The Rise of Taiwanese Pastry
Baking Means Big Dough
Taiwan’s homegrown coffee-and-pastry shops are throwing down the gauntlet at the multinational chains, and even beginning to export themselves. Can Taiwan make it on the world munchy map?
Baking Means Big DoughBy Sherry Lee, Research by Ming-ling Hsieh and Scott Wang
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 363 )
A Chinese-American from Los Angeles is sitting in the headquarters of the successful patisserie company Yannick, in Taipei's Neihu district, discussing the possibility of an overseas franchise with its chairman, Chef Wu Tsung-en.
For Wu the past six years have been a dreamlike experience, as his small bakery shop in Wanli, a rural town on the northern coast of Taipei County, ballooned into a NT$400 million patisserie company that might even export in the future.
Baked goods from Taiwan are actually already sold in Australia. On Sydney's George Street, waiters and waitresses wearing the trademark 85°C aprons are serving cake and coffee. 85°C opened its first shop in Australia in 2006. So it seems that cakes from Taiwan in fact stand a chance of making it onto the international stage.
The coffee shop uses shock freezing and hermetically sealed packaging to ensure that its cakes survive the long sea journey to Australia fresh and tasty. The Sydney stores post a daily turnover of NT$70,000 just by selling coffee and cake.
The wife of a diplomat who recently returned to Taiwan after a lengthy stint in Vancouver has witnessed how hot Taiwanese baked goods are abroad. People had to line up in the early morning in front of a Vancouver bakery run by a Taiwanese or else they would have to leave empty-handed. “Some people would specially drive over from Seattle. After noon nothing would be left,” she recalls.
The Rise of Bakery Chains
Taiwan still has a long way to go before it can compare with such baking bastions as Japan or France. Yet at home and abroad, Taiwanese baking is becoming a force to reckon with.
The arrival of Starbucks – a joint venture with Taiwan's Uni-President Group – served to stimulate the Taiwanese penchant for drinking coffee. Yannick unleashed a craze for reasonably priced, artful French-style pastries. Then 85°C took advantage of the spreading coffee habit and the growing appetite for cakes, by selling both. Success stories of other cake shop chains abound as well, such as White Wood House and Billiechick.
As cakes become more artistic, less pricey, and more popular, Taiwan is entering an era of widespread gourmet fashion.
Industry estimates put the value of Taiwan's baked goods market between NT$40 billion and NT$45 billion. Together with the coffee industry, this adds up to an annual output value of about NT$80 billion, and both industries continue to grow.
Why has eating cakes and desserts become such a fad?
Some four years ago Jerry So, a Wharton Business School graduate, sensed that the Taiwanese were beginning to develop a sweet tooth. She discovered that people would no longer conclude their meals with just a platter of fresh fruit, but wanted a more substantial dessert.
Ms. So, who got into the cake and pastry market three years ago, observes, “What used to be an extra special treat has now become part of people's daily lives.”She sells her creations from a small shop called Ginjer Cakes ‘n More in a small Taipei lane.
The Irresistibility of Sweets
Ultimately, desserts are an expression of an affluent lifestyle.
While these sweet creations are not necessarily healthy, they fulfill people's imaginations. Besides, cakes and desserts smoothen interpersonal communication.
Nowadays, many coffee shop and bakery owners encourage their customers to give cakes and confectionary as gifts on traditional holidays.
Yeh Yi Lan, the founder of the online food and lifestyle forum Yilan, thinks that the enormous variety of Western-style cakes and desserts makes for ample conversation topics. “Western cakes and desserts are very beautiful. They meet conversational needs better than Chinese-style cakes or Japanese-style steamed buns. They're something great to talk about.”
The ingredients for cakes and desserts are highly complex. Their endless, incredible variations satisfy the curiosity of gourmets, and also loosen people's tongues.
The evolution of Western-style cakes and desserts in Taiwan, and their popular demand, can be attributed to the accumulation of bakers and baking skills over the past 50 years.
Mature Workforce and Skills
When the United States government stationed military troops in Taiwan after 1949, it helped Taiwanese companies to set up the China Grains Product Research and Development Institute in a bid to open up the Taiwanese market for American wheat. Quite a number of traditional bakers were trained at this institute.
Later on in the 1980s when Hilton Hotels and other international hotel chains opened hotels in Taiwan and foreign chefs began flocking to the island, the standard of Taiwan's bakers immediately rose.
But it was not stimulation by foreign chefs alone. Taiwanese bakers also began to gain experience in culinary capitals abroad.
It was Stanley Yen, president of the Ritz Landis Hotel in Taipei, who established this practice. Yen sent his chefs abroad to learn from the best of the trade and to participate in competitions. As a result, several famous hotels served as the greenhouses that nurtured Taiwan's chefs.
As the industry's professional skills have improved and its international vision broadened, and as baking has emerged as an expression of lifestyle and fashion, many young people have been drawn to the battlefield of baking.
Vocational schools and colleges like National Kaohsiung Hospitality College and Kaiping Culinary School in Taipei have even become the first choice for many students. “Before, you would become a cook because you had no career prospects, but now quite a number of students come to our school because they want to become a chef. This makes a big difference,” says one chef-cum-cooking instructor.
Thanks to the pooling of talent and skills, Taiwan's professional bakers have in recent years begun selling their fare abroad, in Thailand, Vietnam and Singapore.
Henry Cheng, former pastry chef at the Grand Hyatt and the Asia Pacific Hotel, notes that a Taiwanese chef takes home one third of what a Japanese chef makes. Given that Taiwanese bakers are also familiar with a wide array of national cuisines, “they are very sought-after in Asia,” he says.
But some also think that Taiwan's baked goods market is not yet very stable. Hong Jhe-wei, who spent six and a half years in France and studied patisserie at the Cordon Bleu in Paris, thinks that Taiwan needs to learn from Japan and develop its own baking culture by expanding from products to table art and historical research.
Whether or not 85°C and Yannick succeed in their export ventures, a long succession of Taiwanese professionals and companies are devoting themselves to baking. The craze for pastries shows that a leisure and enjoyment economy continues to boom.
Translated from the Chinese by Susanne Ganz