Food has always been intertwined with Takagi’s life. Her family has been operating a sake brewery in Gifu, Japan, since 1720. Here in Singapore where she’s been based on and off since she was 16, her father has been running the cosy family-style restaurant Tampopo for nearly two decades.
As tastefully chic when it comes to cakes and tarts as she is with her (mostly white) wardrobe, the Cordon Bleu alumni became a new mum last year and has since worked largely from home, retailing via her eponymous Instagram account (her bestseller: her pecan pies that are available monthly and almost always sell out instantly).
A snapshot of a pastry chef’s schedule.
Hello Sae, how has the pandemic might have affected your day-to-day routine?
“I gave birth to my daughter in July last year, right in the middle of the pandemic so it’s hard to say what has changed my life more – becoming a first-time mother or living through a pandemic!
Takagi gave birth to her daughter in July 2020 during the height of the pandemic.
In a pre-pandemic environment, being a chef meant that I was always out; whether it was working in a test kitchen on new recipes for a French Fruits Puree Company, or travelling to Singapore and working as a translator-chef for The Chocolate Academy Singapore.
When I ran my own patisserie, I was never home. In terms of adjusting to the pandemic, I continued my translation work online and by email, while all kitchen-related work has ceased.
The kitchen is a safe space for a pastry chef like Takagi because “it is a controlled environment where everything makes sense”.
The most visible change in recent memory was being asked to participate on a virtual jury panel for a macaron competition, and having to complete it from home! All the macarons were delivered to our homes and I had to taste and accord scores to each creation outside of a supervised and enclosed environment.
It was quite a sight to see, as we had a huge number of macarons in varying shapes, sizes, and colours laid out on our dining table. That said, the biggest change – as crazy as it sounds – is getting used to the idea of baking out of my home oven! On a more positive note, being home a lot has led to our family growing closer.”
What first drew you to set up a business in the food industry – and why pastries, in particular?
“To be honest, I fell into it. You may call it serendipitous but one thing led to another and I was offered a job in Paris after graduating culinary school. At L’Eclair de Genie, I worked alongside talented chefs and honed my skills in the kitchen as I learned firsthand what it takes to be a pastry chef.
Takagi’s elegant and artisanally made pastries.
What I love about pastries, and I guess ultimately what drew me to becoming a pastry chef, is that it is so precise. There’s an explanation for everything. There are a lot of things in life that cannot be explained, but here in my space – in the kitchen – it is a controlled environment where everything makes sense.
The Cordon Bleu-trained Takagi is as tastefully chic when it comes to cakes and tarts as she is with her (mostly white) wardrobe.
My business is an extension of my passion for pastries and a culmination of what I’ve learned throughout my journey from Hong Kong, Japan, Paris, and Singapore.”
How did you come to be based in Singapore?
“My first job upon graduation was working in finance in Tokyo. However, the Tohoku earthquake forced me to reconsider my current journey and I decided to take some time off.
I found myself attending culinary school in Paris and remained in France for three years. The team I worked with became my family and even though now we’ve all moved on to work in different places around the world, we are still very close to this day.
Weekly trips to Tiong Bahru Market is a must for Takagi who heads there for blooms and fresh produce.
Eventually, I returned to Singapore to be closer to my parents and established my own patisserie, Amiral Atelier, as a continuation of my culinary journey. Looking back, one could say that food has always been part of my history and no matter how much I tried, Singapore always seemed to pull me back.”
Takagi shares that one of the reasons she loves Tiong Bahru Market is how one of its vendors imports quality produce from Japan.
What do you miss about pre-pandemic times?
“Travelling! I love exploring new places and trying new foods! I believe that almost everything is worth trying at least once. I mean you never know until you’ve tried it right? When we travel to new places, I always try to eat like the locals. If we have friends there, I’ll always ask them to bring us to their favourite local spots. My husband is less adventurous than I am but if you say it’s good, I’ll try anything!”
Conversely, what do you appreciate about now?
“The pandemic has been great for our little family. We’ve been fortunate to all be together during this time. It’s kind of forced us to be grounded and there is nothing better than feeling safe.
Pecan pies are a Sae Takagi signature.
I’ve realised that during the pandemic, there appears to be a heightened return to comfort food – or foods that provide a sense of homeliness and ‘security’. I like to think that biting into a homemade pecan pie brings about a sense of warmth and comfort during such uncertain times.”
What gives you inspiration in your work?
“First is my family. I enjoy baking pastries and creating desserts that suit and delight them. Just recently, I created a dairy-free triple-layered chocolate cake for my husband’s birthday since he is lactose-intolerant.
I managed to replace the protein that one would derive from cream with lactose-free protein powder so that the chocolate (fat) and water would emulsify to create a smooth ganache. In the end, this solution enhanced the taste of chocolate, and it was a (dairy-free) hit with everyone!
Takagi finds inspiration in her family and flavour discovery when she bakes,
Second is my mental checklist of flavour discovery: As I continue to try new foods and flavours, I keep a mental note of how I could potentially incorporate them into my own creations.
For example, when my husband and I attended his cousin’s wedding in Italy a few years ago, we chanced upon a charming little restaurant in Lake Como that served a dessert of vanilla ice-cream and blood oranges doused in a locally made banana liqueur. It was simple yet perfectly balanced. It’s something that I hope to recreate in – my own inimitable way – on a sweltering hot day.”
Ahead, Takagi shares with us what a typical looks like for her.