Home-grown pastry chef Daniel Tay focuses on retro goodies with new online bakery Old Seng Choong

Former Bakerzin founder Daniel Tay (right) with his parents, Mr Tay Yam Choong and Madam Lim Ai Kiang, and some of the confections that are being sold at online bakery Old Seng Choong.
Former Bakerzin founder Daniel Tay (right) with his parents, Mr Tay Yam Choong and Madam Lim Ai Kiang, and some of the confections that are being sold at online bakery Old Seng Choong.ST PHOTO: ALICIA CHAN
The now-defunct Seng Choong Confectionery (above) in Marine Parade.
The now-defunct Seng Choong Confectionery (above) in Marine Parade.PHOTO: COURTESY OF DANIEL TAY

Chef Daniel Tay's new venture is named after his dad's old bakery, which was sold to help him pay his debts

Local pastry chef and entrepreneur Daniel Tay is known for his Western confections such as cheesecakes, French pastries and cakes, but for this Chinese New Year, he is going back to his roots with time- honoured Chinese festive goodies.

They include steamed confections such as red date cake, carrot cake and yam cake and pineapple tarts. These are sold under his latest business venture, online bakery Old Seng Choong (www.oldsengchoong.com).

The 45-year-old is counting on the recent nostalgia for food from yesteryear for it to be a success. He says: "The older generation tends to look back to relive its happy memories of food and this can also educate young people to find out more about their culture as Chinese festive customs are slowly fading."

Aside from a peppery yam cake that is studded with peanuts, shallots, shiitake mushrooms and dried shrimps - made from an heirloom recipe by Mr Tay's Teochew mother - the other cakes are recipes from friends who are chefs that he has tweaked over the years.

The Hong Kong-style red date cake is made with steamed Chinese dates and sugar, before being mixed with tapioca flour; and the carrot cake, which has dried shrimps and Chinese sausages, uses cubed instead of grated white radish to give the cake more bite.

About 1,000 cakes, each costing $23.80, have been sold since Old Seng Choong launched last week. The cakes come in rectangular slabs that weigh between 500g and 540g and resemble gold bars. They will be sold online and at Chinese New Year fairs in malls till Feb 6.

They are produced in a 14,000 sq ft central kitchen in Kampong Ampat, where Mr Tay also runs his other businesses, Foodgnostic, which supplies baked goods and food to eateries; and online cheesecake shop Cat and the Fiddle.

Customers can pick up their orders from the Foodgnostic facility or have them delivered. Delivery charges start from $9.90.

Mr Tay chose to launch Old Seng Choong online as there is less start-up cost since he does not have to rent a shop space. He adds: "It is a way to test the demand for these cakes, so that there will be guaranteed business if I open a shop later. I want to make it right this time."

Starting Old Seng Choong is especially poignant for him as it is named after his father's now-defunct confectionery shop, which opened in 1965 and was a household name in Marine Parade.

In 1995, Mr Tay converted the shop into the retail arm of his wholesale bakery business that supplied frozen bread dough to restaurants and hotels. However, poor sales and a heavy investment in high-end baking equipment led to its closure within a year. The shop had to be sold to pay off part of his debts.

"I was arrogant and did not follow my father's advice to expand the business slowly," he says. "The business model of having a central kitchen was too modern for its time then."

Calling it "the worst time of his life", he even contemplated suicide once. He is married to a 43-year-old housewife and has three sons aged 15, 11 and seven.

But he bounced back after taking on a pastry chef job at French fine- dining restaurant Les Amis in 1996. He also sold home-baked Oreo cheesecakes at $24 each to pay off his debts, which he managed to do so within two years.

In late 1997, he left Les Amis and opened Baker's Inn bakery the following year. Baker's Inn later became patisserie-cafe chain Bakerzin, which he sold off in 2007. He resigned from the chain as its chief executive in 2013 to start Foodgnostic.

With the revival of the Seng Choong brand, he hopes to do his parents proud. They had retired after the closure of the bakery.

His mother Lim Ai Kiang, 74, says in Mandarin: "Over the years, we have received requests from old customers to bring back their beloved pastries, so I am happy to see my son make the brand come alive."

His father Tay Yam Choong, 76, adds: "By going online, I hope it can make the business more successful."

The younger Mr Tay hopes to sell items that made his father's confectionery popular, such as apple pies, rum balls and sugee cakes, on the online bakery in March this year. He is searching for former bakery staff who worked for his dad as they would have mastered these recipes.

His dream is to open a brick-and- mortar shop for Old Seng Choong. He says: "I will replicate the retro look from the original shop with mosaic tiles. I hope my parents will have the opportunity to see the shop again."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 18, 2016, with the headline 'Baking amends'. Print Edition | Subscribe