Pastry chef Rosalind Chan must have an impressive number of frequent
flyer miles. One who makes round trips from Toronto to Malaysia eight
times a year would have to.
Pastry chef Rosalind Chan must have an impressive number of frequent flyer miles. One who makes round trips from Toronto to Malaysia eight times a year would have to. For Chan, the opportunity to teach, bake and sell her products is worth all that airplane food.
|Sugar Tiers ran the Topsy Turvy cake class with a total of six students, providing the cake and buttercream icing for each. Pictured from left to right: Emily, Michelle, Abena, Sanji, Alison, and Angela with their instructor Antonella (centre).
This past March, Chan and partner/co-owner Evalin Chong opened Sugar Tiers, a bakery in Markham, Ont. This unique three-in-one retail concept is at once a bakery, a baking and decorating supply store and a classroom.
Chan is also the CEO, founder, and owner of the International Centre of Cake Artistry in Malaysia. Made up of three cake-decorating schools, it follows the same café, retail centre and training concept. She continues to run the professional series courses, travelling back to Malaysia an average of eight times a year.
In addition, she is a certified International Wilton Method instructor, and the only international instructor for United Kingdom-based Squires Kitchen. In August this year, she received certification as a sugar artist from the International Cake Exploration Societé. She travels regularly throughout North America and the United Kingdom, “training the trainers” and honing her craft.
Chan lives just north of Toronto in Richmond Hill, and despite her international success, she was eager to make her mark here where her family and friends are. Hoping to move away from being known as “just” an instructor, she wanted a showcase for her work, and so her first Canadian baking and cake-decorating centre was born.
“In North America there were no places that offered the three-in-one model,” Chan says. “Businesses seem to focus on one area or the other.” At Sugar Tiers, “Students can [take] classes, buy supplies, and taste the product. They can see your work and taste what you can do.”
She describes the taste factor as supremely important. Your creations can look good, but if the taste isn’t there you haven’t succeeded, she says.
Chan also stresses cleanliness and health, one of the biggest reasons she wanted to have an open-concept kitchen in the bakery.
“You can see how we work and see how clean we are,” she says. It also lends the store a great behind-the-scenes feel.
The store itself is modern, stylish, colourful and bright. Chan designed and decorated everything herself, just as she did with the schools in Asia. Chan runs the business with four regular staff members. Apprenticeships can bump that number up to five.
Sugar Tiers is about 1,400-square-feet, which Chan describes as “a good space to start off. Obviously the bigger it is the better, because there can be more space for training.” But she also stresses that a large amount of space isn’t essential. What’s more important is that it be well thought-out.
“You have to be very practical, and if you’re not good at designing you will need to hire the help of an expert. A proper organizational expert will be able to draw the layout and design the store in the most efficient way.”
Baking in her blood
Chan’s mother was a beautician who loved to bake as a hobby. She made beautiful cakes for friends and family, often with her daughter at her side. When Chan began her own studies in England, she thought, like her mother, that baking was just a hobby, so she went into law and business administration.
But baking proved a hard habit to break. She worked full-time in a legal firm and focused intently on business when she was in the office, but she took decorating classes at night. She gained recognition quickly, and soon got to the point where she was using all her vacation time to teach abroad.
“I was travelling more than my boss,” she laughs.
Chan could no longer deny her dream of working as a pastry chef, describing the struggle as “passion versus day-to-day practicality.” With her husband’s blessing, she left the corporate world behind.
Now, she’s an award-winning sugar artist with more than 20 years of experience. She earned a masters in French pastries at the renowned Ritz Escoffier School in Paris, and she holds a baking arts certificate from George Brown College in Toronto.
Partner and co-owner Chong comes with her own set of impressive credentials. An experienced chocolatier, a Wilton Method instructor, and a certified wedding planner, she is someone Chan describes as “more of a baker than a cake decorator.”
Chong came to Canada from Malaysia in 1995. She earned a diploma in food and beverage management and, like Chan, worked for a few years in a completely unrelated field. She took cake-decorating classes, learned French pastries and cake design, and also entered the baking arts program at George Brown.
One day she saw Chan on TV and thought it would be neat to learn from her. The pair met when Chong was a student in one of Chan’s classes.
“I was one of her students, then became a good friend,” says Chong. The duo’s French training shows through at the store’s bakery counter, where there are classic French pastries and traditional French macarons, as well as an assortment of cupcakes.
“Our desserts are done in the European style. They are smaller in size and use less sugar,” says Chan. “I cut the sweetness level down due to market demand.” Her Asian and European customers, she says, tend to prefer less-sweet desserts.
Their “banana rama” cupcake illustrates the Sugar Tiers philosophy: a banana bread base with a mildly sweet Swiss meringue buttercream icing, artfully topped with chocolate shavings and a single banana chip.
Chan likes to infuse her baking with Asian flavours, crediting her frequent travels as inspiration. Black sesame and green tea sit alongside red velvet, strawberry, vanilla, and chocolate, and are in fact two of the store’s most popular flavours.
Building the business
The in-house bakery creates custom wedding and celebration cakes, and is soon hoping to expand its reach in the wedding market. Decorating courses run the gamut from beginner to advanced. Classes include fondant animals and gum paste flowers, Wilton method cake decorating, and a variety of 3-D cake workshops.
On the retail side, they sell a wide range of state-of-the-art tools and supplies that, thanks to Chan’s extensive travelling, are sourced from the United Kingdom, South Africa, and North and South America. Students are often surprised by the selection.
For bakeries thinking of expanding their business, she offers this advice.
“To develop the retail side of the business, you have to have connections with the right kinds of suppliers and manufacturers to bring in the different kinds of products. If you want to get into training, paper credentials and recognition in the industry count a lot.”
So far, business has been solid. “We have a lot of word-of-mouth referral,” says Chan. Some of her customers travel to the store from downtown or Mississauga.
Sugar Tiers is certainly a dream come true for Chan, but it is just one of several. She hopes to establish a name for herself in the GTA, with hopes of one day cracking the city’s downtown core.
“I want to build up this concept in Toronto, to build it up in some of the more prominent areas,” she says.
For now, Chan is content to nurture her latest business venture and to continue flying across the globe in service of her passion. All those frequent flyer miles can’t hurt either.
Sue Kanhai is a Toronto-based freelance writer.
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