orange confit, and orange ice cream.
"The idea is to bring simple, familiar flavours and try to make them into something more refined. People expect a bit more when they see a two-digit price for a dessert, so we wanted to do something that will let us flex our muscles a bit and go out of the box," says Mok.
All seven items on the menu are carefully arranged from lightest flavours to the heaviest, beginning with Lime Lychee, then Lemon, Pineapple, Coconut, Soya, Ginger, and Chocolate. Mok also intends to eventually add a special item that will be renewed every now and then.
So far, customers have been relatively receptive, which is why Mok remains positive that local diners are mature enough for desserts like his.
He says: "Some places you go, you get a huge slice of cake and after the second mouthful you're tired because you know the next 20 mouthfuls will taste the same. But desserts like this, you combine the different elements - the sauce, the cheesecake, the crumble - every mouthful is balanced, yet slightly different."
By Rachel Loi