Singaporeans can’t get enough of the stuffed Italian doughnuts, or bombolonis, by MasterChef Singapore runner-up Genevieve Lee. She tells Options about learning the art of baking and launching her online store, Sourbombe Artisanal Bakery.
“Baking is all about failing.” Those words, comforting to newly-minted home cooks who emerged from the Covid-19 global lockdowns, describe a valuable lesson that Genevieve Lee learnt over many months in the past year.
As the youngest contestant on the inaugural season of MasterChef Singapore, Lee placed second in the grand finale of the reality cooking competition, thanks to her deft hand in the kitchen and exceptional eye for plating.
But baking is not like cooking, and Lee admits she is more comfortable with the latter. When Singapore’s “circuit breaker” began in April, Lee spent hours perfecting one pastry in particular. By July, she had found a recipe for success.
On Aug 1, the 23-year-old launched Sourbombe Artisanal Bakery, an online store offering stuffed sourdough bombolonis in nine flavours. Along with her co-founder, Lee watched in amazement as Singaporeans snapped up their entire opening day stock of the Italian doughnuts — all in under a minute.
Out of the frying pan
Back in 2018, as the competition came to a close on television, Lee decided to further her skills by enrolling into the Culinary Institute of America (CIA), located within Temasek Polytechnic.
Over the next two years, Lee spent 12-hour days learning and cooking with some 50 young chefs, all working towards a Bachelor of Business Administration in Food Business Management.
“As a cohort, we’re very close because we spend so much time in the kitchen together,” says Lee in an interview with Options. “I grew so much in a short amount of time; it was very fulfilling.”
While she entered the school on the back of MasterChef, Lee says she was treated like any other student. “They didn’t play favourites, they still pushed me just as hard, critiquing me when they had to. I want to be treated the same way as everyone else.”
Typically, the degree programme culminates in a four-month-long internship at one of the institute’s 2,000 industry partners. For Lee, that meant a shot at the award-winning restaurant Blue Hill, located at Greenwich Village in New York City.
When Covid-19 forced borders to close, however, Lee had to scramble for a spot at a local establishment. By then, many businesses had already begun preparing for brutal cost-cutting measures. “During that time, no restaurants were taking on any more staff,” she says.
Lee eventually landed a spot at Plentyfull, a bakery and deli within Great World City. “Working there was a dream. Kitchens are usually very cramped but it’s an open concept. There’s enough space for the bakers, the cooks, everyone.”
Following the end of her internship last September, Lee is no longer the amateur chef who appeared on national television, but a proud culinary school graduate. “I would say [CIA] graduates want to be their own bosses. They have a very driven mindset. They don’t just want to cook for anyone, but to cook for themselves.”
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Into the fire
Aside from cooking, Lee also has a keen interest in photography. In May 2019, she reached out through social media to her now co-founder, freelance photographer and food stylist CR Tan. “Food photography was something I was pursuing and I wanted a mentor,” says Lee.
Tan recognised her from the TV show and the two became friends right away. “We wanted to work together and we were trying things out with small projects and events, like selling cookies, opening his studio and cooking for people,” she says.
“I find that he’s very efficient; he has a lot of knowledge and experience in marketing. His pictures are amazing, which I love. Through these, I saw something that I was lacking: I needed someone to help push my products.”
When Singapore hunkered down for the circuit breaker in early 2020, Lee sent homemade bombolonis to her friends, including Tan. “I sent some to him and he was like, ‘Oh my god, this is so good. Do you want to go into business together?’ I said sure, because during circuit breaker we had so much time,” says Lee.
What was it about the lockdown that made so many turn to baked goods? According to Lee, having treats delivered gave people a sense of freedom while evoking the cafes missed by many. “When you’re trapped in your house, you want some sugary goodness to make yourself happier,” she adds.
The “R&D phase” of Sourbombe’s bombolonis took three months, says Lee. During that time, Tan worked on the brand’s collaterals — posters drenched in eye-catching colours — putting the sugar-coated doughnuts at the forefront of every image.
After weeks of anticipation during Phase Two of Singapore’s reopening, the duo launched the Sourbombe brand with a variety of flavoured custards, including lavender-lime mascarpone, mango Thai tea and basque burnt cheesecake.
When the duo saw their stock clear out in less than a minute, Lee began feeling concerned. “I was like ‘Oh shoot’. I was juggling my internship with Sourbombe and I had to rely on my boyfriend and family to churn out orders,” she recalls. “Once I got home from work, I was preparing the orders, then I was off to bed, then back at work. I was working seven days a week.”
But no amount of work could prepare them for their first delivery, says Lee. Without any prior experience running an onlinebusiness, she was blindsided by logistical troubles.
“I never had to deal with delivery before. The most frustrating thing was getting all the orders out,” says Lee. “We sent the goods out at 1pm and expected the last delivery stop to be completed by 5pm. In the end, our last customer received their bombolonis at 11.30pm… Some people were angry and I had to do some recovery, but I was happy to do that. I got to speak to them; I got to apologise, and I got to learn from all those mistakes,” she adds.
Since that fateful week in August, Lee has commandeered her home kitchen and transformed operations. Her family have rallied behind the brand, forming an efficient brigade of chefs capable of knocking out a whopping 1,500 bombolonis a week.
“The more we work, the neater and the more streamlined it gets. Everyone knows their roles and we’re functioning as a good kitchen,” she says with pride.
While Lee and her boyfriend Thomas work on the flavoured custards, her mother oversees the sourdough fermentation, a finicky process with success hinging on variables like the amount of humidity in the air.
“A lot of people say I’m crazy for working with sourdough,” says Lee. “It’s so difficult and there are so many factors at play.” That said, Lee thinks her mum is a “fantastic” baker who can handle the tricky pastry. “She has been helping me for my whole life. I was the kid who would always try crazy things and my mum had to just follow through and help out.”
The family’s proficiency in the kitchen comes as no surprise. After all, Lee’s grandfather is the founder of Lee Fun Nam Kee, a Hainanese chicken rice stall-turned-restaurant in Toa Payoh. Since its beginnings as a hawker stall in 1968, three generations of Lee’s family have helped out in the business. Her father, David Lee, is the current owner of the restaurant.
“I’m super proud of my dad,” says Lee. “He took over when he was just 14 years old, dropping out of school and working in the kitchen. “Because he started at a very young age, it helped him become who he is today. He has put a lot of heart into this business and it’s so rare to see restaurants with such a long history.“
Lee herself began helping out on weekends after turning 18, chatting with customers as a member of the waitstaff. “That’s what I’m good at: talking to people.”
After her stint on MasterChef Singapore, diners thronged the restaurant, eager to sample her family’s menu. “There were long queues every day. My dad would call me and say, ‘Can you come down? There are so many people looking for you.’ “I really appreciate all of them supporting my dad because of the show. I think it was a nice way for me to help my family,” she says.
For Lee, her family’s restaurant will always have the best chicken rice in all the land. “Food is emotional. It’s memories of my childhood and it will always be the best.”
With production wrapped on the sophomore season of MasterChef Singapore, the series is expected to return in February. “I am so excited to see the new faces of MasterChef [Singapore],” says Lee. “Maybe someone younger than me will win the title; I will be very impressed.”
Lee is also looking to ramp up production of her own, and is already on the lookout for a central kitchen for Sourbombe. She hopes to open a retail front in town before expanding her business globally. “We’re aiming for a chain of small stores. From there, we go overseas. I’m looking at China, Taiwan, Australia and Los Angeles, California.
“We are so excited to expand because we feel like our brand is something that people overseas would love as well. So, we’ll see. We’ll take it one step at a time,” she says.