Foodie Confidential

Plain Vanilla Bakery founder's sweet pursuit

Self-taught baker Vanessa Kenchington realised her dream of owning a bakery, with three outlets and another on the way

It was love at first bite for Plain Vanilla Bakery's founder Vanessa Kenchington when she sank her teeth into a cupcake - vanilla with chocolate frosting and sprinkles - from The Hummingbird Bakery in London.

Then a 20-year-old law undergraduate, she ate it with her friend Carole at the brand's first outlet at Notting Hill's Portobello Road Market.

Ms Kenchington, now 33, says: "Back then, there were hardly any small-batch bakers and The Hummingbird Bakery was one of the earliest. I put it on a pedestal and when I think of cupcakes, I think of The Hummingbird Bakery."

Now she is "less compelled" to head to the bakery chain since it became a renowned establishment attracting long queues at its stores. "Maybe it's age, but I also prefer less frosting to cake now," adds Ms Kenchington, whose British husband Phil, 34, works in a bank here. They have a 21/2-year-old son, Joshua, and are expecting a baby girl in July.

The self-taught baker worked for 3 1/2 years at a law firm before deciding to take a nine-month sabbatical in 2011.

Recalling her decision to pursue her baking dream, she says: "I tendered in April and, in August, Twelve Cupcakes opened. I couldn't sleep for two weeks. I kept thinking: How do I fight with celebrities?"

  • WHAT WOULD YOUR LAST MEAL BE?

    I have very fond memories of eating these while growing up: my grandmother’s stir-fried mee tai mak with minced meat, my father’s carbonara, my mother’s butter cake and my grandaunt’s kueh lapis sagu. I’ll also have half a dozen freshly shucked Fine de Claire oysters.

Home-grown cupcake chain Twelve Cupcakes was founded by former radio deejay Daniel Ong and his ex-wife Jaime Teo in 2011, and it was recently acquired for $2.5 million by Kolkata-based Indian tea giant Dhunseri Group.

In the same year , she opened her first Plain Vanilla Bakery in Holland Village. It closed in March last year, but she has three outlets, in Tiong Bahru, Cluny Court and Ion Orchard. A new venture, Plain Vanilla Home, which sells furniture and accessories at Tan Boon Liat Building in Outram Road, opened in November last year.

Next month, one more Plain Vanilla Bakery will open in the Central Business District, in collaboration with co-working space The Working Capitol in Robinson Road. While still selling cupcakes, this outlet will focus on breakfast, coffee and hot deli items such as soup and sandwiches.

With the proliferation of other trendy desserts over the years, are cupcakes passe?

Ms Kenchington laughs and likens eating a cupcake to a croissant - something which can be done daily.

She says: "About 11/2 years ago, I thought of pulling back on cupcakes to focus more on cakes and pastries. But then it would no longer be Plain Vanilla Bakery.

"I had to think of how to make the cupcake something that becomes your croissant. It's about managing price points ($3.90 each) and producing fresh batches every day."

Have you always had a sweet tooth?

I grew up eating lots of cakes from Lana Cake Shop in Greenwood Avenue. I had such a huge craving for the cakes during my first pregnancy.

Balmoral Bakery in Sunset Way holds a lot of nostalgia for me. My sister and I would buy a chocolate rice cake to share and reminisce about our childhood.

We also order cakes from a home baker called Auntie May. She makes the best mango chiffon with fresh cream and plenty of fresh mango.

Are you training your son to follow suit?

Yes, it is a work-in-progress. He has grown up eating cupcakes and loves anything with chocolate. But I make sure he doesn't eat the frosting and doesn't finish the whole cupcake.

In school, he refused to eat a pandan chiffon cake from a bakery chain. I was horrified that he didn't eat it, but also proud that he can discern what is factory-made.

What is your go-to cupcake flavour?

Milk chocolate chip. I used to eat cinnamon brown sugar every day when the business first started.

Which cupcake flavour is the all-time favourite for customers?

Red velvet. That hasn't changed since day one. We always take note of orders and how much we have sold for the day. And we are always producing more for the next day.

What has been your worst kitchen disaster?

I made a lemon meringue cake for my mum's birthday and it hadn't set properly. It fell apart when it was taken out for cake-cutting and I was so embarrassed.

Besides The Hummingbird Bakery, what are the best desserts you've had overseas?

One place I would go back to is Lorraine's Patisserie in Sydney. The pastry chef Lorraine Godsmark does an amazing strawberry mascarpone cake. I have always wanted to try her date tart, but it is never available.

For incredible pistachio gelato, I go to gelato chain Oddono's Gelati Italiani in Selfridges in London.

Any memorable meals overseas?

Quay Restaurant in Sydney. I have seen the famous Snow Egg dessert by chef Peter Gilmore presented on reality cooking competition MasterChef Australia, so I was really excited when it was served.

The dessert is an egg-shaped poached meringue with an ice cream centre that is served on a bed of fruit fool (an English dessert with stewed fruit and custard) and granita.

Which restaurants do you frequent in Singapore?

A convenient option is Japanese restaurant Bincho in Tiong Bahru and we go to Ristorante Da Valentino at The Grandstand in Turf Club Road for special occasions.

For a good steak, we go to mezza9 at Grand Hyatt Singapore on Scotts Road.

We also like Greek restaurant Blu Kouzina at Dempsey Road for its lamb chops and other grilled meats, as well as hummus and tzatziki. It reminds us of our honeymoon in Greece.

What's on your foodie wish list? I would love to eat my way through Japan. It would also be amazing to eat at the restaurants featured on Netflix food documentary series Chef's Table.

If you could have a meal with someone dead or alive, who would you pick?

The late founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew, as I have so much gratitude for what he has done.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on April 09, 2017, with the headline 'Sweet pursuit'. Print Edition | Subscribe