Fans of Kki Sweets’ fine, Japanese-inspired cakes will have followed Kenneth Seah and Delphine Liau’s business from Ann Siang Hill to the campus of the School of the Arts (Sota), before the trail went cold and they were left cake-less.
Not anymore. Kki has opened at Raffles Hotel, with the shopfront along Seah Street.
This new incarnation is a dessert restaurant that seats 15 with social distancing, and there are eight cakes and three plated desserts on the menu.
There is no display case of cakes and no takeaway except for whole cakes, which have to be ordered in advance.
Instead, customers step into a long space filled with natural light. Most of them will sit at the long table, punctuated in the middle by plants, under a white, tent-like canopy that soars to the high ceiling.
There, they can enjoy the delicate cakes that self-taught baker Seah, 48, is known for, together with sencha or rooibos tea from Japan’s Lupicia, and pourover coffee with beans from Singapore’s Tiong Hoe.
The location of the restaurant in Seah Street marks a strange sort of homecoming for Seah. He belongs to the Seah Clan, Singapore pioneers who were plantation owners, traders and merchants.
That street is named for the family. Eu Chin Street, Peck Seah Street and Liang Seah Street are also named for the Seah clan’s most prominent members.
On opening the new Kki during the Covid-19 pandemic, Seah says: “We planned this before the pandemic, so there was no turning back. Good thing we didn’t open before Chinese New Year.
“During the circuit-breaker period, we took our time. Our kitchen was up, so we could do R&D.”
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The couple, who have two daughters aged nine and three, are battle-proven.
Their story is one of tenacity. They have weathered everything that the brutal industry has lobbed at them in the 10 years since starting Kki, named after the Japanese way of saying “cake”.
A doubling of rent in their Ann Siang Hill shop forced them to close after four successful years.
“The space was vacant for five years,” Liau, 43, says.
They moved to Sota in the Bras Basah arts district. Customers had a tough time finding them. The location was not ideal.
And when the economy started slowing down, they tried to make things work with design and retail collaborations, but had to shutter the store in early 2017.
Liau did events management work and Seah set up and ran the pastry kitchen for another brand.
Customers who hunted them down asked pointedly for them to reopen.
“Now, we run Kki like a restaurant. We take reservations. We can now have components like delicate tuiles and soft fresh fruit on the cakes. And there is no wastage.” – Kenneth Seah
“Customers we saw at Ann Siang who were dating then are now married with kids,” Seah says. “Kki is part of their lives.”
One of them, however, didn’t just ask. She decided to back them, investing a six-figure sum.
“She asked ‘How much do you need?’,” Liau says. “We found the location and sold her the idea in three days. She understood that we wanted to build a culture out of the business, not to scale it.”
And part of the new Kki is that there are no sumptuous displays of cakes. The couple have good reasons for that.
Seah says: “All these years, we’ve been a typical cake shop. But if we prep cakes in the morning, by evening, they are not fresh. What we can’t sell, we have to throw.
“Now, we run Kki like a restaurant. We take reservations. We can now have components like delicate tuiles and soft fresh fruit on the cakes. And there is no wastage.”
The cakes and plated desserts are assembled upon ordering, and diners will have to order at least one cake and one plated dessert each.
Loyal fans who have supported the brand through the years might also get a reward.
Liau says: “They have been bugging us to bring back old cakes such as the Antoinette, Mont Blanc and Kinabaru. They tell us these were the cakes they had on their first dates.”
These couples might get their wish next year.
“It’s our 11th year and we’ll do a throwback – for a month, offer the first menu we did,” Liau says.
The restaurant is the showcase for Seah’s artistry, a place to hone cake culture in Singapore and groom new pastry chefs.
The couple have hired pastry chef Lin Jiawen, 36, who went from a career in corporate marketing to culinary school, to work alongside Seah.
Liau says: “Kids are going to pastry school and are not getting hired here after graduation, so they go overseas. We need to keep the talent here.”
But, after a decade of keeping their dream alive, they know the restaurant cannot be the only element in their portfolio.
Liau will start a business selling edible souvenirs that mine Singapore food culture, with packaging designed by local talent.
“Our Merlion chocolates are not made here,” she says. “I want to do something that represents us.”
Kki Sweets at 3 Seah Street, 01-01, is open from 11am to 7pm (Wednesdays to Saturdays), 11am to 5pm (Sundays), and closed Mondays and Tuesdays. WhatsApp 9799-2668 to make reservations
Photos The Straits Times
This article first appeared in The Straits Times.