In our 'Patissiers of Shanghai' series, Dominic Ngai and Betty Richardson speak to some of Shanghai’s makers and bakers, digging deep into different aspects of their work. Up second is Brian Tam of hoF.
Since the opening of dessert bar hoF, Brian Tan has pretty much become synonymous with chocolate. “Chocolate is such a dynamic thing; you can eat it on its own, it can come in liquid form as drinks, you can make cakes with it, you can serve it cold as ice cream, and you can create showpieces,” says Tan of the integral ingredient of his successful dessert bar concept.
But the Malaysian chef’s first in-depth encounter with chocolate happened back in the mid-1990s, when he was working as part of the pre-opening team of Ritz-Carlton Singapore. That’s where he met Shirley Goh, the hotel’s only chocolatier at the time, and a gold medalist at various chocolate competitions.
“She taught me everything about chocolate in two weeks – the techniques of tempering, creating showpieces, making bonbon and garnishes,” he recalls. But even now, nearly two decades later, Tan admits he’ll never be as good as Goh. “Back then, there were no tempering machines or anything like that, so she made everything by hand.
Before moving to China as the pre-opening team of St. Regis Shanghai in 2001, Chef Tan spent a few years working in Europe, Australia and the Caribbean – an experience that was very important for his career trajectory.
“If you always stay in Asia, you only see pastry from the Asian perspective. But once you work in the West, it broadens your senses and understanding; you see pastry in a whole new light,” he says.
After five years as the executive pastry chef at St. Regis Shanghai, Tan opened House of Flour, the first independent café/bakery in the Pudong area in 2005. Four years later, hoF, the “after dark” version of his previous concept, followed on Sinan Lu. It became an instant hit with local and international media, winning praises from Food and Wine magazine, CNNGo and more. A second Lujiazui location opened in 2011 to meet popular demand
Since then, Tan has seen the chocolate market in China emerge, along with the rising disposable income level of the middle class. Increased international exposure also leads to the appreciation of high-quality chocolate.
With regards to the premium prices many high-end chocolate shops are charging, Tan draws a fitting comparison: “You’re paying for the creativity of the chocolatier, not just the raw ingredients. Like when you buy a painting, you’re paying for more than the paint and canvas.”
In fact, most chocolate manufacturers actually use the same ingredient sources (either Valrhona, Cacao Barry or Michel Cluizel), and very few employ the bean-to-bar method (processing cocoa beans into chocolate in-house). Those that do would come up with their own ‘blend’ (just like wine or coffee) with beans from different origins, and add on different flavors and textures to create their own signatures.
Chef Tan is mostly optimistic about the future of the Chinese chocolate market, but thinks it’s still very much dominated by multinational players at the moment. Over the past few years, he’s noticed the emergence of a new generation of Chinese/Asian talents returning home from abroad, armed with knowledge of classic pastry techniques and eager to enter the market. Social media platforms have also made it easier for people to start their own home bakeries to allow customers to order items via cyberspace – significantly cutting down on overhead costs. “As a pastry chef, I’m really happy to see that more people understand what’s good and [know how to make it],” Tan says. And from the regular consumers’ perspective, so are we.
See a listing for hoF here.