High-end hotels and restaurants increasingly use bread and patisserie to help build their brand image in an ever more competitive business environment, with Asia and especially China fast-growing new markets for bakery products, writes Jane Ram

Despite the iconic status of the crusty French baguette, on a par with the Eiffel Tower, most Asian consumers prefer soft, spongy breads with a texture close to that of the rice they eat every day, says Olivier Lannes, newly arrived pastry chef at Spoon by Alain Ducasse at the InterContinental Hotel, Hong Kong.
Hong Kong people are the exception, he says, as they seem to enjoy eating crusty bread. “In Japan, a lot of people told me that they feel a kind of pain in their mouth when the crust is too thick.”
Customers are learning to appreciate yeasted breads made with strong cereals that create a heavy crust, says Olivier Piganiol, Hilton Shenzhen Shekou Nanhai executive chef. “The quality has increasingly become the focus, not the price. At the Hilton we are trying to keep the traditional, original ways – using a sourdough starter for breads and French butter for croissants and Danish pastries.
“This gives an organic or ‘bio’ image. Multi-cereals and complete wheat flour are healthier than white flour. French and German bakeries in China are selling increasingly fashionable niche products. More authentic recipes for breads and croissants will come to China and bakers will acquire the necessary skills to ensure consistent quality.”
Piganiol foresees a coming trend for two-bite size traditional pastries such as eclairs, religieuses, canelles, cronuts, tartlets, home-made cookies, home-made chocolate bars and the seemingly evergreen macarons.
“Maybe we can finally forget the former so-called ‘French pastries’’, the mousse and gelatin-based creations unknown in France,” he says. “Customers will still look for colourful and attractive cakes but dependent on natural, fresh ingredients rather than food colouring for their appeal.”
Many bakery companies from Singapore, Taiwan and Hong Kong have introduced sweet bread made with enough powdered milk to create a light crust, says Piganiol. He predicts that Anglo-Saxon style bread will acquire more of an Asian twist, using new flavours and colours as selling points but at the same time focusing increasingly on quality.
He predicts fusion bread using red bean paste, durian and sesame, while Chinese moon cakes will use traditional western flavours such as hazelnut, chocolate and strawberry. Pastry will focus more on colourful cakes with themes – Disney, manga and, of course, wedding cakes. With the increase of food-quality printing ink, personalised cakes will be all the rage.
Patisserie appeals first to the eye, while freshly-baked bread appeals first to the nose. Most likely those evocative aromas were crafted months ago in a Shenzhen factory ready for final baking at the point of sale. Frozen products from China, France, Germany and even Australia are competing for their share of the fast growing market in Hong Kong and elsewhere in Asia.

Artisan artistry
At the same time, however, artisan bread is gaining popularity with more health conscious and savvy Hong Kong consumers. A few local restaurants make their own, most notably Bibo, where the chef turns out a new batch of sourdough loaves every day.
Gabriele Milani, chef de cuisine at Vasco, also in Hong Kong, jokes: “Our bread and butter could have its own Instagram account! Out of all the dishes we slave over, our sourdough bread and five flavours of butter seem to get photographed the most. Our bread is made exclusively for Vasco by Bread Elements [the wholesale artisan baking company established by Gregoire Michaud].
“We believe they make the best bread in Hong Kong due to their dedication to using top quality flour with a deep respect for the traditional processes which use long fermentations of natural yeast. As well as our five flavours of butter, we serve our bread with a selection of olive oils so it is important for us to have a top quality bread to really make the oils and the butters sing and, while I see bread baskets go untouched in other places, nobody can resist the warm sourdough we serve.”
Cyril Dupuis, executive pastry chef, InterContinental Hong Kong, says: “When it comes to pastries, the local and regional market prefers desserts that are not too sweet. They should have a good balance of texture and flavour. Most Hong Kong gourmets have a delicate and sophisticated palate. Of any Asian country, Japan is the most European in its culinary tastes and Japanese consumers are very knowledgeable about food. Japan was the first country where all the top French chefs opened restaurants and pastry shops.
“Now Hong Kong is quickly catching up. Hong Kong consumers are demanding and eager to learn more about French patisserie. In the past year or so, we have seen the arrival of all the top French patissiers opening shops and cafes. Having worked in Paris heading the pastry kitchens for all of Alain Ducasse’s Paris restaurants for over 13 years, I find it interesting to see this recent flood of classic French pastry shops opening in Hong Kong.”
At the Island Shangri-La Hong Kong, executive chef Ruediger Lurz and the group’s area chief pastry chef, Alain Guillet, worked hard to perfect a Perrier-Jouët ‘Tea for Love’ set menu to run throughout February in celebration of Valentine’s Day.
Many of the delicacies include the seductive-looking rose-coloured champagne as a key ingredient, most notably Manjari chocolate with frosted strawberry and Perrier-Jouët mousse, cherry and Perrier-Jouët cheesecake, and mascarpone vanilla and Perrier-Jouët charlotte. The greatest triumph was the aptly-named Amour, a 1lb cake that fuses the fragrance of champagne with the freshness of lemon.
At the high-end, seasonal and regional specialities are proving popular. At MGM Macau fresh gingerbread was hand decorated in the hotel’s Grande Praca, a replica Portuguese village square.
In the same venue, pastry chefs prepared other German specialities rarely encountered in Asia – Baumkuchen and German-style berliner yeasted donuts. Filled with pureed fruit, these are generally lighter and healthier than the more familiar American version.
“The atmosphere and the smells remind me of the town square of Baden Baden where I did my culinary apprenticeship,” says executive chef Oliver Weber.
At Vasco, the chef’s Iberico brioche is a sure winner. Another outlet in the same group, Hawker 18, serves Singaporean-influenced baked items including Indian curry puffs and durian brownies that have proved popular with the clientele. “We have been pleasantly surprised by the diners’ response,” says Tony Cheng, CEO and founder of parent company Drawing Room Concepts.