Rooting for the underdog

Eddie Tan

June 9, 2016
Interview by
Video/Photos by

At first glance, you may think that Eddie Tan just graduated from university. The unassuming 27 year old is the head baker at Cake Tella, a home based and family operated bakery that specialises in alcoholic cakes. In this ever expanding artisan industry, he believes that delivering quality desserts made with authentic ingredients is absolute key.  Eddie’s not in this for the sake of being an entrepreneur; every whisk of the eggs and beat of the batter contribute to telling a story. It’s an interesting point of view if you think about it as nobody would usually use cakes as elements of storytelling. We sat down with the aspiring baker as he explains how 'cakes tell la!’.

Share with us your background and how you started.

Before I started, I did not have any money or much experience. I brainstormed ideas on what set-up I could do from home and I was inspired by the numerous bakers out there who operated from their homes. Initially, it was a good idea to do the same thing; sell cakes from home and earn enough money to open a cafe and have a proper business. To start off, I took up jobs at several cake shops with very low pay. I was surviving on RM1,000 a month just so I could learn a thing or two about baking. I worked for a year and a half, and then I began to look up YouTube videos and read books on how to make better cakes. It takes a lot of trial and error to finally master a recipe, but it’s whether or not you’re willing to go through failure that makes a difference. I wanted to become the Uber of the dessert industry and have branches everywhere like Secret Recipe, selling just cakes. That was five years ago and it obviously didn’t work out, but we’ve been busy supplying cakes to cafes around PJ.

You’ve moved pass the idea of wanting to own multiple cafes, and you’re now fixed on setting up a cafe known for its desserts. In this expanding industry, how do you stay focused and keep your eyes fixed on your goal?

I put a lot of focus in my day to day tasks and take them one step at a time. Instead of chasing the idea of a cafe, I must look to improve myself first. I always need to be learning and growing because I believe that in doing so, the chances of opening a cafe one day is definitely higher. I also try to travel at least three times a year. Just recently I went to Japan and in seven days we tried seventy pieces of cakes. Sounds quite extreme but it was an opportunity to learn about the cake culture in Japan and how it differs from Malaysia. Here, we like our flavours to be very ‘kao’, so in some ways it helped me to understand the Malaysian palette better.

"I was only able to learn by failing; it was a painful process but it taught me a lot."
It’s interesting to know that you turned down a job with Marina Bay Sands so you could open your own business. That’s quite rare to hear! What are your thoughts of being self-employed versus working under a company?

If you want to work for yourself, you’ve got to make sure that you have a solid plan to back you up, and that you’ve also thought about the risks and consequences that come along with it. Frustrations and failures are part and parcel of setting up something on your own, so you will need to be willing to work hard and do whatever it takes to see it through. I started at a young age of 22 and I honestly had no idea what I was doing. I was only able to learn by failing; it was a painful process but it taught me a lot. You tend to have more freedom when you work for yourself but at the same time, it’s having the discipline to make sure things get done. Sometimes you’ll take stuff for granted and you don’t work as hard as you should because no one is chasing you to meet deadlines. Personally, I set out to achieve monthly goals and once I’ve ticked them off my list, I’ll reward myself to a nice meal or go on a holiday.

What issues did you face over the years of running a business?

There was a time where the quality and consistency of the cakes weren’t doing so well. It was because the type of cream we purchased did not complement the recipe well. I complained to the supplier and looked for alternatives that would work, but we couldn’t find anything that suited. I thought about it and instead of trying to get the cream to fit our recipe, why don’t we tweak the recipe to suit the cream? We did just that and everything turned out well. There’s no point waiting for situations to fit your needs; if you do, you’ll lose out trying to make that happen. There are also times where I lose track of the direction of the business. That’s the most difficult for me. I sometimes question myself if this is something worth fighting for, but it’s all about knowing what you want and what you’ve set out to do to keep things in perspective.  

How do you ensure that the quality of your cakes is consistent, especially now that you’re supplying to several cafes?

We have a kitchen culture where we strictly believe that if any of the cakes do not meet our standards, we don’t ship it out. If our customers find that the cakes aren't tasty and don't meet their expectations, we offer a full refund and replacement with no additional charges. A quality cake is made using quality ingredients. If a recipe says mascarpone cheese, use mascarpone cheese! A lot of people tend to substitute authentic ingredients for something cheaper so that they don’t have to pay more. Also when it comes to baking, there are a few flavour profiles preferred by Malaysians. A flavour profile is a method used to describe the different sensory characteristics within a cake. I noticed that the locals tend to like spongy textures with a layer of cream in the middle. Basically, it's about knowing who your target market is and creating something they will enjoy.

How do you overcome negative thoughts and keep that drive to push forward? 

When I was in secondary school, I already knew cooking was going to be my future. Until this day, I constantly remind myself to pursue my dream of being my own boss so that I can look back and enjoy the fruits of my labour. I keep myself motivated by reading inspirational stories of individuals I look up to. If you compare yourself to many of the people out there, your problems become insignificant. Look at the workers who came here to have better work opportunities, they had to leave their families and live in a foreign country while getting paid peanuts! At least we have a roof over our heads and food on our tables. When I think about this, I'm grateful that I have what I need to get by.

"There’s no point waiting for situations to fit your needs; if you do, you’ll lose out trying to make that happen."

It isn't a wild guess when I say that Eddie believes a hundred and ten percent in what he does. It’s unusual to hear stories of people turning down a job with a renowned establishment to pursue the unpredictable - starting a home business. I admire his determination and certainty along with his humbled willingness to learn from those who are more skilled than him. We await with great expectation for the day Eddie announces his dessert cafe; and we’d have the honour and privilege to say we saw it coming.

"... I constantly remind myself to pursue my dream of being my own boss so that I can look back and enjoy the fruits of my labour."