The smell of fresh pastry, regardless of where we are in the world, never fails to capture our attention and tease our appetites. An evergreen subject of interest for many of us, finding new bakeries and indulging in fresh confectionery creations have become one of our simplest, yet purest, bringer of joy and pleasure.
Renowned for their locally-inspired treats and rich flavours of our vibrant heritage, we speak to Daniel Tay, the founder of Old Seng Choong himself to find out more about what it’s like being the man behind one of our country’s favourite Singaporean bakes and his successful foray into serving up specialty cheesecakes with Cat & the Fiddle.
Tell us more about how you found your passion in the culinary arts.
From a young age, I actually aspired to be a fashion designer. But as I pursued that path, I started to realise that I didn’t really have a passion for it. Conversely, I rather quickly realised that my passion was actually in baking. I picked it up really easily, almost too effortlessly in fact – and that of course spurred me on even more. For lack of a better description, it felt like I was tapping into a talent that I was born with. It really helped that I have a fantastic palate. I can remember a myriad of tastes and reconstruct them in my mind.
From baking, I was also able to add an element of artistry, which was pretty much why I wanted to go into fashion design in the first place. The culinary arts, to me, is really about culinary and art.
If we go right to the beginning, my father had a bakery store and I was inspired in big part by my background.
Apart from your father, who would you name as your professional inspiration?
I’d say Roy Chung, who runs a school in Bangkok that teaches baking science, inspires me the most. He taught me a lot on the technical aspects of baking and on the art of precision.
What is it about traditional treats that appeal so much to you?
I started out with French pastries, and I was all about them in my 30s. But by my 40s, I found that I really wanted to promote my own culture’s desserts, offerings, and heritage instead of another culture’s, and that’s how Old Seng Choong and our traditional offerings were born.
With your experience in culinary techniques from both Asian and European cultures, could you tell us what are the major differences between Asian and European bakes?
On the European end, their confectionery is mainly cream-based, most of them revolving around the use of dairy products. For the Asians, most likely due to a lack of resources in the past, we tend to use more lard for our base, applying ingredients that produce a range of different flavours, including products like spice pies.
What are your favourite types of pastry to bake?
I really enjoy Chinese pastries with a hint of European flavours, such as truffles and Iberico ham – in fact, we’re about to launch a similar product. These days, my baking focus tend to follow trends and ideas that would help to build and further my business.
Personally, I really enjoy traditional hot Chinese desserts and sweet soup.
How did the idea for Cat & the Fiddle come about?
Way back when my first venture flopped, I was already baking cheesecakes at home. Then, there was Bakerzin and cheesecake was one of our bestsellers. We had a cheesecake that wasn’t too rich or sweet, that was just right and even slightly refreshing. So I eventually tapped on the recipe when exploring new opportunities.
I wanted to launch a specialised cheesecake shop, but also did not want to create anything too fancy. So if you look at Cat & the Fiddle, our products are really straightforward and people immediately understand what they’re being offered when they encounter them.
What are some memorable lessons you’ve gone through on your journey setting up a pastry/cheesecake business in Singapore?
There’ll be some businesses that succeed immediately, and there’ll some like Old Seng Choong and Terminal 2, that immediately faced a global pandemic after launching. There were actually times when we were at $0 in earnings, so it’s absolutely important to be able to quickly adapt and pivot, but still persevere in your concept and vision. The key, I would say, is to be flexible in what you sell.
You’re really progressive as an entrepreneur, always looking out for new and innovative ways to expand on what you can offer – what are some of your biggest focuses in recent times?
The next phase for Old Seng Choong, of course. It’ll be the next big concept and another milestone for us. We’re looking to shake things up as a brand with all-new concepts on how we sell confectionery.
Could you also share with us some of the upcoming food innovation/technology that we can look forward to from yourself and your team?
We’re already doing things differently from normal bakeries – in fact, we’ve done that from the beginning, hence the quick growth in our cheesecake business. One of our major projects now is in exploring innovative methods in the way we produce Chinese pastries. We’re constantly on the lookout for and investing in new machines and technology that will improve productivity.