Tommy wants us to break (and eat) bread together

KUALA LUMPUR, Feb 1 — In Asia, bread is usually considered a snack or something to sop up some gravy or curry with.

Soft textured breads with a sweet taste are often preferred over European breads that are labelled “too hard” or even “stale.”

Unfortunately these breads are often pumped up with additives to achieve its soft texture in the shortest time possible.

About three years ago, Tommy Lee Kok Seng, 39, decided to open his bakery, Tommy Le Baker to address this issue. “Where I used to live, people would eat bread in the mornings or the weekends only. The daily staple bread was straightforward and used four main ingredients – flour, water, salt and yeast. No sugar. No fats. No eggs. No milk powder.”

Be patient as you queue at the counter to order your breads, tarts and drinks
Be patient as you queue at the counter to order your breads, tarts and drinks

Previously a bread engineer in a Belgian company that sold ingredients to bakeries and patisseries around Asia, Tommy realised that the Asian bread industry was getting scary as more and more bakeries selling these soft breads kept opening up.

Tommy Lee with his natural leaven
Tommy Lee with his natural leaven

“Nobody will buy the bread with the least or no additives as it is hard.” He decided to take matters in his own hands to help Malaysians get over their fear of hard and crusty bread by opening his bakery in the most unlikely place... in the heartland of Jalan Ipoh.

“When I first started my bakery, people said... your bread is so hard it’ll kill the dog if you throw it or they asked, can old people eat this as my mother has no teeth? They always think of texture, texture, texture.” Tommy knew the key to win the war against soft breads was taste.

He achieved this through a slow fermentation process using time and the natural environment. “If you wait, you are able to create taste as the fermentation breaks down into micro-nutrients. My job is simple. As a baker, all I am doing is wait.”

Ask for your bread to be sliced (left). Layering ingredients for their delicious sandwiches (right)
Ask for your bread to be sliced (left). Layering ingredients for their delicious sandwiches (right)

Unlike commercial bakeries who proof their breads in a controlled environment to agitate the micro-organisms, Tommy lets the fermentation move naturally. “The flour needs time to be soaked for more micro-nutrients to be broken down.”

Fast forward to the present... and customers through word of mouth are happily buying the breads they once scoffed at. “The scoreboard is fantastic as it’s not the numbers but I am auto-filtering the kind of customers that want to know and search for taste.” The small unpretentious bakery has also become a social hub for many who gather here for his delicious sandwiches, tarts and cakes or pick up their breads – a close-knit community who appreciates good taste and crusty breads.

Old timers are frequent customers of Tommy Le Baker
Old timers are frequent customers of Tommy Le Baker

Rather than opening in Damansara and Bangsar which is frequented by what he calls the “Prada and Gucci crowd”, Tommy decided to conduct what he calls a sociology experiment in Jalan Ipoh. “People say I am chee sin to open here but I love to conquer this area.”

Hence his customers come from all walks of life; old uncles from Kepong, dispatch riders from Jalan Ipoh, mechanics from Segambut who bump shoulders together with French natives living in Kuala Lumpur. “They did not follow a Mat Salleh or a lifestyle, they are very honest to just come in and not be frightened by the hard crust bread. But it is the taste that hooked their palate and made them come back again.”

Once the bread is shaped, it is left to ferment in these banneton or wicker baskets (left). Seigle au levain or rye sourdough loaves (right)
Once the bread is shaped, it is left to ferment in these banneton or wicker baskets (left). Seigle au levain or rye sourdough loaves (right)

Tommy likens their attraction to his bread as reliving memories of the old-fashioned Hainanese cafe taste. “When you go to Hainanese cafes, they toast the bread and eat it with kaya and butter. With my bread, the toasted area is on the crust as it has the pronounced caramelisation of fermented wheat. As the crust is hard, you masticate the bread longer and that releases more flavour.”

Even young children are enamoured with the taste of his bread. “I love children as they don’t know how to say why but they will tell their parents that they want to eat Tommy’s bread.”

The bakery also sells quiche, tarts and cake (left). Wrap your preservative-free breads and store them in the freezer (right)
The bakery also sells quiche, tarts and cake (left). Wrap your preservative-free breads and store them in the freezer (right)

As you peek into Tommy’s compact bakery, you will spot his three apprentices who have been with him from Day One. “I train them to be like business owners, from making the bread, serving the customers to purchasing ingredients. It’s the best shop to learn as it’s small. It is a nurturing ground, the longer you soak you will become more pekat.”

He hopes to encourage them to venture out to open their own bakeries and train others. “The culture is still continuing which is important. It is not the multiplication of money but planting the culture in their hearts.” Many are attracted to Tommy’s success and often approach him for advice.

The cafe has a simple set-up with tables and chairs located on the footway
The cafe has a simple set-up with tables and chairs located on the footway

“Everyone comes in and has a business plan but I often tell them to come in and soak first for six weeks so I can talk to them in the same frequency.” Some parties have also approached him to franchise his bakery’s business, which he has turned down. Instead he prefers that they franchise the culture.

“Bread business is more about the culture, it is not about cafe lifestyle but culturing the taste to appreciate this kind of crust.”

Tommy Le Baker, B-LG-7, Viva Residency, 378, Jalan Ipoh, Kuala Lumpur. Tel:03-40432546. https://www.facebook.com/TommyLeBaker

This story was first published in Crave in the print edition of The Malay Mail on January 31, 2014

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