INTERVIEW: Chef Juwanda Hassim of The Fabulous Baker Boy — 'I do things without boundaries'

Chef Juwanda Hassim (PHOTO: The Fabulous Baker Boy)
Chef Juwanda Hassim (PHOTO: The Fabulous Baker Boy)

SINGAPORE — With a moniker like Fabulous Baker Boy, is it any surprise that chef-owner Juwanda Hassim's original aspiration was to be a diva? Although that dream has long lapsed, diners can still catch glimpses of those lofty dreams through his cakes, some named after praiseworthy ladies of entertainment—Celine Dion, Bette Midler, Hossan Leong.

I sat down with Chef Juwanda in the middle of a bustling weekday afternoon at his newly opened The Fabulous Baker Boy restaurant and cake emporium to talk about how TFBB first started, his thoughts on imposter syndrome, and why, like Whitney’s ‘Greatest Love of All’, children are indeed the future when it comes to the dining scene in Singapore.

How do you describe what you do to someone you’re meeting for the first time?

I usually tell people I cook. It’s how I make them feel better—it all depends on the ingredients that I use. I make sure I use authentic ingredients, good ingredients sourced from wherever closest to me, so that wastage is reduced. As much as I can, and most of the time, I cook with heart. I’m not formally trained in cooking, so I don’t have the technicalities or rules that chefs have. I do things without boundaries, the same way I live my life and how I treat my friendships.

Was it always the plan to open The Fabulous Baker Boy?

My plan was to become a diva. When I was eight, I saw Aretha Franklin singing, and that was also when Whitney Houston first came into the limelight. The Greatest Love of All was my favourite song. So if you were to ask me if this was planned, it’s a convenient outlet in the sense of creativity. But I do sing too—I’m a baritone. I’ve been in the musical theatre industry for the last 30 years, but I don’t do it anymore because I’m old and can’t remember lines.

Cake display at Fabulous Baker Boy (PHOTO: The Fabulous Baker Boy)
Cake display at Fabulous Baker Boy (PHOTO: The Fabulous Baker Boy)

How old are you, if you don’t mind me asking?

Of course, you can. I’m 47 even though I look 26. *laughs*

Yes, you do because divas don’t age.

Totally. I’ve always wanted to sing. My dad was a musician, and my mum, while not a practitioner of the arts, had a typically high soprano screaming voice. I was also the only one in my family that couldn’t read music, so my creative output was my voice. So that’s how I started singing musical theatre.

How did you start cooking?

I remember hosting my friends when I was 12 years old at home. I made spaghetti with Prego, chilli, and prawns. My parents were also excellent cooks—it wasn’t an aspiration; it was a way of life. Coincidentally, I was the only one who was interested in what my mum did in the kitchen, from shopping for produce at the market to cutting fish open. I learned everything from that experience, and that made me what I am today. Nothing was planned. I have learned a lot of the skills from YouTube, but there were also some that I inherited from my parents and my grandmother.

As a chef who has never gone to school for training, do you ever suffer from imposter syndrome?

I don’t feel like an imposter. But I do at times feel pretty lacking because, without proper training, everything takes twice as long to do. When it comes to the technical aspect of cooking, I have to approach it slowly, learn from the basics, get into the section of cooking, and only then can I execute the dish. That’s what I mean by taking twice as long to do things.

Although I did not learn under the tutelage of chefs, I learned from cooks who taught me a lot of traditional cooking skills. But I think having a round palate as I do also helps in cooking a dish that you’ve never cooked before. It helps when you taste it, and you can say, “Oh, okay, we’re almost there. I think this is missing or that is missing”.

I feel trained chefs are at a disadvantage because I find they’re so scared to make mistakes. I don’t care about errors, and I make sure to teach my staff that.

Interior The Fabulous Baker Boy (PHOTO: The Fabulous Baker Boy)
Interior The Fabulous Baker Boy (PHOTO: The Fabulous Baker Boy)

It seems like a lot of things you do stems from instinct.

Instincts, yes. But the thing is that I also had great teachers in between. For example, when I was developing my sourdough bread, I spoke to a baker in San Francisco about creating and maintaining my starters. All these conversations with professionals help.

What has been the most significant difference that you can see between the food industry then and now, post-pandemic?

I think people are more willing to eat and try new things. The whole dining infrastructure and how people eat and cook has also changed. Exposure to social media has led people to be more open and willing to try new and daring flavours. Ten years ago, if I made my passion fruit cupcake, nobody will order. Just last week, I made six whole cakes of that flavour and whatever I put out here in the restaurant, it will also sell out. You sort of wonder what has changed, right, because how I baked the cake is the same then and now.

What was the worst thing someone has said about your restaurant?

I once had a customer who was so upset with our Heart Attack French Toast that he wanted a refund—and it had only been a few weeks since I launched this dish. He spewed vulgarities at me in the restaurant and went on social media, raging about the same thing. Why? Because we refused to give him a refund. He paid for the dish, he had eaten the dish, and then suddenly he said he doesn’t want the dish anymore. It doesn’t work that way.

But on the other side, I had people who tasted it and loved it. So the dish has somehow become this little thing that divided my customers firmly down the aisle of opinions. But if something doesn’t work, I’m not opposed to just throwing it out.

You’re not nostalgic about it.

I’m now. But I’m a very feeling person—I’m very emotional. Friends have told me that I’m very passionate even when it comes to business, and that has landed me in some thought spots because I tend to hold on to things. But I’m trying to change because I have to be open-minded and level-headed and make decisions accordingly as a businessman.

I’ve been taken advantage of so often, but I still don’t learn because I trust people too much. I’m learning to let go slowly. I always tell my guys, “Okay, you want to change this? Fight me for it. Show me what's better." Then when we can confirm that this is better, we'll check it out.

When you look at the dining scene in Singapore today, what is the one thing that gives you hope?

As cliche as it sounds, it’s the children. People come here because my place is very family-oriented. So I cook not for the parents but the kids. This means that the flavour profile is not too bold, but it’s what we eat as a family—things such as fried chicken, for example. So when I see a kid eat a sandwich and they’re happy eating their parent’s food, that’s when I know my job is done.

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