Leading the Fine Dining of Pastries in Singapore: Chef Pang Kok Keong

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Epoch Times, Singapore Edition (Issue 496, Oct 3 – Oct 16, 2014)

By James Lee
Epoch Times Staff

In Singapore, one usually thinks of cakes and pastries as casual treats or snacks. However, delicately designed cakes and fine pastries take centre stage here in Antoinette, a local chain of patisseries.

Set in the heart of the city, Antoinette recreates the elegance and splendour of 18th century French aristocracy, with its intricate decor of light mahogany and ivory bathed in soft amber light. Its luxurious ambience and exquisite cuisine have earned it a loyal fanbase in Singapore.

Behind the success of Antoinette is Chef Pang Kok Keong—the man who gave the patisserrie its heart and soul. Aged 39 this year, Pang is the founder of the Sugar Daddy Group, a dessert-centric, food-and-beverage brand that has two chains—Antoinette and Pique Nique—under its name.

In the cosy environment of Antoinette’s elegant French decor, Pang shared with us, in an amicable Singaporean accent, his dreams and philosophies as a chef and the stories of his culinary adventures.

Can you tell us about your past experiences as a chef?
My first experience with cooking at restaurants occurred when I was still in secondary school. I worked at a Cantonese noodle house where I would stir the congee for hours.

After graduating from the hospitality school SHATEC, I worked at various restaurants before joining Daniel Tay at Bakerzin, one of the biggest patisserie chains in Singapore. The next milestone in my career was when I joined the prestigious Les Amis group. There, I had the freedom to create Canele, a patisserie chain. It was a great experience, but I eventually decided to leave after six years as I wanted to create a distinct style of my own and I wanted to achieve something while I was still young. That was how Antoinette was created.

How is Antoinette different from other restaurants?
At Antoinette, we create a very rich French ambience. As for our menu, it’s different. All chefs inject their own personality into the dishes.

For me, I love my food to be wholesome and bold. If you try our shallot red wine sauce, it is rich. I think that’s what classic French cuisine is about.

Last but not least, Antoinette is unique as it is a patisserie, a tea salon and also a restaurant at the same time. We want people to think of us for every occasion, be it afternoon tea or breakfast, lunch, or dinner.

What are you working on at the moment?
Right now, we are busy preparing for Christmas. Every year, we introduce a new Christmas gift box. For the past decade, I have also been making chocolate Christmas trees, as well as a new Christmas dining menu each year.

More recently, we are placing more emphasis on our savoury dishes. People always associate us with pastries, and we want to show that we serve good savoury dishes as well. We have just introduced a new savoury menu last month. One of the highlights on the menu is the petite garden of Antoinette—a salad designed like a garden.

Apart from menu creation, how is it like creating and running a restaurant chain?
Our restaurants always look merry from the outside, but you actually face many challenges within.

Restaurants nowadays always talk about labour crunch. Likewise, we are faced with a challenge to operate at high output but low headcount. It is difficult but we are managing.

Personally, I avoid machines in my restaurant. I don’t want people coming in my kitchen to become a machine operator. I want them to learn a skill and to grow, so that they can leave my kitchen with a set of skills, just as I did 20 years ago from other kitchens.

This might be a bit idealistic [and] old fashioned, but it is my philosophy. Besides, machines can never replace the [human] touch. This is a restaurant, not a food factory. How do you expect a machine to pan-fry a duck breast?

Indeed. And as the mentor of younger generation of chefs, what would you say to those aspiring to enter the F&B industry?

I think many young chefs these days focus on monetary returns. I feel that money can always come later. It is more important to develop your skills and fundamentals.

When I was at their position 15 years ago, I took a huge pay cut to work for Daniel Tay. It was a decision that I never regretted. In restaurants, you would be cooking 3-5 types of desserts day in, day out. But in a pastry shop, you get to do so many other things.

When I was young, I made sure that in every kitchen that I worked, I would be the fastest, the best. I think if you have this attitude, you will definitely excel. A career in F&B is unlike other careers. I had the opportunity to be both in front and sat the back, so I know what everyone is going through. F&B is not where you work for a fixed hour and get paid a lot. How much you are paid often depends on your effort, your devotion, and your skill.

What is the next step for your restaurants?
I hope that through Antoinette, I will be able to bring the culture of cake appreciation to Singaporeans. The culture of cake eating here is very young. Although cakes are everywhere in our lives, few truly understand them.

We are, for lack of better words, a fine dining of cakes. We are not just serving cakes, but also creating an experience through the ambience, service, right down to the plates that we serve the cakes on.

I always feel heartened when people appreciate us. These are the people that know how much effort is put into each cake and what we are trying to do.

Quotes
“I’m not about being trendy or hipster. It’s about a level of comfort… a connection, a continuity with the past.”

“Compared to other restaurants, we have both variety and depth. We are very complete.”

“My food evokes a certain timelessness… I am inspired by the past, its traditions and its elegance, but I create for the present. And I want my food to reflect this.”

“I feel that the clean, light profile of Chinese tea goes well with desserts especially pastry, while the iced teas are visually appealing, and remind me of a garden picnic!”
– Chef Pang Kok Keong

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