Trained linguist takes great pains to ensure his bread turns out perfect
ONLY beautiful things interest baker Tommy Lee, which is probably why he treats baking bread like art.
Lee, 38, has trained himself in the science of bread-making and fermentation over the years, and is constantly searching for more perfectly golden hues, crunchier crusts and the most mouth-watering of flavours.
Based in Jalan Ipoh, Kuala Lumpur, where he runs a small bakery called “Tommy Le Baker”, Lee is known for his French-style breads, all made with his own pre-fermented starters. Lee shows a disdain for commercial yeasts, being in favour of his own specialised fermentation starters that give his breads a richer taste than those sold in most chain bakeries.
He has even created a starter out of atta flour, commonly used to make chapati.
“It enlightens me. I’m a hyper-dynamic person but for bread, in order to respect that process of fermentation and letting the flavour develop, I can wait. It’s highly rewarding,” he said.
Although Lee was trained in linguistics and translation, he fell in love with the art of bread-making when he moved to France to brush up on his French. Although he had learned how to make pastries and cakes from professionals, baking bread was something he taught himself while working for a supplier of baking equipment.
“I want to do everything they say is impossible with my cheap, locally-made oven. I want to tell the world, ‘Malaysia also very good’!”
Lee’s little hole-in-the-wall shop makes limited loaves of bread and by 4pm — closing time — there usually isn’t much left.
“We only make four types of bread — Normandy, wholegrain, baguette and sourdough. We keep the prices of baguettes and wholegrain loaves low because those are our social responsibility breads — it’s daily bread.”
When customers ask what is Tommy Le Baker’s specialty, he is quick to tell them that it is the fermentation.
He often jokes that the most expensive ingredient in his bread is the time taken for it to rest and reach optimal flavour and texture.
“We’ve been eating bread for centuries. But now, people are allergic to gluten, to yeast, they can’t eat bread. What went wrong? I think it’s the baker’s fault, not the body’s. We’ve forgotten how to respect our food. A bread-maker’s job is to gently bring the best ingredients together and nurture them while nature does its work.”
However, the most unique thing about Tommy Le Baker isn’t the bread — it’s the staff. Lee has two full-time staffers, 32-year-old Jony Gian, who is deaf-mute, and 25-year-old Paul Teoh Poh Siang, who has severe eyesight problems.
“I’ve learned some sign language over the last two years to communicate with Jony,” said Lee.
“Initially, it was difficult. We would clash a lot. I’d push him a lot. Then, I realised that I had to let go. As long as he improved every day, I was happy. I had to push him to serve customers — but, really, it is easier for them to deal with Jony because he won’t give them a hard time like I tend to.”
Lee is known for being straightforward with his customers.
“When they ask me ‘when was this bread made’, I like to say ‘last week, you still want?’” he laughed.
“Many Malaysians don’t understand that the flavour of bread can improve with time. I love the loaves I’ve made that slowly improve their taste. In fact, I’m happy to give away the fresher loaves because I covet the older ones like gold.”
As for visually challenged Teoh, Lee has taught him to “see” with his hands.
“When Paul began as an apprentice, he would hold the food very close to his face or look closely at it. But I showed him that what’s important is touch and understanding the nature of the food. When you peel an apple, you don’t stare at it while peeling. You use your hands, you feel and connect with the food.”
Lee prides himself on the bakery’s principle of “share and share alike”. Besides their wages, Gian and Teoh each receive a share of the profits every month.
“They are paid a dignified professional baker’s salary. So, I expect them to act like dignified professional bakers,” he said, motioning to the clean white shirts and aprons all of them sport.
Although Lee abhors the idea of expansion, he pushes his employees to take on more responsibility.
“We all serve customers, but if a customer has a problem, I’m happy to say ‘I didn’t make that, Jony did, you talk to him’.
“That way, my employees know the things they bake is their responsibility.”