Kitchen Confidential

From the bakery to the boardroom, lessons learnt in the kitchen can be applied to work and life says avid baker, Ms Lynette Leong, CEO of CapitaCommercial Trust

Issue: Sep 2014

Ms Leong has successfully applied some of the lessons learnt through baking – getting the right recipe for success, perseverance, patience, and precision – to her work and her life
Ms Leong has successfully applied some of the lessons learnt through baking – getting the right recipe for success, perseverance, patience, and precision – to her work and her life

If life had taken a different turn, CapitaCommercial Trust CEO Lynette Leong, might have been a pastry chef today.

“My grandfather owned several outlets of a famous traditional bakery in Chinatown and, at one point in time, I was seriously thinking of taking over the business. I was very interested in baking and I felt that we had an established brand I could leverage,” she confides.

“When Queen Elizabeth II made a trip to Singapore in 1972, she actually visited the bakery,” she proudly shares.

(Left) The Leongs' traditional Chinese bakery in Pagoda Street, Chinatown circa 1990s; (Right) This Chinese newspaper cutting dated 21 Feb 1972 shows Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip, together with Mr & Mrs Lee Kuan Yew and Dr Goh Keng Swee looking at the baked goods at the Leongs' Pagoda St bakery
(Left) The Leongs’ traditional Chinese bakery in Pagoda Street, Chinatown circa 1990s; (Right) This Chinese newspaper cutting dated 21 Feb 1972 shows Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip, together with Mr & Mrs Lee Kuan Yew and Dr Goh Keng Swee looking at the baked goods at the Leongs' Pagoda St bakery

So serious, in fact, that she went to Le Cordon Bleu Paris to be trained in pâtisserie.

“I was in between jobs then and I took up an intensive three-week course there because I wanted to learn from the masters in pâtisserie and, indeed, Paris was the place. But it was not easy. Everything was done by hand (no machine was used) from scratch. All the classes were conducted in French and all I knew then was ‘oui’ ('yes' in French); but soon I learnt from the chefs ‘allez allez!’ and ‘vite vite vite!’ (‘go go!’ and ‘quick quick quick!’ in French). I also built up a good set of biceps and triceps from all the whisking and beating of eggs, butter and cream from 8 am to 6 pm everyday,” she laughs.

(Left) Ms Leong (second from right, first row) with her Le Cordon Bleu course mates and (Right) with her instructors
(Left) Ms Leong (second from right, first row) with her Le Cordon Bleu course mates and (Right) with her instructors

Ms Leong started experimenting at the oven when she was just 10, armed with nothing more than passion and recipes borrowed from her aunt’s friend.

“I would spend every weekend baking. I had no one to teach me so I learnt on my own from recipes. In those days, there were no baking schools or YouTube. When I discovered that there were techniques I couldn’t master on my own, I enrolled in classes which were usually held in homes. I was always the youngest there among all the housewives in their 30s,” she recalls with a smile.

Since then, Ms Leong has also gone to the Wilton School of Cake Decorating and Confectionery Arts in Illinois, US to learn cake decorating and the Baking Industry Training Centre in Singapore to hone her skills in making Asian pastries.

Some of Ms Leong's marvelous creations; She learnt the fine art of cake decoration from the Wilton School of Cake Decorating and Confectionery Arts in the US
Some of Ms Leong’s marvelous creations; She learnt the fine art of cake decoration from the Wilton School of Cake Decorating and Confectionery Arts in the US

Recipe for Success

As any chef worth his salt will tell you, the genesis of any great dish lies in the recipe and a good mentor. Ms Leong’s late father was a major influence in her life, shaping her values and leadership style.

It was from her businessman-inventor father that Ms Leong learnt many life lessons - that has made her what she is today
It was from her businessman-inventor father that Ms Leong learnt many life lessons - being adventurous, creative, pushing boundaries, always looking for new challenges, persevering and being an overcomer - that has made her what she is today

“One of the people I admire most is my late father. He was an engineer and started his own electronics engineering business, notwithstanding the variety of businesses his father already owned. He was also an inventor. Right till just before he passed away in his 70s, he was still coming up with new ideas and inventing things,” says Ms Leong.

“Being adventurous, creative, pushing boundaries, always looking for new challenges, persevering, being an overcomer – these are the values I learnt from him.”

Now, she wants to hand down her father’s life philosophy to others. Ms Leong is a mentor to young executives under CapitaLand’s scholarship programme as well as in her church group.

“I look at growing and elevating people by encouraging and motivating them to perform to their highest ability. This involves coaching, listening, being empathetic, encouraging creative input from every team member, challenging status quo and influencing change. All these help to drive creativity.”

Overcome Failure, Be Stronger from It

In learning any new skill, failure is an inevitable part of the process. Baking is no exception. No matter how many times a baker has baked the same bread using the same recipe and oven, he or she may still burn a few loaves sometimes.

“I learnt to deal with failure,” Ms Leong declares. “The important thing is to learn from failure, become better, stronger, and make a comeback.”

“Years ago, I met with a very bad ski accident where I crashed into a fallen tree, broke my right tibia and bruised both knee caps. I was incapacitated for about six months with a full cast on my right leg and brace over my lower left leg. After I recovered, I went back to skiing again as I didn’t want the accident to set me back.”

Being such an avid baker, it comes as no surprise that she has had her fair share of failures in the kitchen. Her first attempt at a pandan chiffon cake as a teenager fell flat, literally.

Ms Leong encourages her staff to learn from their mistakes through initiatives like the Victory Tea
Ms Leong encourages her staff to learn from their mistakes through initiatives like the Victory Tea

“It turned into pandan kueh (like a steamed cake) because the egg whites weren’t whisked into stiff peaks as I didn’t know the technique then,” says Ms Leong.

“But if you didn’t tell anyone that it was supposed to have been a chiffon cake, no one actually knew as the kueh tasted great. And I also created a new dessert in the process!” she quipped.

She learnt from that experience and through practice, has mastered the challenging chiffon cake recipe.

As part of her effort to help her team embrace, learn from and overcome failure, she started an initiative she calls the Victory Tea, an apt name for this avid baker, and also ad hoc “Chat with Lynette” sessions to touch base with her staff and motivate them.

“The Victory Tea is also a platform where I encourage my staff to freely share new ideas, cultivate innovation and celebrate victories. I try to inculcate a culture where people do not feel inhibited to push new boundaries, knowing that it is okay to make mistakes so long as you learn from them and do better the next time,” she asserts.

Precision is Key

Baking is a science that requires precision, something Ms Leong has obviously mastered as seen in this intricate Mother's Day 'handbag' cake she baked for her mum
Baking is a science that requires precision, something Ms Leong has obviously mastered as seen in this intricate Mother’s Day ‘handbag’ cake she baked for her mum

Another lesson Ms Leong has gleaned from her baking escapades is the importance of precision.

“Baking is a science. You have to be precise when it comes to the temperature, the measurements, and even the origin of the ingredients. Then creativity comes in the form of cake decorating,” she says.

In life, the emphasis on precision means that Ms Leong is unwavering when it comes to the core values important to her – righteousness, integrity, honesty, and respect for others.

At work, being precise means she is extra careful when it comes to verifying facts and figures that go into reports and news releases. It also means that she expects nothing less than perfection from her co-workers.

Ms Leong with Guy Harvey Samuel, CEO of HSBC in Singapore; On her left is Malcolm Lee of Candlenut, one of the celebrity chefs featured at CCT's 10th anniversary dinner
Ms Leong with Guy Harvey Samuel, CEO of HSBC in Singapore; On her left is Malcolm Lee of Candlenut, one of the celebrity chefs featured at CCT’s 10th anniversary dinner where she personally saw to many details; Emmanuel Stroobant and Sam Leong are the other two celebrity chefs who created dishes for the dinner

Overseeing CapitaCommercial Trust’s recent 10th anniversary dinner, Ms Leong personally saw to everything - from the guest list to the invitations, chefs, menu, and entertainment which she personally sourced for.

Being a meticulous individual, she paid attention to all details, including the taste, texture, colour, and presentation of every dish right down to even the type of dinnerware used.

The result was a resounding success.

“It was very gratifying to hear good feedback from every single person I spoke to,” says Ms Leong.

Timed to Perfection

Cakes, pastries, pies, cookies – you name it, she’s baked it!
Cakes, pastries, pies, cookies – you name it, she’s baked it!

When all the ingredients have come together, timing is what determines success or failure in baking, and patience is a virtue that Ms Leong values dearly.

“Sometimes, when we try to acquire a building and we don’t succeed in our bid, we have to be patient and not push things. The time will come when we succeed. Maybe it is not the right time yet, but in the meantime, you continue to explore other opportunities and improve on what you already have,” she muses.

Two of Lynette’s favourites: (Left ones shaped like doughnuts) Paris-Brest, which honours one of oldest cycling races that began in 1891 and goes from Paris to Brest and back to Paris; (centre) Saint Honoré cake, named for the French patron saint of bakers and pastry chefs
Two of Lynette’s favourites: (Left ones shaped like doughnuts) Paris-Brest, which honours one of oldest cycling races that began in 1891 and goes from Paris to Brest and back to Paris; (centre) Saint Honoré cake, named for the French patron saint of bakers and pastry chefs

Like any good baker, Ms Leong has mastered the art of patience.

“When you put the cake into the oven, you don’t sit there and do nothing. You go off and do something else while you wait. So, while you wait for something to happen, you stay relevant, you hone your skills, you improve what you have,” Ms Leong advises.

“If we do not manage to acquire a site, there are other ways to grow the business. We can improve our portfolio of office buildings via asset enhancement initiatives. ”

It is also with the same patience that she deals with her staff.

“It takes patience to see people improve. When people don’t learn from their mistakes and you have to repeatedly remind them, you feel frustrated but you have to be patient, you cannot vent because you have to continue to motivate them,” she says.

Patience is a virtue and is her advice to young people who are eager to find a life partner .

Ms Leong enjoys baking with her three godchildren (left to right) Alicia, Cheryl and Samuel and imparting to them qualities like teamwork, patience, perseverance and respect for one another
Ms Leong enjoys baking with her three godchildren (left to right) Alicia, Cheryl and Samuel and imparting to them qualities like teamwork, patience, perseverance and respect for one another

“I waited a long time for my husband to come along. We both got married late in life,” she says.

“I always tell the young ladies I meet: wait for the right person to come along, don’t settle! But in the meantime, carry on improving yourself.”

Though she never did make a career out of baking (“I couldn’t imagine waking up at three in the morning to bake!”), she still enjoys baking because she finds it immensely therapeutic.

Ms Leong enjoys baking with children. Not only can she teach them science, mathematics and reading, she teaches them life’s lessons like teamwork, honoring one another and honoring one’s parents, patience, and perseverance through the baking process. The very same lessons she learnt through honing her baking skills have certainly served her well both in the boardroom and in life.

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