Chef Chen You Chih is a Master Boulanger who could be influencing what goes into your daily bread. Options finds out how exponents like him are shaping their trade.
SINGAPORE (June 10): Master Boulangers — or world-class bread makers — do not quite hog the limelight as much as celebrity chefs such as Gordon Ramsay, but they are key opinion leaders in a global flour industry, highly regarded for their exacting standards and sheer stamina.
(Main image: Chen: My father said I was too hyper to have the concentration needed to play [the piano] at a performance level. He told me to try baking instead — his point was, at least I’d get to move around.)
Among their elite is Chef Chen You Chih, 45, from Taiwan. He is a brand ambassador of UniFlour, the milling business of Uni-President Enterprises Corp, a Taiwanese international food conglomerate. Its investment into product development for flour is sizeable, extending to an R&D Flour Division Team working with a Bakery Technician Team, to provide professional technical advisory services to the bakery schools and operations it supplies.
Work begins with processing raw materials, to formula-processing, till the end product is developed. Chen is among its technical experts, but he is also a celebrity in the field of exhibition baking. The World Master Baker beat the French at their own game in 2018 when his team overcame 18 other representatives from 14 economies for top honours at 2018’s international Masters de la Boulangerie competition.
Ably creating and presenting 200 items in 18 hours, they stood their ground against stalwarts, including the French. Chen’s combined innovation was a homage to science fiction and imagination, as well as love. Nautilus was inspired by the fictional submarine in Jules Verne’s novel, while a spread called The Secret of the Milky Way was inspired by his marriage of 19 years to his wife, Alice Yan.
Speaking to Options in Mandarin with a translator, he modestly ducks the question of how it felt to best the inventors of classic breads such as baguettes and croissants, but concedes that if he had been in their shoes, it would have been hard for him to stomach defeat by a dark horse. “I imagine it can’t be easy for them, because it’s their heritage, to see that someone from outside [their] culture can beat [them]. But I expect there is also a lot of respect for us, because it was about us trying our best, and we didn’t have the pressure of being a frontrunner.”
He had practised for months, repeating recipes over and over again until it felt like he could do them in his sleep — in fact, at some points during his 18-hour marathon practice sessions, he says, that might have been the case.
Organised by French yeast maker Lesaffre, the global showdown has been held every four years since 2010 during the Europain trade show in Villepinte, Paris. At last year’s February final, Chen and his team beat representatives from France, the US, Russia, Brazil and his home country, among others. Taiwan’s bakers competed in three categories — Nutritional Bread Making, Gourmet Baking and Artistic Bread Making.
An April 12 closed-door showcase in Singapore offered a rare glimpse of his prowess. At Lesaffre’s Baking Centre in Serangoon, more than 20 representatives from bakeries and baking schools here watched, rapt, capturing his every move on their mobile phones and cameras as he went through kneading techniques and arrangement and master-class hacks for the better part of two hours.
It is a role that Chen might have prepared for his whole life. As a lad, he spent 16 years training to be a concert pianist — until his civil servant parents convinced their son to switch to a different profession because he could not sit still. “I was hyperactive,” he said during the one-on-one interview.
“I needed to move around a lot. My father said I was too hyper to have the concentration needed to play [the piano] at a performance level. He told me to try baking instead — his point was, at least I’d get to move around.”
That practical decision turned into what is today his lifelong vocation. The master now spends his time in research into recipes and educating folks on how to identify the right flour for the recipes they want to create. “I’m not saying the brand I represent is the best. It’s good for some things, and other brands are good for others. But to look at the way it’s created is important, especially if you care about consistent, scientific results.”
For him, bread is life. “There’s story and life in bread. It’s a living organism. When I started, baking was just a way to make a living for me. I never thought people would follow me.” Still, now, he is more of a celebrity than his civil servant parents and sister. His son, 18, is studying to become a dentist, while his wife, 37, travels with him to manage his public engagements.
“I’m very proud to have the exposure, to go to so many countries, and raise the awareness of what bakers do, and how much goes into the work. What we do is about achieving consistent and scientific results.”
@copyright Serene Goh, exclusive to The Edge Singapore. This piece may not be resold or reused without the author’s express permission.
A 2015 Allied Market Research (a market research and advisory company of Allied Analytics) report expects the flour business around the world to grow to US$270,895 million ($370,488 million) by 2022, going by how flours are the dominant ingredient in a spectrum of products from bakery to fast-food items, including burger buns, coating for fried foods, cakes and, of course, bread.
In Singapore, Uni-Flour debuted in 2016 through sole distributor Axquisite Enterprise. Though unavailable at retail outlets, it currently reaches 25% of bakeries here, and is also distributed at baking schools, as well as online at Axquisite’s digital shop. Most of its business-to-business network has grown due to the influence of exponents such as Chef Chen You Chih.
Regina Tan, sales manager at Axquisite, says the brand hopes to grow its business here, in Malaysia and Indonesia, with a combination of after-sales service quality, support of baking education for its partners as well as education. The brand’s strategy: banking on star power such as Chen’s to champion the attributes of flour and encourage bakeries to choose flours that are unbleached and improver-free over flours that contain additives, by showing them the difference in taste profiles.
The Uni-President Enterprises Corp conglomerate boasts an annual turnover of US$136 billion from a spectrum of global businesses including food manufacturing, retail distribution, finance, trade and investment. It has had a presence in the US and Indonesia since 1991, and since the mid-1990s, interests in Thailand, Vietnam and China. Its range of operations is broad, going into retail, distribution, beverages, instant noodles, flour, oil, aquatic animal feed and edible oil, among others.