Baker Lee Kok Seng talks to Aneeta Sundararaj about his mission to revive the old ways of making bread
THE next time you’re in a bakery, consider the ingredients used to make the loaf of bread you’re buying. Other than the basic flour and water, you may also find they include things such as emulsifiers, dough conditioners and other chemicals.
You won’t find such ingredients in breads made by Tommy Lee Kok Seng. “My passion is to nurture flour and fermentation,” says this 38-year-old baker, who is passionate about all things French. With absolute certainty, he adds: “Wheat flour has chosen me to speak on its behalf.”
Trained as a pastry chef, Lee has no plans to open a bakery. In fact, he used to work for a company that did troubleshooting for industrial bakers and he sold the very ingredients he now refuses to use. Then, fate intervened. During the time he took unpaid leave to look after his terminally ill father, he had time to ponder his career. “I was tired of eating bread that was rich in sugars and oils. I wanted to eat bread like how it was before.”
Lee also wondered about people’s resistance towards bread. “I couldn’t understand it. We have been eating bread for so long. Suddenly, you have to have gluten-free bread and other things like that. Where did people get all these allergies from?”
He carried out extensive research on bread making and the various ingredients used. “The main culprits are bakers. They don’t allow time for the fermentation process,” he says on his findings.
“One day, while on a bus, I chanced upon an Indian flour mill. There I found wheat flour, which the Indians call atta flour. And they grind the wheat using a stone mill. This means that not too much heat is used to grind the wheat into flour.” With a twinkle in his eye, he says: “I found gold.”
Lee brought two kilogrammes of this unprocessed wheat flour home and started his experiments. Bread making, he says involves the process of fermenting grain using yeast. Fermentation releases sugars trapped in complex starch molecules and also aids in the creation of gluten. The process determines the quality and texture of a bread.
“When I saw that I could use things around my neighbourhood to create great bread, I realised that this was something that I wanted to do,” says Lee. By November 2010, he located a space in Viva Residence, off Jalan Ipoh, and opened his bakery, Tommy Le Baker. He offered four bread varieties (baguettes, sour dough, bran loaf and rye bread), a tart and a banana loaf.
“I had a lot of problems in the beginning,” he says, drawing on his cigarette. “Nobody in the family understood why I was doing it. The management of this building wanted a layout plan. They asked me what the concept was.” Shaking his head, he adds: “I had nothing of such. I just wanted my own space.”
Lee’s life history makes it obvious, though. This is a man who will not shy away from doing something just because it’s difficult or challenging. After completing his schooling in Singapore, he chose to pursue an Advanced Diploma in French Linguistics.
“I studied Language, Rhetoric and French Business. Rhetoric was very hard because I didn’t know what it was. But I wanted to do it. If I have a choice between studying something I know and don’t know, I’ll choose what I don’t know.
Then, when what I don’t know is on par with what I know, I’ll have a choice. And having a choice is power. Rhetoric is the art of substantiating arguments. Don’t simply say something. If you want to say, make sure you have something to substantiate what you say.”
Giving Tommy Le Baker a sweeping glance, this marathon runner says: “This is my workshop for fermentation. It’s an orderly mess.” Above the sounds coming from the radio, which is tuned to the French channel France Bleu Basse Normandie, he adds: “It’s quaint and tiny. It’s where I can do my own thing.”
Asked what’s the first thing Lee associates with France, his answer is a simple: “Starving”.
It wasn’t because the couple he was staying with didn’t feed him. In fact, he joined them for dinner each day. However, for a Chinese man who grew up accustomed to eating rice and noodles, he thought that each meal in France consisted of only salad and meat, and ignored the bread. Then, he wondered how people could eat bread for dinner and ended up secretly stashing away biscuits in his room.
“Then, one day,” says Lee “at the end of the meal, my host said ‘dessert’. But she said it as though she was asking a question. It hit me that dessert is an option and everything else on the table such as meat, salad and of course, bread was a necessity.”
This newfound respect and belief that bread is a necessity permeates every facet of his life, down to the layout of his bakery: “See, the bread part is in front. The pastries and cakes are on the left, hidden a bit.” Lee is emphatic when he adds: “It’s as though the bread is saying, ‘Don’t worry. You eat me every day. I make you strong, but you don’t have to notice me.’ So, I’m going to bring bread back to the front.”
For those who have doubts on Lee’s seriousness in championing the process of fermentation, here is his explanation: “I like to think that I’ve brought together all the elements to make a bread. Now, I have to give them time before I intervene and take them to another level. I imagine what’s happening inside the dough. There’s the mummy yeast and the papa yeast. They need time to ‘make love’ and make babies. If I increase the heat they will make too many babies who are agitated. If it’s too cold, they are just stiff. So, I need to give them the ideal environment to create beautiful children.”
While that explanation may border on the absurd, Lee says: “Don’t laugh. Sometimes, when I tell people about fermentation and I used words such as enzymes and starch, they give me a blur look. When I use this, with love and sex, they get it.”
Lee message is clear: “I believe that we should respect what nature gives us. I think of what I’m doing as more mission work than business. We should nurture what nature gives us, revive the process of making bread and elevate its nutritional value.”
走近Tommy le Baker，就听到旋律轻快的法国香颂，在欧洲个店风格的务实空间琉淌。门前有个小橱柜，上半是玻璃柜子，里面塞满大块头的面包，下半钉了镬薄木片，木片上贴了手写字条和法国电影节的海报。 另一侧有一个较小的橱柜，里面有合桃塔、柠檬塔、香蕉杏仁奶油塔等四五款点心，还有两三种芝士。
这家面包店里，没有满坑满谷的面包，更看不到外表花俏的松软系面包，算来算去，面包大约有6款，有修长的法国棍子面包(Baguette)，做成三文治面 包模样的诺曼地面包和麦糠面包，以及憨厚黝黑的乡村面包(Pain de Campagne sur Levain)和圆滚滚的农夫面包(Pain au Levain Natural)。它们长得很纯朴，看起来都硬硬的，掰开面包，扑鼻而来的是淡淡单纯麦香。面包上面沾了白色面粉，客人选了面包后，店员会拿刷子用力刷两 下，把面粉刷掉，再用一张带点透明的薄纸包起来，装在淡褐色纸袋里。 前面是门市，后面则是厨房，大袋面粉叠放在地上，再过去是打面团的搅拌机，靠墙站立的是巨形烤箱。另一端则有面包师的工作台，台下装了柜子，是让面团自然发酵的地方。 Tommy忙了半天，正坐在面包橱柜后吃面，于是我要了咖啡，到走廊上吹风透气。外面艳阳高照，店里却没有开冷气，一团热空气闷在里面，让人怪难受的。我 知道我不应该有怨言，因为这里是手工面包店，是传统欧式面包诞生的地方，而自然发酵中的面包，她们最喜欢温暖无风的环境了！
外国社群，打打交道，但他不知哪来一股牛劲，一口拒绝。“我说，我只想做面包，不想去做那些琐碎的事，也不去想有没有人来 买我的面包。如果我一直在想有没有人买面包，我就不会开店了！” 开店不久，一个土耳其人上门了，他问了一句话：你的面包有没有下糖？Tommy答说没有，对方买了面包就走。不久，这位土耳其人又再回来买面包，“那一刻，我就知道我做对了！” 人家开店，都喜欢做些漂亮又吸睛的甜点，吸引顾客上门，但他却道：“甜点永远只是一个选择，如果我以甜点为主，那就本末倒置了！” 他也不凑热闹，卖时下流行的法式甜点如马卡龙，他叹口气道：“巴黎人现在迷上了和风式的法式甜点，法国人变样。” 捱了几年，知道Tommy Le Baker 面包店的人渐渐多了，也有美食博客称他是“城中三大面包师之一”。对此，他只是淡淡微笑，说道：“我听了就算，不会在意，反而还有点不放心。为什么要比较？为什么你们不去了解什么是酸味酵头？那个更重要。” 他希望人们不要把手工面包看成是一种流行新风尚，他只想反璞归真，告诉人们什么才是真的面包，真的食物。 小店里，到处贴有Tommy的手写文字，一些是法文，大部分是英文。冰箱上有一段，写的是他复兴传统手工面包的理念，上面又有一张褐色纸皮，洋洋洒洒写了 很长，读了颇令人动容————手工面包是把我们拥有的发挥到极致、是感恩泥土上长出来的一切……我们买得起的东西太多太多了，但只有手作，可以让我们充满 生气，让我们感受人性，从复杂到简单，从花俏回归平淡，这样的味觉经验，是自我美食经验成长的一大步。