Pâtissier Shaun Teo whisks in fantasy with an artist’s eye in designing cakes.
Words Yvonne Nathan Photography SooPhye
Hunched over a marbled table-top, Shaun Teo concentrates wholly on the task at hand. Peeking out from between two sizeable palms is a balled-up bit of cherry-red fondant. His nimble fingers that belie a towering stature move quickly and precisely, setting aside his discomfort of an audience. With a couple of toothpicks, he creates textures for what turns out to be the tiniest Santa hat to top off an adorable Polar Bear Cake Pop – just the thing for Christmas.
These images work in stark contrast yet give a glimpse into the duality of his nature. An introvert who shies away from social situations but has a dreamy love of all things adorable, he’s also a confident baker who works long hours, conducting workshops around the world to make his dreams a reality. Before sitting for this interview at his studio, Shaun Teo Creations, he systematically wipes down his workstation to calm his nerves.
The humble chef recalled that growing up in the Malaysian port town of Klang, he instinctively knew his calling had to do with design. However, he was clueless as to what creative outlet to base his future on. “I studied in Taiwan’s Ming Chuan University. But I didn’t know what to choose. I first planned on studying interior design, but too many people were doing the same thing that year. I wanted to be different,” he said.
Heeding his supportive mother’s suggestion, he enrolled in the Hospitality Management course. It was then that he received his first taste of baking through an elective subject. “I had never even baked before then. So the first thing I ever made was a fresh cream cake at university.”
“After that, I fell in love with baking rather than hospitality. With baking, I could do whatever design I like, I don’t have to be the same as everyone else,” said Teo. It also fit well with his quiet demeanour. “I’m an introvert and quite shy, so that’s why I wasn’t looking to do things with too much communication,” he said.
Still, it wasn’t an easy road. Teo started from scratch, working in a bakery for a year after graduating to learn the tricks of the trade. As his skills grew, he made a delightful discovery. “When I started baking, I became attracted to cute, animated and pretty (designs). I love to decorate cakes and see them turn out magical.”
Later working for JW Marriott Hotel in Kuala Lumpur, the two-hour long commutes to and from Klang through the city’s traffic took a toll on him and his expenses. To earn a little extra money and to improve his techniques, he began taking requests from friends and family by early 2015. “So I would work for 12 hours or more every day, then drive home and start on the orders. That’s when I slowly started posting photos of what I’d made to get my name out there,” he explained.
“What makes me happiest is when I get good feedback about my designs, when my customers tell me I’ve done a great job. Or when the outcome is pretty, I am satisfied,” he said. “But the hardest thing for me is having to constantly come up with new ideas for my classes and for my clients’ orders. I have to use different techniques on the cakes all the time.” For Teo, inspiration comes from social media platforms such as Instagram and Pinterest. He not only searches for cake designs but also draws inspiration from photography and art pieces.
Although he still takes orders via his Instagram handle, @shaunteocreations, his ambitions have grown. Gaining popularity with pictures of his whimsical, too-beautiful-to-eat creations on social media, he now has over 140,000 followers. As he turned 26 this year, the self-styled artisanal baker opened his own studio. “I actually had a smaller studio around a year ago. Then I decided to expand my business.”
With determination, he pushed himself out of his comfort zone by teaching workshops at the baking studio, based in Petaling Jaya in Selangor state. His ventures have also extended to China, Singapore, Thailand, Indonesia, Taiwan and Dubai. “I have a workshop on baking or cake decorating in China once a month,” he said. “I’m also planning to hold one in the United Kingdom and United States next year. Maybe I’ll even open up a café by the end of the year, hopefully. But right now, we have at least one workshop in the studio every month.”
The space itself is calming, with soft beige wood tones, stainless steel equipment and floor-to-ceiling windows that bring in the light. Of course, there are hints of the self-starter’s unique personality throughout the studio, including delicate glass and metal ornaments and a special ivy-covered teepee in one corner.
One thing stands out. Tastefully dotted around the studio are prints of Henri Matisse’s paintings. “I like Matisse because he is very artistic. His drawings may seem very minimalistic and simple. But they are also very beautiful and I feel like there’s a lot of meaning in each painting.”
As he traced his artistic traits back to his youth, Teo remembered drawing every chance he could get as a kid, then mastering his flair with a brush later on. “I picked up my art skills in secondary school where I had watercolour painting classes every week. But drawing has always been one of my loves since I was young,” said Teo. “It’s where I learned the importance of details.”
It is this characteristic that gives him a distinct edge, offering up the fantastical with a touch of realism. Baking to Teo seems more an art form, and should he persist to always raise his game, his cakes will never go stale.
Cook Like A Chef
Teo shares his recipe for Christmas Polar Bear Cake Pops with Oreos and Cream Cheese.
- 137g Oreo cookies
- 75g cream cheese
- 400g white compound chocolate
- 50g dark choc
- 50g red and white fondant
- Start by crushing, pounding or lightly blending the Oreo cookies until crumbly.
- Beat in the cream cheese until well mixed.
- Press the mixture into an oval ice-cream mould, adding a popsicle stick to its end.
- Keep the mould with the mixture in the fridge for about 15 minutes to hold its shape.
- While waiting, shape the red and white fondant into little Santa hats, and leave aside.
- Take the cake pop out of the fridge and leave it at room temperature for another 5 minutes until it becomes roughly 19°C-20°C.
- In the meantime, melt the white chocolate on a double boiler until it reaches around 32°C-33°C. This is the perfect dipping temperature, or else the chocolate will crack.
- In a separate pot, do the same for the dark chocolate.
- When done, dip the cake pop into the melted white chocolate to coat it.
- Once the coating sets, decorate with dark chocolate for the eyes, mouth and polar bear snout and top it off with the fondant Santa hat.