Monday, 9 November 2015

Sweet Singapore 2: Frederic Deshayes of Do.Main Bakery, Tanjong Katong

A trek down Tanjong Katong Road from Paya Lebar MRT found me outside the almost-year old do.main Bakery, run by globetrotting patissier and boulanger Frédéric Deshayes.  The 45-year old native of Rambouillet, France (perhaps best known in recent times as being the venue for diplomatic discussions on the Yugoslavia-Kosovo conflict) set up do.main, his maiden Singaporean venture, after some nine years as chief pastry and bakery instructor at the at-Sunrice Cooking Academy.

It's a piece of received smart-arse wisdom that "those who can, do, and those who can't, teach".  Deshayes, however, is no career teacher.  Prior to joining at-Sunrice at the behest of his longtime friend Christophe Megel (who is now also an investor in do.main), Deshayes' wanderlust had taken him to Paris (where he apprenticed at Lenôtre), London, Liege in Belgium, Germany for his national service stint (where, instead of taking a position in the commissary as did many trained cooks of his generation, he trained as a commando) and representing Lenôtre in Seoul, where he first met Megel.  When asked why Korea of all places, he simply grins.  "I had the choice between Beirut and Seoul, and I just wanted to get as far away from France as I could!"

Having had his first taste of working in Asia, he then spent three years with the renowned Gregory Collet in Kobe, before returning to Paris to work with Pierre Hermé.  He got his first taste of a vocational training career with two years as a pastry chef instructor at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris, before joining the Plaza Athénée as deputy to the hotel's executive pastry chef and world pastry champion Christophe Michalak.  When Michalak quit the Plaza Athénée in 2005, Deshayes answered Megel's call, helping him establish at-Sunrice's baking and pastry syllabuses.

With such a sterling CV, you would half-expect him to open up trendy boutiques in Orchard, City Hall, Robertson Quay and similar neighbourhoods.  Could you imagine the collective cyborgasm of the Singaporean blogosphere as it imploded with its vintage brand of gushing and insincere bullshit?  But it hasn't, so maybe Deshayes is right when he says there is a stigma against chefs who leave the professional kitchen and go into vocational training, and there are real barriers to going back.  Instead, he has opted for a modest shoplot in a not particularly glamorous neighbourhood, serving a mixed clientele which he says is 60% Singaporean (mostly Chinese with quite a large number of Indians) and 40% expatriate, perhaps driven in part by its proximity to the Canadian International School's Tanjong Katong campus three blocks down.  And perhaps more surprisingly, the bulk of his production is focused not on the pastries on which his experience was built, but on bakery products.

But this is Sweet Singapore, not Yeasty Singapore, so Deshayes' genius with pain au levain and some such is beyond the scope of this post.  At do.main, he aims to revive classic pastries often ignored in the trend-driven Singapore (think macarons, mille-crêpes, anything vaguely Japanese).  When, he asks me rhetorically, did you last see a Paris-Brest in Singapore?  I could have said "at Les Amis a couple of weeks ago" but thought that would make me seem like a smart-arse.  His point, however, was well-taken.

Desyahes decries the addition of fripperies which he believes do not add anything to the gustatory experience.  "For me, it is all about flavour", he says.  "Even for traditional recipes such as eclairs, you see people adding things like candies and other decorations that take away from the important aspects of the pastry".  His salted butter caramel eclair (SGD5 per piece) is a case in point: presentation is clean and focused, flavours are balanced and restrained, and the choux pastry is light , with a lightly crispy exterior and the slightest bit chewy on the insides.

Deshayes yearns for a return to more artisanal tradition.  Not in the pretentious hipster-marketing meaning of the word, but on a more simple level, that hotels and kitchens simply serve what is freshly made on the premises.  "You will not believe how many five-star hotels in Singapore buy in their pastries from companies like Swissbake and Montreux.  And you wonder why Swissbake is doing so well!" he says, a note of agitation creeping into what has been until now a thoughtful, almost Zen-like manner.  "They are all profit-driven, so they want to hire less permanent staff to lower their cost.  I was in the kitchen of (a famous five-star hotel which shall remain nameless) and I couldn't believe it when I saw their pastry team working in a hot kitchen with no air-conditioning!"

That said, like many other F&B establishments in Singapore, Deshayes has struggled with the lack of reliable quality manpower since the Government tightened its skilled manual labour policies in 2011.  Instead of making Italian meringue from scratch every day to grace his tarte au citron (lemon curd tart to you and me), he uses another egg white-based confection (to be consistent with the original concept), the marshmallow, which can be prepared in large quantities and keeps well for a week, to add colour and sweetness.  The tarte itself (SGD 5 per slice) is excellent - sweetness and acidity are again in fine balance, the tart pastry is tender and neutral, a great conveyance for the lemon curd.  Deshayes adds that his lemon curd is made from local lemons; no need to import everything when the local product is just as good, although all of his flour and dairy are imported from France.

Choux Cream Puff (at right)
But what really grabs my attention is his choux puff filled with an orange liqueur cremeux (SGD 5 per piece).  The pastry is studded with toasted almonds and nib sugar for texture, and filled with a butter cream into which Deshayes has mixed 30% softened butter at the end for a super-smooth finish.  The cream dissipates on the tongue, spreading a gentle sweetness and orange-y goodness (I can't recall for the life of me whether it was Grand Marnier or not); whatever shortfall on the sweetness quotient is made up for with the distinct crunch of the nib sugar.

Do.main is currently building up to its first Christmas season, featuring traditional specialities such as stollen, log cakes and panettone, and I dare suggest you could do far worse this silly season than purchasing your pastries from this French master.  All things going well, he wants to open a new outlet in 2016, with production centralised in his Tanjong Katong branch under his supervision.  And it is refreshing, watching a career artisan, God forbid an angmoh, actually working in his own kitchen and doing what he loves.

As I am packing up post-interview (and quietly finishing off the leftovers of the excellent choux puff), he brings by a freshly-baked chocolate sablé cookie, inspired, he says, by his time at Pierre Hermé.  It is excellent, crumbly as it should be, with a touch of sea salt setting off the dark, brooding pervasiveness of Valrhona's caraibe chocolate.  And in a way, it typefies Deshayes' oeuvre: devoid of any frills, aesthetically pleasing if not striking, but carefully constructed, meticulously thought out and by far the most important, bloody delicious.

226 Tanjong Katong Road
Singapore 437015
Tel: +65 6348 1406 
Eat in and takeaway available

The next installations in the Sweet Singapore series will feature, amongst others, Chef Patissier of Joel Robuchon Restaurant and l'Atelier de Joel Robuchon at Resorts World Sentosa, Antonio Benites, and Yasushi Ishino, Executive Pastry Chef of Waku Ghin and Patisserie Platine at Marina Bay Sands.  


  1. You should do a post on pain as well as pastries. I'm hard pressed to find a good baguette or loaf of sourdough here. Only decent baguette I've had was at Robuchon.

  2. Hi Min. Thanks for the comment but as far as bread goes, you are on your own, sorry ;)

    If you ever find some decent bread in Singapore (I haven't yet), please let me know and I will get you to write a guest post!

  3. Thanks Julian, will do! How is the bread at Do. Main by the way?