A mathematics graduate who worked in a central bank for 10 years after he graduated, Tao decided to take a year off in 2013 to pursue a diploma in French patisserie in Paris under pastry chef Frédéric Cassel in Fontainebleau.
That break aside, as time went by, he started to feel a need to have a tangible result to show for all the work he had put into picking up kitchen skills.
The struggle he faced? Leaving an interesting office job in order to pursue a hobby he was enthusiastic about but had dubious financial rewards.
After many years of coming up with easy excuses, he finally cornered himself into kickstarting the cake journey by submitting his letter of resignation without having a clear business plan in mind.
Tao left his office job on August 31st this year, coincidentally falling on the very same date as Independence Day (Merdeka!) to pursue his passion project.
At this starting stage of his business, he runs everything as a one-man show, from procurement, production, marketing, operations, and R&D.
Tao’s business doesn’t have an “official” launch date; it casually started as a favour for a friend where he baked her a birthday cake—a Persian-inspired cake with pistachio, lemon and rose, with yoghurt and figs back in June.
Her friends then started ordering the same cake from him for their Hari Raya festivities the following weeks.
At the same time, his colleagues started ordering flourless chocolate cakes from him as well—he used to make those for office birthdays as gifts.
“Since doing this full-time in September 2017, I’m making an average of 3 to 4 cakes a day—this is a comfortable number for a one-man show doing things end-to-end; although this can reach 10 cakes on busy days—rather less comfortable,” Tao said.
“Those two cakes that I started out with are still the firm favourites in my repertoire, and I am still learning something new about them every single time I make them.”
Tao first started his business out of necessity—having left his office job which gave him a five-figure salary, he needed to do something to secure some income.
“But the decision to start off with a cake business instead of something else within the F&B universe was based on practical considerations. I wanted to work solo and minimise overheads at the start in order to learn the ropes of every aspect of the business—this basically ruled out anything with à la minute cooking or anything involving specialist equipment.”
“Cakes do involve a lot of pre-planning, but a surprisingly large amount can be made with very basic equipment and by one person (working late into the night, I should add). The fact that I love, love, love good cakes helps, of course!”
Right now, though, he mainly focuses on keeping the immediate goals met, like fulfilling cake orders on time.
Tao chooses to differ from the mainstream demand that many modern chefs and bakers follow today: Instagrammable cakes, with lots and lots of decorations and adornments.
“My aim is to be in a different market from those who are looking for ‘photogenic’ cakes per se as intricate sugarcraft, moulded fondant and colourful buttercream are not my forte.”
To him, fancy cakes are more like floral arrangements—beautiful creations meant for display and to impress visually that also happen to be edible.
The philosophy behind Tao’s business is “Cakes for Good Eating”. He shared that this entails three things:
- “Flavour is paramount: No compromise on quality of ingredients. I use French butter from Lescure, chocolate from Valrhona or Felchlin, kampung eggs, unbleached flour, and Maldon sea salt.”
- “No nasties: I do not use artificial flavourings and I do not use colourings. A good rule of thumb for me is to avoid anything that you would not typically find in a home kitchen (but are surprisingly common in commercial kitchens e.g. glucose, glycerine, commercial cake glazes, etc.).”
- “If it looks yummy, it looks good: My preference is for cakes to look like cakes—so I don’t do sugarcraft or fondant, and I avoid using too much buttercream. I feel that fruits, nuts and edible flowers do the trick for me.”
Being a late tech adopter, Tao had to be pestered to set up an Instagram account by his family members once they were aware of his cake aspirations.
His wife suggested that he set up a temporary account to document the cakes he already started to make on a regular basis with the name—Tao Bakes Cakes.
“To this day, I keep telling everyone that it’s a ‘temporary’ name, in case people laugh at how primitive it sounds—I am Tao and I bake cakes, so that’s pretty much the Instagram handle! I do have a ‘proper’ bakery name in mind, so we’ll see what happens.”
Ultimately, though, his main emphasis is still prioritising the quality of his cakes.
“All the while, I want growth to be organic and spending to be capped by internally generated funds.”
“I am in no rush to plonk a huge cafe in the middle of a shopping mall or to create franchising opportunities—I got into this business from an office job in order to work with my hands and to have absolute creative control.”
He makes do with equipment he has owned even before the cake business started. His first significant investment is to set up a central kitchen to cope with increasing demands by the end of this year and to assemble a small team to target an average of 10 cakes a day by then.
By next year, he hopes to have his own retail store where customer interaction is possible—which he described as the cliched dream of every F&B entrepreneur.
Feature Image Credit: Tao Bakes Cakes