SINGAPORE — The cake couturier sits hunched over her work table illuminated by harsh overhead fluorescent lights, perhaps for its blinding clarity but more so because it doesn't heat up as rapidly as warm coloured lights do. Laid out in front of her is a wispy red gum paste rolled out to such extreme thinness that it's almost translucent and paper-like in quality.
Scattered around the table are attempts at floral recreation, each one a testament to her insistence at perfection, moulding and convincing this inanimate ingredient to take the form of nature and beauty at its best. You know that for every few petals she decides good enough, there are many others she has had to re-do; maybe a nick here, a minute imperfection there. These are details people won't readily see.
But the obvious is not what a couturier concerns herself with. She sees the sum of every detail, both seen and unseen, as a testament to her craft, for indeed, she's an artist. She doesn't know any other way to execute her art other than with perfection.
"Beauty is whatever makes me feel at peace," Pau Lin opines when I asked her to define beauty. She stumbles a little, as many would when presented with a question so abstract, but her answer comes almost as a self-reassurance that as long as she likes what she creates, that is good enough. What gives her peace is also what gives her cakes the ethereal otherness that keeps me intrigued.
I'm talking to my greatest Baker-hero, Teo Pau Lin, in her studio set amongst the lush greenery of Rifle Range Road. Founder of Crummb Cakes (two M's, please), Pau Lin's mid-career switch happened when her love and job as a journalist strangely did not accord her the luxury of accommodating her first love: writing.
"I turned part-time in 2007 and quit completely in 2010 when I was 40. I loved writing, but after 15 years, I wasn't writing so much. I was doing a lot of copy editing. I started as a writer, and that was something I was doing for a good ten years. I remember going to work every morning, having to drag myself out of bed."
While many may applaud her bravery in the decision, Pau Lin felt the complete opposite. "To me, it's an act of cowardice, but I cannot face going to work like that. Quitting was okay because I had my kids, and when you have kids, your priorities change. I wanted to stay home, and baking allowed me to stay home and still earn money from what I love to do."
And bake she did. Her tiered cakes are a deliberate departure from the classical styles of cake decoration that Singaporeans are more familiar with. Gone are the trappings of fanciful piping techniques, bold, bright colours, busy filigree and grand confectionary gestures. In its place, a quiet beauty made more apparent by the absence of grandiose, beckoning you to appreciate its form solely and only for what she wants you to see.
Pau Lin's style is a homage to the art movement of Minimalism, simplicity, and solitude exemplified by the obscure location of her baking studio. "I just love the idea that there's this little place somewhere in the middle of nowhere that's making all these cakes."
Pau Lin was born in Sabah and moved to Singapore at the age of 5. "I remember my mom trying to perfect a sponge cake," she recalls. "She would sit on the floor of the kitchen, and she would make cake after cake, failure after failure, and there's so much noise from all the whisking. That was my introduction to cake, and that's when I realised how difficult it was to make the perfect cake."
The appreciation of the minimal demands the implicit understanding that it is in the sufficient that its beauty lies. In Minimalism, there's an obvious avoidance of overt symbolism and emotional content. What is created instead calls attention to the materiality of the ingredients used. When I look at her beautiful Instagram page, I am immediately drawn to the intense smoothness of the cake, punctuated by elements of grace.
She catches on to my description of Minimalism as being absent of emotions. "But, when I look at my cakes, it gives me tremendous joy. It makes me very happy, and that's probably why I do it. My style is quite simple and minimalist. I don't like to create cakes that are festooned with stuff. I suppose it's just my personality, my aesthetic. It extends to my clothes, my furniture and my lighting."
In this cosy studio, she works alone and in silence, much like an exercise in meditation and focus. Indeed, my voice and laughter never felt more out of place in this space that demands stillness and contemplation.
"There's only so much I can do because I don't want to hire people. I'm a control freak. Even if I can teach someone to make my flowers, I know it would come out differently. It's just the need for control and wanting everything to turn out exactly how I want it to. And I think this is a response in me being a journalist when the piece I write does not come out the way I want it to. There are so many major rewrites, and I guess that factors into why I want the cakes I create now to be exactly how I want it to be."
Simplicity and Minimalism take effort, which I realise, is a comical irony given that it is meant to represent effortlessness. But making these cakes are far from the effortlessness it strives to display. Behind every cake are hours of mindful preparation and beautiful detail work that goes into turning sugar into tiny petals and leaves or a sheet of fondant into precise pleats to line the side of a cake.
This level of precision comes at a premium: her cakes start from a minimum of $650 for a 3-tier cake that feeds 140 to $1,280 for a 4-tier cake that feeds 250. But it is a price rightly justified when one considers that you are receiving a cake creation made exclusively for you, whose design and colours are unique to your wedding; a cake unlike any others precisely because it is unlike any that has ever existed. Pau Lin's cakes are like a prized Rothko; organic, abstract, and a sight to behold.
The inspiration for her creations comes from an innate desire to challenge herself to recreate the things she sees in the world. "Recently, I created this architecture cake. I was inspired by the facade of a building. I saw the building and thought it was such a fantastic idea. The next thing I wondered is if I could do it with my cakes. I don't care if people like it. I just wanted to see if I could recreate that effect and ultimately make me feel happy."
I asked her if, seven years on, she still doubts her skill at making her cakes. "I still doubt my skills. Maybe because I'm self-taught. Everything I do is from trial and error. There's always a lot of self-doubts. Like, I still don't know why you want to interview me," she says with a hearty laugh.
It is a question I reflected on while making my way back from her studio. Unlike most photos on Instagram, one cannot look at her pictures and quickly move on to the next. Her cakes invite you to sit down and observe quietly. One needs to look closely at the deep shade of white, the lights bouncing and playing off its smoothness. My eyes are drawn to the detailing of her leaves and petals, amazed at its likeness and creation from something as basic as sugar.
In a world where our attention span is continuously interrupted by the barrage of information from all sides, the cakes of Crummb stands firm as an antithesis to today's world where speed is valued over appreciation of craft. One need only to look at Pau Lin's cakes to realise that beauty is not merely in the eye of the beholder; it also exists in the quiet, contemplative mind of a cake couturier.