Cover Story: Tommy Lee, baker - the sequel

This article first appeared in Enterprise, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on April 9, 2018 - April 15, 2018.
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The first thing you have to remember is that Tommy Lee did not intend to set up a second bakery. After he opened his first — Tommy le Baker — in the “wilderness” of Sentul, Kuala Lumpur, selling sourdough bread to people who were accustomed to soft bread baked in industrial ovens and loaded with preservatives, he had a meltdown. So, he sold his business and travelled the world, tracing the history of bread to pre-Roman times.

On his travels, he ended up in strange places. For instance, a trip to Quito, Ecuador, landed him in the Galapagos Islands — the setting for Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species.

Before he left for his travels, however, he was approached by a young bassoon player, Terence Chong, who wanted to learn to make sourdough bread. Lee had not taken the request seriously. Many people had approached him, saying they wanted to start a bakery. But they had no idea what it entailed and they asked him in an idle sort of way, like flâneurs seeking distraction from their interminable boredom.

“People would come into my bakery and say, ‘You know, Tommy, I really want to start a bakery.’ I just nod affably and change the subject. Some, I question fiercely: What is burning in you that you want to start a bakery?” says Lee.

For the food business is associated with fire. And you must have something burning within you to get into it. “It is not an ‘I like to cook’ sort of thing. What do you like to do? Chop onions and garlic? Some people love their own cooking so much that they want to share it. You have to have that fire, like ‘Oh my God, I am so excited. This is so good!’”

But Chong was different. “I used to play the bassoon for the National Symphony Orchestra and during our breaks, we would go to his bakery for sandwiches. The first time I tasted sourdough was at his place and I fell in love with it at the first bite,” he says.

Chong went home and experimented, throwing flour, water and salt together. But he could not get it right because he did not know how to do it. Not being able to make sourdough from scratch, he experimented with simpler dishes. “I tried to cook spaghetti to share with my family and friends. And the more I cooked, the more I wanted to share,” he says.

From the beginning, he told Lee that he would like to start a bakery with him, someday, somehow. In addition to being a bassoon player, Chong was a sound engineer of some standing. He had won the prestigious BOH Cameronian Arts Award and his expertise was in demand.

Chong became a regular at Tommy le Baker. He would come over to talk about life, friends — in fact, anything under the sun. Lee can’t remember when Chong first broached the subject of starting a bakery together because he brushed the idea away and did not take it seriously. Then one day, Chong asked him to check out a place in Damansara Kim, Petaling Jaya.

“It looked like a good spot to start a café. He was thinking about moving some of my bread there, assembling it with different fillings, and just selling coffee. He was thinking we could do a joint venture and start an outpost like this,” says Lee.

For him, it was just the chance to get out of Sentul and explore other areas. “Because I was always in Sentul. I lived there. I woke up every day and went down to the bakery. My only transport was the lift that took me up and down. That’s it.”

Being an artist, Lee started to get restless. Stagnation depressed him. “I needed to have new excitement. I had to cook something for myself, but I did not know what. What I had created — Tommy le Baker — was now running on autopilot. I had enough regulars to be sustainable, but I was bored,” he says.

Lee describes what happened next as his “meltdown”. He sold his business, but retained the right to keep the name. Then, he went on a sabbatical to discover, if not the world, at least the ancient world of bread.

He travelled because he wanted to be detached from what he had created. But having studied languages in France, he was averse to going over old ground. “I did not wish to go where I used to live in Europe. I wanted to explore what came before the Roman Empire,” says Lee.

“So, I went to places such as Pompeii, all those lost civilisations. My dream was to go to Iran and see what used to be the Mesopotamian Empire. But eventually, I ended up in South America. I went to Chile and Patagonia to see nature, to see everything. It was amazing, but I realised that the people there were also very Europeanised.”

Lee went to Peru, where things were more localised. “There was more originality here. I followed the Inca trails, delved into places where there were unsolved mysteries, travelled by bus along the Nazca Lines ...”

He trundled along haphazardly, without a plan, and ended up in Quito. Surprisingly, he found it thumping with tourists, young and old. Being a sociable soul, he asked them what they were doing there and one and all, they told him that they were waiting for a boat to the Galapagos Islands.

Lee had never heard of the famous islands, so he googled it. He was blown away. So, through sheer happenstance, he managed to see the famous islands at a fraction of what it would have cost someone else.

As he travelled, he sloughed off his depression and came alive again. And during his travels, Chong remained in touch. “He would call and ask me to teach him how to make sourdough,” says Lee.

To him, sourdough is not something that can be taught. “It is something you start to explore and it gets into you, rather than you getting into it. Because you learn by feel, by exercising the notions of doing. And eventually, you realise you are doing — something. Is it done right or not?” says Lee.

“In France, when you study how to make sourdough, they don’t teach you. It is a process driven by nature — the nature of the enzymes in the wheat, the bacteria in the environment, the motions of putting a dry material called flour and combining it with water to make into a paste. And eventually, the paste turns into dough.”

This intricate, earthy process is brought about by the intervention of the baker. “So, the nobility of a baker’s job is to drive that fermentation to achieve a certain complexity,” he says.

Flour and water are simple ingredients. But when you put them together, hoping to turn them into food, complication takes place. “That is when gluten starts to appear, the starchy thing starts to develop. Once something is rendered complex, we have to denature the process. And by that, I mean we have to allow time to let this complexity be broken down into much simpler processes before we can drive it into the oven and turn it into food. That is the importance of making bread,” says Lee.

To him, bread is not something you learn to bake or something you eat for pleasure. It is so much more than that. And Lee was intent on discovering why something that is fundamentally nourishing has started to attack us.

“A lot of people who eat bread today face what I call inconvenience: the bloating of the stomach, allergies, gluten intolerance — that kind of thing. But bread is a social food; everyone eats it. It is like the social fabric, something so fundamental to us. So, we who make food, who make bread, have a social responsibility to find out what happened to bread,” he says.

For someone who looks at bread as a calling, almost a religion, being asked to “teach me to make sourdough” did not sit well with him. So, he called Chong and laid down a few ground rules. First, if he was serious, he would need to increase his share of investment in the bakery.

“I asked him, ‘How much money do you have? Not your mother’s money, not your father’s money, not your wife’s money, but yours. How much?’” says Lee.

That was because he wanted Chong to commit his own money and not have anyone else with an interest in the business hovering in the background. That way, they were free to try, to experiment and, dare he say it, to fail.

Not that Lee considers any venture a failure. “For me, if you come into a business and it is not sustainable, it is still a success because you have succeeded in starting a business.”

Chong calculated his net worth and told him that he could lay his hands on RM70,000. Some of it was cash and some was in unit trusts and insurance plans. “I told him I would introduce him into my company, which was then dormant because I was on a sabbatical, and I would put in another RM70,000,” says Lee.

That way, they would be 50:50 partners. Lee preferred not to be the controlling partner. He wanted everything done by mutual agreement. “If we agree, we will proceed. If we disagree, either you convince me in terms of your business rhetoric or we don’t move. So, that was how we came together to set up this partnership,” he says.

Lee also questioned Chong about his time commitment. “At the time, he was rushing into another life plan. He was doing a lot of international shows and local productions for musicals as he was a sought-after sound engineer. He told me he had his last job as a sound engineer on a particular date and if I confirmed that I would collaborate with him in the breadmaking process, he would not accept any more sound engineering jobs,” he says.


It takes two to tango

After they completed the formalities of setting up their partnership, they needed to scout for a suitable location for their operation. “In my head, our new place would be a baker’s laboratory, not a café or bakery. It would be a laboratory for us to make bread,” says Lee.

Someone introduced him to a space in the Zhongshan Building in Kampung Attap and he liked what he saw. “It was a nice little pocket in KL and I liked it. A lot of people like to argue that when you want to start a business, you must have enough foot traffic. They ask you what is your catchment area and things like that,” says Lee.

He sees things differently though. “I am doing something very romantic with dough and we cannot rush it. If we were to go to a shopping mall, we would have to rush the dough because of the foot traffic, because we must have something to sell,” he says.

This way, he could continue to experiment at a more leisurely pace, without being driven by customers or economic necessity. He also had to teach Chong how to tango. “Tango means we communicate silently. There is no speech, there is only feel. By feel, we know how to move, how to anticipate what is needed, how to help each other. It is when two bodies come into contact to work together and the heart is one,” says Lee.

“That is what I told him. It is how the synergy of this particular thing has to happen. It does not work in your head. You cannot keep thinking, ‘I want it to happen’ or ‘I want to be more productive’ or ‘how do I better myself?’ This is unconscious, this is by default.”

Strangely enough, Chong knew where he was coming from. Being from an artistic, musical background, he was used to doing things more fluidly, by feel. After all, the members of the orchestra have to listen and respond to each other. They have to blend and harmonise rather than scream. There are subtle adjustments being made all the time, without words. “It is about how to present the same repertoire, in the same direction, without talking,” he says.

To teach Chong how to make sourdough bread, Lee had to create the right environment. “Your body is like a teabag. The more time you spend there, the more you will be imprinted by the environment. And that is how you dwell and work in this environment. I always tell people, ‘Don’t think you can be a baker just because you want to. If this profession doesn’t adopt you, you will always struggle’,” he says.

This process of adoption is something subtle and nebulous. It has to do with letting go and allowing your other faculties to take over. “Stop thinking that you want to learn. You are like a sponge. In the right environment (that is, the baker’s lab), you pick up things by default,” says Lee.

So, this is the little baker’s laboratory that he has created in the Zhongshan Building. The space, which occupies the courtyard behind the Naiise store, has already started attracting a certain type of crowd — tourists, the artsy crowd and as always, a small brood of regulars who go out of their way to look for Lee to buy his bread.  

Lee has pared the bakery down to the essentials. They only make sourdough bread — no croissants, brioche or lemon tarts. “I have the opportunity to strip it down to the fundamentals of bread, to start from scratch with flour, salt and water. I want to look at the process of fermentation and denaturalisation. I want to look into the digestibility of gluten, to see what it takes to make a safe piece of bread,” he says.

Lee is not talking about healthy bread. He is talking about basic food safety. “Your food should not make you feel uncomfortable. Why is it doing that? That is what I want to find out,” he says.

Lee says people are barking up the wrong tree when they blame it on the gluten “For me, the culprit is the baker.”

Why? Because of the industrialisation of the breadmaking process. “Gluten is like our muscles and making a dough involves punching the muscles all the time. When you are constantly being punched, your muscles tense up. And if this happens, you need time to relax,” he says.

What he means is that the dough needs time to ferment. “When you can feel that the dough is stressed, you need to leave it alone. You need to respect its nature,” says Lee.

But when the whole process is industrialised, it does not leave space for feeling the dough or allowing it to take the time it needs to ferment. “They try to accelerate the process. ‘Aiya, no need to rest so long lah. Let me put in something to relax it, a muscle relaxant so to speak.’ Those are the bread improvers. There are enzymes that are incorporated into bread improvers or bread premixes to accelerate the relaxation of the complexity of the protein,” says Lee.

And he has some experience with bread improvers as he used to work for an additives company. “I worked with people who sold inactive sourdough powder or bread improvers. They gave premixes to bakers who did not know the fundamentals of baking. The sales argument was: use this packet of flour or baking aid to improve the quality of your bread, to make it more consistent. Your customer wants consistency, so I sell you consistency.”

But now, Lee only has contempt for bakers who resort to such tricks. “So, more and more bakers are getting more and more stupid — because they are being driven by ingredient or additive companies. And all the additives they cannot sell, they put in the premixes. You see the premixes in the bag. It is called a French baguette, focaccia bread or Italian ciabatta. But those are just bags of flour. They are not bread. They are lego sets,” he says.

Using additives to speed up the process is a betrayal of the nature of wheat, says Lee. “But bread can’t talk. So, it makes you realise what you did when your children are born with celiac disease, or you have a bloated stomach after eating bread, or when it gives you pain or makes you uncomfortable.”

His epiphany on the nature of bread and why it is causing such discomfort did not come overnight. “It came from reading, from working with the dough, from building a relationship with it. But this relationship would not have been established if I hadn’t started my bakery in Sentul, where I saw people who had intolerance to gluten not have any reaction to my bread. So, my personal research on gluten intolerance happened right there in my bakery,” says Lee.

He adds that those who want to make bread need to be passionate about it. It is not just about knowing the techniques. They should immerse themselves in the history of bread and how it has travelled and changed, from the past until today.

“You need to look at what bread has been subjected to and by whom. Look at bread and what it is made with to endure with all the substances being put into it,” says Lee.

“It is machined in factories. It is placed in plastic bags to safeguard the softness, although this prevents the water from escaping. And we all know that microorganisms manifest in water. So, how do we fix this problem? Put in preservatives.

“We have betrayed bread. So, it is making us sick.”