From Singapore to Taiwan: Asia’s best pastry chef Angela Lai thanks mum for inspiration
Making fruit tarts and cream puffs with her mother as a child paved the way for the chef's mastery of pastry on the global stage.
Angela Lai might be cooking all the way in Taiwan’s acclaimed Tairroir restaurant, but the recently named Asia’s Best Pastry Chef for 2021 still holds fast to Singapore touches when it comes to dreaming up desserts.
In one of the two-Michelin-starred restaurant’s signature sweets, Pineapple Cake, for instance, the Singapore-born chef added star anise to Taiwan pineapple marmalade and cooked it in the same way she would make pineapple tarts back home.
She then integrated the jam into a dessert with camellia oil sable, pineapple sorbet, and rum and raisin curd.
The 35-year-old credits her award, which was given by The World's 50 Best Restaurants, not just to “passion and perseverance in creating pastries” but also the joy she feels in “reinterpreting the culture of Taiwan using local produce and the techniques that I’ve learnt.”
Tairroir is a restaurant that deconstructs Taiwanese cooking, merging it with French techniques and using seasonal local produce.
Lai’s other creations are familiar yet inspiring for those who grew up in Asia: Pong Pia, for example, recalls the flaky molasses-filled pastry but features dark brown sugar, Madong chocolate cremeux and sesame oil ice cream in a sophisticated new take.
Joining the Tairroir team when the restaurant opened in 2015 – Lai and Taiwanese head chef Kai Ho previously worked together at Guy Savoy in Marina Bay Sands – she quickly adapted to life in Taipei.
“I fell in love with Taiwan the first time I travelled here for holiday (because of) the four seasons, different culture and amazing local produce,” Lai told CNA Lifestyle via email.
She appreciated the enthusiasm and kindness of the Taiwanese people, remembering an occasion when she got lost and a couple went far out of their way to take her to her destination.
Having to adapt to life in a place with earthquakes and typhoons was nearly as big a change as when she left a corporate job to pursue a career in the kitchen.
“I used to be a sales assistant in Swissotel Merchant Court’s Sales and Marketing Department… picking up calls, taking inquiries, handling paperwork, doing site inspections and organising stuff,” Lai said.
In 2008, after a year on the job, she left to earn a diploma in pastry and baking arts at At-Sunrice GlobalChef Academy.
She then worked her way through kitchens including those of The Fullerton Hotel Singapore and Marina Bay Sands.
Her life now is “totally different”, involving “thinking a lot on your feet” and “way longer working hours". But, “I’m definitely happier in the kitchen.”
It was a love affair that started at the age of five, inspired by her mother.
“I used to bake with her when I was little and I've enjoyed being in the kitchen ever since. She definitely brings out that passion I have for pastry and baking,” Lai said, recalling the fruit tarts and cream puffs they made together when she was a child.
What’s more, her mum being “more than 100 per cent supportive of my career choice” is “one of the reasons I’m here today.”
As a pastry chef, people often assume she only bakes cakes for a living, she said with a laugh.
“It is way more than that. Having the passion for what you are doing, loving what you do and enjoying the whole process is very important to me.”
If there’s one thing she could change about herself, she admitted candidly, it would be “my bad temper”. “I’m pretty tame now, but I guess it still can be better,” she laughed.
No, “I didn’t throw things that would break – too expensive to do so – but I threw spoons into the sink.” And, yes, “I did make people cry back then.”
The turning point came when “I opened up and had a good talk with my team and realised the problem lay in my temper. So, I told myself I had to take it in, in order to grow together with the team”.
Life looks pretty rosy right now, and while she’s open to whatever opportunities the future might hold, “I’m definitely moving back home again” at some point, she said.
When she misses home, she told us, her comfort food is salted egg yolk fish skin or potato chips. “It makes me feel closer to home,” she said.