Pang Kok Keong’s Career In Seven Dishes

Feeding the people cake, pastries and beyond at Antoinette

By Weets Goh | 29 January, 2018 | Features, People, Profiles
2018-01-29 16:46:16 2019-07-29 12:08:24

Pastry chef and owner of Antoinette, Pang Kok Keong has spent over 20 illustrious years in kitchens, but he believes that it’s only in the last two years that he has truly developed his own style of cooking. The affable 42-year-old has come a long way from almost leaving his first internship at the now-defunct Imperial Hotel Oberoi, to running his own highly popular patisserie and tea room. While Antoinette has been around since 2011, Pang’s been on top of the game, creating new cakes for special occasions, and most recently, getting in touch with his Hakka heritage to create a new menu of savoury, locally-inspired dishes.

1.Fishball Noodles

“I love noodles,” declares Pang. He’s recently acquired a noodle machine that he’s been using to make fresh spaghetti in the restaurant. Inspired by a combination of ke jia yan mian(客家腌面), or Hakka marinated noodles; and Hakka braised pork with cuttlefish, the spaghetti is served with a pork-and-cuttlefish ragout, and emulsified with three different oils—spring onion, shallot and lard—right before serving.

Today, however, he’s making fishball noodles as an homage to his mother.“My mother influenced me a lot to start cooking because she was a hawker, and for a long time, she operated a fishball noodle stall,” shares Pang. His mother sourced her noodles and fishballs from elsewhere, although she made it a point to make her own chilli—Pang is trying his hands at making everything from scratch: fishcakes made from yellowtail snapper, fishballs made from wolf herring, as well as fresh noodles, and of course, chilli. However, Pang feels that the fishball noodles he’s made “isn’t there yet”, and he’s not quite ready to let his mother try them.

“She’ll just tell me that it’s not nice. It’s not like we’re going to serve fishball noodles here, but I think it’s interesting to at least get it right”, he shares with a laugh. With his love for cooking stoked by his mother’s fishball noodles, Pang eventually became a culinary student at SHATEC. He started as a trainee cook at the hot stations in the kitchens of Imperial Hotel, but after a brush with pastry, the rest is history. From there, Pang would move on to various pastry kitchens, including those of the Michelangelo and Salut groups, as well as hotels like Hilton Singapore and The Ritz-Carlton Millenia Singapore.

The next milestone in his life came when he left the Salut Group, taking a hefty pay cut to work under Daniel Tay at Bakerzin during its early days. “They were doing the kind of products that I wanted to learn about. I’d say that was where I picked up most of my foundation for French pastries,” reveals Pang.

2. Macarons

It is perhaps for his macarons that Pang is most known for. Delicate and brilliantly flavoured, the confections caught the attention of the country in the mid 2000s, resulting in a macaron craze. Pang was at the forefront of this trend during his days as pastry chef at the now-defunct Canele patisserie, offering classic to innovative flavours, from truffle to black sesame, that the public were quick to eat up.

Canele first started when Pang, then still the pastry chef at Hilton Singapore, wrote to the chairman of the Les Amis group, Desmond Lim, proposing to start a French-style patisserie. Pang recounts to us the reply he got from Lim: “To be brutally frank, I think you are out of your mind”. However, Pang persisted and successfully convinced Lim. Canele opened under the Les Amis group in 2004 with Pang at the helm. Back then it was the first of its kind French patisserie in Singapore. “I helped create everything: the brand, the cakes, the macarons,” Pang shares.

Pang admits that his pre-Canele macarons weren’t the best, sharing that “you’d feel very empty after you’ve eaten them”. It wasn’t until his friend brought him a box of macarons from the famed Ladurée patisserie in France that Pang knew what a real macaron was supposed to taste like. “It was life changing. It might be almost passé now, but I remember my first taste of the sea salt caramel flavour—it was just so…wholesome,” exclaims Pang. Today, his salted caramel and black sesame macarons, amongst other flavours, still remain on the line-up at Antoinette.

3. Chloe and Charlotte Cakes

Opening Antoinette in 2011 gave Pang the freedom to do whatever he wanted, and one of his first decisions was to create cakes named after each of his then three- and two-year-old daughters: Charlotte and Chloe. The Charlotte cake—in it’s fourth incarnation now—is a construction of white chocolate and violet flower mousse, cassis strawberry, jelly, strawberry crémeux, finger sponge and almond crumble; while the Chloe has remained relatively unchanged from the start with yuzu crémeux, white chocolate vanilla mousse and light sponge cake all sitting on an almond sable. “Creating the Charlotte was easy, because she’s always loved strawberries, but with Chloe it was harder because she doesn’t like fruits at all. With the Chloe, I knew that I wanted something sweet-looking,” shares Pang.

Having daughters has changed Pang’s life, as he finds himself “prioritising them for everything”.He also lets on that he’s mellowed a lot: “When I first started working, I always told myself that I wasn’t there to make friends, I was there to be the best”. At 27, Pang became the youngest pastry chef ever in a five-star hotel, at Hilton Singapore. There, Pang had to manage much older employees who wanted to test his abilities. To gain their confidence and respect, Pang made sure that he could do whatever they were doing twice as fast, and better.Now, he’s the one testing people in the kitchen. Pang says, “I take it personally when things are not being done properly as it reflects our brand. There is no ‘we’ll do it better the next time’. There isn’t going to be a next time if the guests have a crappy cake.”

4. La Rose Cake

First launched for Valentine’s Day in 2017, Antoinette’s La Rose is a bittersweet creation of grand cru chocolate mousse, exotic caramel, almond nougatine and Grand Marnier-soaked cocoa sponge all covered with hand-piped dark chocolate chantilly ‘petals’. It’s an example of the kind of artistry and technical skill that Pang’s picked up along his two-decade-long career. One that has brought him to stage at pastry legend Paco Torreblanca’s kitchens—“You see the kind of integrity, the kind of pride they put in their work, especially Paco”—and also seen highlights like mentoring the National Pastry Team for four years running.

Despite his successful career, Pang has encountered his fair share of setbacks: about a month before Antoinette started, Pang opened Pique Nique, a modern diner serving American-style desserts like whoopie pie and blackout cakes. Unfortunately, the restaurant closed after five years of operations in 2016. “Back then, I hadn’t really failed before, so when I thought about something, I would just do it. With Pique Nique, I think we didn’t have the resources to manage the restaurant well,” says Pang, before admitting that he had been making decisions as a chef and not a businessman. He has since learnt to think things through more thoroughly.

5. Duck Liver Pate

“With Antoinette, we wanted to do something French-looking, a place that will age well and be timeless. There wasn’t something like that done before. She’s (Marie Antoinette) associated with excess, just like howcakes and pastries are,” reveals Pang. To go with his range of confectionery, he offers a range of French bistro classics.

The duck liver pâté is one of the dishes on Antoinette’s old menu—a contrast to how far the brand has evolved over the years. Today, there are two Antoinette outlets (one at Penhas Road, the other at Mandarin Gallery), where Pang’s been putting out on-trend flavours and styles, like his oozy, sinful salted egg croissants and matcha flavoured desserts. Despite this, he professes, “I’m someone who has never liked to ride on trends. With the salted egg croissants, it was because friends asked me to try my hand at making them. Making these ‘trendy’ desserts was a way to challenge ourselves—whether we can come up with a better version of what is out there”.

At the end of the day, Pang feels that it’s best to be sustainable rather than trendy, sharing, “I’m never contented, I feel the need to constantly improve. If one keeps following trends, then there’s never a chance to improve upon what’s already there.”

6. Traditional Hakka Kuehs

Pang’s eyes light up when we talk about the traditional kuehs that he’s been researching and testing recipes for. “My mother used to make a kueh filled with leeks,tau kwa (pressed beancurd), dried shrimp and garlic. She was a hawker, so she only had off days during the Chinese New Year period, which is when we got to eat it,” he remembers. The kueh, called cai ban (菜板), was featured alongsidepng kueh(a peach-shaped dumpling stuffed with glutinous rice) and abacus seeds for Pang’s participation in this year’s Kueh Appreciation Day, which celebrates different heritage kuehs from the multiple dialects and ethnic groups in Singapore. While kuehs are a different ball game from the sweets and pastries that he’s used to, Pang feels that it’s important to embrace his Hakka roots and to raise awareness about the cuisine, especially since Hakka dishes and information on them are rarely found in Singapore.

He’s currently toying with a recipe for a Hakka kueh that he encountered in Taiwan called ai cao ban(艾草板, mugwort dumplings; the recipe of which you can find here). The skin of the dumpling is coloured and mildly flavoured with mugwort, then filled with a mixture of sweet, salted and fresh turnips, minced pork, and mushrooms. The result is a flavour-packed, savoury parcel whose salty filling is nicely balanced by the slightest bitterness from the mugwort. “Hakka kuehs are very uncommon, in fact, I might be one of the only few making the ai cao ban in Singapore”, says Pang.

7. Hakka Gnocchi

When probed about his particular “cooking style” that has emerged in the recent years, Pang brings up the Hakka Gnocchi that was introduced just two months ago at Antoinette. A riff on the traditional Hakka abacus seeds, Pang’s Hakka Gnocchi features pleasantly chewy root vegetable dumplings that have been formed with tapioca starch. While abacus seeds are usually sautéed with a mixture of ground pork, mushrooms, and dried shrimp, Pang’s French-inspired version replaces the former two with sausage-like cured pork and morels. White wine provides a layer of complexity to the dish, while the foie gras beurre monté gives the sauce a luxurious finish.

“The trick is to present them differently so that more people can have the chance to try Hakka dishes,” shares Pang. He has been promoting Hakka cuisine both at Antoinette and with his other side projects, despite the fact that it’s “a lot of work to cook Hakka dishes”.

With flavours both familiar and exciting, the Hakka Gnocchi is a dish that showcases Pang’s knack for finding that balance between innovation and staying true to the classics—something that he picked up during his early days participating in pastry competitions. “In the World Pastry Cup, there are over 20 countries competing, with judges from each country, so taste-wise, you cannot do something too crazy or creative. The judges have to be able to relate to the flavours,” explains Pang.

“Ultimately, if I had my way I’d really love to do more traditional Hakka food, which is very hard to come by in Singapore. It can be in a restaurant or a hawker stall”, shares Pang. For now though, his focus is on Antoinette, where more heritage-inspired dishes are “still to come”.

30 Penhas Road, Singapore 208188
Tel: +65 6293 3121

This story was first published in the Oct/Nov issue of our print magazine, the digital version of which can be downloaded here.

Before writing about food, Weets wrote about music, and is still waiting patiently for the day he spontaneously develops synaesthesia so he can reconcile the two.