BreadTalk Pte Ltd
Photo: Lewis Lam
At the tender age of 16, Murata Atsushi already dreamt about becoming a pastry chef when he started working as a part-time apprentice at a cake store next door to his school in Tokyo.
Now the technical head of BreadTalk, a chain of boutique bakeries owned by the Singapore stock exchange-listed BreadTalk Group Limited, he explains that while cities such as Hong Kong usually combine pastry-making and bread-baking training, Japan stresses specialisation. Apprentices therefore have to choose between becoming pastry masters or bread experts from the outset.
His choice, once he graduated from middle school, was to focus on developing into a bread craftsman.
"When making bread, even a subtle change in temperature or a miscalculation with the timing can affect the texture of the final product," says Mr Murata. "The fact that there are so many combinations of different types of dough and fillings makes it challenging, but to me that is also part of the attraction of the profession."
An introduction by his former mentor at the cake shop where he started his apprenticeship led to a five-year tenure in the boulangerie division of bakery chain Chez Lui in Tokyo. There, Mr Murata's technical skills were honed and his passion for making artisanal breads and pastries grew.
Next stop was a French bakery in Hokkaido. At that point, he realised increasingly that an all-round bread craftsmen should also master the techniques needed for baking sweet and European-style breads.
He then met renowned Japanese pastry chef Takaaki Nishikawa, who profoundly influenced his career. "I found Mr Nishikawa's innovative ideas inspiring. He would, for example, use fresh fruit or vegetables as toppings or ingredients, a technique borrowed from Italy."
Mr Murata started working for Mr Nishikawa in 1997, first at his newly opened boulangerie Comme Chinois in Kobe and then as head chef at the Bakers Production bread factory.
In 2004, he returned to Comme Chinois and helped Mr Nishikawa to incorporate new bread-baking technology and ingredients for handcrafted European-style breads. He also spent time touring Japan to give bread-making demonstrations.
In July 2009, another opportunity presented itself when Mr Murata was offered his current, Singapore-based role.
This was the first time that he took up a job offer outside Japan, but he notes that there is a growing trend of Japanese pastry chefs exploring new career opportunities in other Asian countries.
"Hong Kong, Singapore and Taiwan are good options, as European-style artisanal breads are gaining wider acceptance in those cities and there is immense room for market growth," he notes.
Mr Murata's major responsibilities now include developing new product ideas, sharing his expertise on handcrafted bread making with the company's research and development team, ensuring high product quality and helping to train junior chefs.
His job also gives him great opportunities to share his expertise across different markets. For instance, to mark the occasion of BreadTalk's new shop launch at the newly refurbished JD Mall in Jordan, Mr Murata flew over from Singapore for the first time to promote a series of the company's gastronomic delights to the city.
Things have changed since Mr Murata started his career and most young chefs these days learn the fundamental bread-making techniques in their early training.
Still, he believes that these skills need to be honed through practice and ongoing learning. "A dedicated effort to make the most delicious loaf of bread is what makes all the difference," he stresses.
Candidates wanting to enter the industry should have a passion for the craft of bread-making, but, importantly, they should also be innovative. Inspiration can come from various sources. For Mr Murata, his favourite Picasso paintings or even the latest fashion trends can spark ideas. "Even a decorative detail can inspire me. It's important to continuously reflect and observe," he says.
This season, he recreated the traditional Italian Christmas cake and German fruitcake as a series of festive European handcrafted breads, blending fresh and dried fruit, nuts and chocolate into the recipe.
"Our fig rye bread contains healthy figs and plump golden raisins. It is rich in fibre, calcium and vitamins," Mr Murata explains. "We add in longan and wolfberry, giving this European favourite an oriental touch."
His latest creation "gourmet fruit loaf" also offers bread lovers a magical taste of dried blueberry, cranberry, golden raisin, orange peel, walnut and raisin.
"While this style of cake is popular in Europe at this time of the year, I am keen to see how it will be received in cities such as Singapore and Hong Kong with warmer winters."
Mr Murata stresses that it is crucial for professionals in the field to seek out the best ingredients and to live a healthy life. "It's impossible to make delicious bread if you're not feeling well," he adds.
After more than a decade in the business, his motto is to keep improving and going forward every day. "Work cannot be stressful if you truly love your job. I get a lot of satisfaction from seeing the smiles on my customers' faces after they’ve tasted our bread."
In his free time, Mr Murata enjoys cooking at home in Singapore and taking shopping trips to Hong Kong.
His next career goal is to pass on his expertise in artisanal bread-making to young chefs and to help raise technical standards for making European-style, handcrafted breads and pastries across Asia.
Taken from Career Times 22 January 2010, B11