If you think Tommy Lee ever planned to be an artisanal baker, you’d be very much mistaken.
Lee’s long and winding path to establishing Tommy le Baker began when he moved to France to study.
“In those days, I had no idea what I wanted to do. I knew I had an aptitude for languages so, to cut the story short, I thought I would go to France to study French linguistics,” Lee says at his “baking lab” in Kampung Attap, Kuala Lumpur.
During his time pursuing a higher diploma qualification in Caen, Lee developed a love for cooking French food.
“I was having the time of my life. You can live okay with the help of student concessions. I also worked for a while with a pastry chef in those classic restaurants you see around Champs-Élysées.
“For a time I was roped in by the Malaysian Association in France as a translator whenever there was a trade fair in town. I also took the advantage to obtain two professional certificates that covered skills relating to pâtissier, chocolatier, sugar work, baking and French ice-cream.”
Lee had an epiphany of sorts when he watched the then (and now) Malaysian Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s meet Malaysian students in France during an event at the embassy.
The students, many of whom were on scholarships, asked Dr Mahathir how Malaysia would entice them to contribute to the nation once they had finished their studies.
“He coolly replied, ‘I cannot force anyone to do anything, but if you are a true anak Malaysia (child of Malaysia) you will know where your heart is’.”
This struck a chord with Lee, particularly as his roots in Malaysia were not particularly deep: he grew up in Singapore until the age of seven.
“I looked closely at my Malaysian passport and decided to go home.”
Learning the baking business
Lee joined an international company that specialised in selling baking premixes and additives and had a manufacturing plant in Kuala Lumpur.
He started doing demo work before quickly moving up the corporate ladder to become a key account manager, overseeing distribution and supply chain.
“The job at the time was great. I never had to unpack my bags as I was travelling so much for work,” he says.
After several years he took a sabbatical to care for his dad, who had been diagnosed with cancer.
A bus journey that marked his destiny
One day during a break from his caregiver responsibilities, Lee was taking a bus along Jalan Ipoh in the city. After the third or fourth stop, a signboard of an Indian flour mill caught his eye.
“In my mind, a flour mill was more like a brick building in the village or by a windmill, that sort of thing,” he says. “But this was in the middle of the city. So I got off the bus and went in to poke around. I was told they were milling atta flour. Of course, I didn’t know what that is.
“They said it was to make chapati, showed me the grain and it turned out to be wholemeal wheat grain. I went home with three kilos of flour.”
He experimented with making his own cultures. But what started as a home project turned into an obsession. Falling back on his previous training in France, he “devoured” books he bought online, trying to understand each component and property of wheat flour. He also studied the fermentation process down to its molecular level.
“Soon, bread became humanistic for me. How it fed people over so many civilisations but in recent decades, it is making people sick,” he says.
Lee is referring to celiac disease, an increasingly common condition in which the body’s immune system damages the small intestine whenever gluten – a protein in wheat and other grains – is consumed.
“Armed with the knowledge and skills I have, I wanted to make bread safe for consumption again,” he says.
Lee started small, setting up in his parents’ place in Sentul. After a while, he realised he needed some heavy duty equipment, especially an industrial oven, and rented a small place below the family home.
A false start and a second chance
But running the shop in Sentul soon turned into a “meltdown”. Lee says he was restless, depressed and did not have the heart to continue. He sold off the business but retained his signature name.
He once again crisscrossed the world, tracing the steps bread made through human civilisation.
When he returned, he found an eager business partner and a retail space that wanted a cafe operator.
He revived Tommy le Baker, opening a retail outlet on the ground floor of the Zhongshan Building at Kampung Attap in December 2017. He sells sourdough bread with simple toppings, as well as coffee and other beverages.
New baking beginnings
Lee’s priorities could not have been more different than a commercial baker. He places food safety over consistency, looks and quantity.
“My customers who have celiac disease, bloated stomachs and so on said they do not suffer from the symptoms after eating my bread. I felt like I discovered my superpower. I found the reason to be. As someone who makes bread, I see it as a huge responsibility.”
One of the lessons he learnt from his failed first venture was to take a step back.
“I used to have such bad anxiety attacks, I would often be frustrated, crying in a corner kind of thing. It took a toll, so now I try to be more patient with my staff, one of whom is deaf and mute. If they make a mistake, I don’t get hung up but allow them to learn from it.
“I try to serve whole food as much as I can. Most of the items are procured or purchased locally. My menu is simple, serving food that I like to eat. You can have slices of bread topped with a few items.
“I’m also trying out an online order system where customers can order and pick up the items. Sometimes we cater to events, making starters and desserts.”
Want to know more? Drop into Lee’s cafe for a chat about his breadmaking and travels, or follow his adventures on social media.
Photos courtesy Tommy Le Baker