Profile: Matthias Phua, Pantler
Pantler |198 Telok Ayer Street, Singapore 068637
Monday-Friday: 0830-1930 | Saturday: 1030-1730 | Closed on Sunday
“I like that pastry is a craft that takes real skills to execute,” Matthias shared. I was asking him what exactly is it about cakes and desserts that excites him. “You need to be precise,” he continued. “It’s a bit like chemistry. I like that you have to blend precision with artistry in your creativity. The outcome is a product that’s handcrafted and also something which takes a lot of practice and time to get right.”
The setting of this interview is at 198 Telok Ayer Street in an area bustling with cafes that are a mixture of old favourites and experimental concepts to add on to this country’s already bustling casual dining scene. Amidst this clutter, Pantler stands out with its almost gentle approach to cake making as evident by the row upon row of finely produced cakes, with meticulous details meant to elevate the experience of dessert consumption to one of meditation and quiet reflection.
I discovered Pantler purely through a series of very well-timed happenstance. Had I not felt moved to Mobike my way around the area after a food review at Pickleville, there would have been absolutely no way for me to know that this place existed. It’s almost like a dessert mirage (yes, you read that right) rising out of the heat of the afternoon, my eyes darting left and right, casually making a mental note of the shops that are still there and wondering what happened to those that weren’t.
It’s hard to miss Pantler as you walk down Telok Ayer Street. The typeface of Pantler stands out boldly against the black expanse of their awning. I learned that the logotype was created based off Times New Roman, one of the most common and seemingly boring system fonts, as a suitable nod to the ubiquity of breads and pastries in everyday life, while the intentional high contrast and sharpness of the serifs serve to mirror Pantler's process of creating high quality pastries with handcrafted precision and flair. Inside, the walls are painted gray with just the right amount of warm lighting to offer comfort and respite to a soul that craves escape from the world just beyond Pantler’s glass door.
The creative maverick behind Pantler is Matthias Phua, thirty-two years of age with a culinary background in Pastry and Baking. He runs this outfit with Chef Tomoharu Morita, creating an extensive menu of Japanese-French bakes that exudes sophisticated artistry and finesse. Matthias met Chef Morita when he was working at Joël Robuchon Restaurant as a pastry cook. Prior to that, Matthias did an apprenticeship at The Grand Hyatt in Tokyo for a month after working at Pullman Bakery at Millenia Walk.
Baking wasn’t Matthias’ first love, nor was it his first career choice fresh out of National Service. Before delving into the F&B industry, Matthias was working at an advertising agency, which explains the immaculate branding of Pantler and the beautiful interior. “Working in advertising was thankless and tedious. After a while, I felt so tired. I was doing something creative, but it was the same thing every day,” he laments, recalling the moment when he decided to switch industry. “So I decided to try working in F&B and I realise I liked it. I don’t remember the exact point when I made this decision. It was a process and I did a lot of thinking. Whenever I was free, I did a lot of baking and that was the catalyst for me to leave advertising. I have no regrets.”
Matthias spent an inordinate amount of time looking at unit after unit, determined to find the perfect home for Pantler. To him, the perfect place for Pantler is in a shophouse that reflects his love of contrast between the old and the new. “I didn’t want to be in a mall and be restricted by factors such as opening hours or what you can serve. But being in a shophouse also comes with a lot of problems. I had to look for suppliers, contractors and I did all this by myself,” Matthias explained. Upon reflection, he revealed that if had the opportunity to do this again, he would only pursue it with a partner so as to share the workload. Indeed hindsight is 20/20.
On the topic of hindsight, I asked Matthias what was the one thing he wished he knew how to do better. “Managing people,” he said. “It’s really hard to find the right people, to manage them, and to retain good staff. That’s very important. I think manpower is something I wish I had more experience with.”
One of his biggest gripe of the industry is the lack of manpower among local Singaporeans. Unsurprisingly, Matthias notes that a lot of locals prefer not to work in the F&B industry. This comes as to no surprise as it is an issue that I found most common among all the business owners I have had the opportunity to speak to in interviews. “A lot of them think there’s no career path. They think it’s a tiring job and they don’t find the joy in being in the kitchen or serving people, which I think is very sad. It’s different in other countries. Elsewhere they can see themselves in this profession for the long term. They find joy in working in this industry.”
His love for the industry extends to the personal, admitting that food forms ninety percent of his life. But what he really loves to eat outside these beautiful walls is ice-cream. “I usually go to whichever place is in close proximity or that is currently open for my ice cream,” he said with a laugh when asked about his favourite ice-cream joint, “and that usually ends up being McDonald’s. I eat a lot of their Hot Fudge Sundae. But recently, I ate at this restaurant called Como Cuisine at Dempsey and they made this really lovely Strawberry-Matcha soft serve.”
He recalls fondly the times he spent with his family around food. Growing up, Matthias spent a lot of time in the neighbourhood of Ang Mo Kio as that is where his Grandmother stays and where he studied. A student of Ai Tong Primary School and St. Joseph’s Institution, his life revolved mainly around eating local food.
He especially remembers the times when he cooked with his mum. “I enjoyed cooking with my mum. Even though we had no specific dish in mind, we will cook whatever is available at home. Those moments are what I enjoyed and what I reminisced about from my childhood because it is very rare for me to be able to do this nowadays with the work that I do.”
Beyond its glossy and well-manicured surface, Pantler is what happens when you mix business with the much needed and important element of passion. In the short time I spent waiting for this interview to commence, I had the opportunity to watch Matthias in action, greeting customers, tending to order requests, answering phone inquiries, receiving deliveries, and patiently guiding his team of young apprentices behind the counter. Watching the breathless pace at which he moves from task to task, wearing one hat after another is almost like watching a juggler with an infinite number of things to toss.
“Pantler means everything to me. I want it to be a safe space for my customers where you can experience calm, be relaxed, and not worry about what’s going on outside. A place where even if you’re alone, you can enjoy being by yourself.”