Eat Drink KL: Bray Bakery: How a Malaysian chef-turned-baker pursued his passion & redefined his reality

Friday, July 15, 2022

Bray Bakery: How a Malaysian chef-turned-baker pursued his passion & redefined his reality

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Two years ago, Jonathan Leon Lim was at his lowest ebb.

After years of cultivating his craft in KL's top fine-dining kitchens, he was headed to Europe for the next stage of his career. But like many others, Jonathan's plans were thrust into turmoil in 2020, with restaurants reeling worldwide and travel impossible.

After paying financial penalties for work contract breaches, Jonathan used his remaining RM100 in savings to invest in flour and a business registration. He become a home baker with a new purpose: Baking for local families who needed food in the first lockdown.

For months, he spent all his waking hours working, baking with a home oven that could only produce two loaves per hour, driving across the Klang Valley to deliver the bread himself.

Today, thanks to benefactors and patrons, Jonathan leads a vibrant young team at Bray Bakery, which has become one of the city centre's most popular bakery-cafes since opening for dine-in in November 2021.

Just like Jonathan isn't a typical baker, Bray isn't a conventional bakery. 

After overcoming harsh health hurdles and wrestling with his purpose in life, the 30-year-old is transforming what a Malaysian bakery can offer - from how its team works to what its customers crave, including twists on croissants inspired by xiao long bao and curry puffs, plus inventive reconstructions of all-day breakfasts, sandwiches, stews and more.

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Jonathan's path to Bray Bakery has been twisting and tortuous.

In his early 20s, he embarked on what looked like a bright future in advertising, while pursuing mixed martial arts as a sport. That proved short-lived - soon, he was forced to undergo surgery for epilepsy, temporarily losing his speech and motor skills as a consequence.

While recovering, he earned a living by working in a cafe kitchen. There, he unexpectedly discovered a sense of fulfilment in service and self-sacrifice, savouring how restaurants and food bring families and friends together. 

Fuelled by this fresh energy, Jonathan spent the next several years learning as much as he could, working in coffee bars in Subang to pizzerias in Petaling Jaya, followed by respected restaurants such as Skillet, Beta KL, and finally, Copper.

His next move, to work in a Michelin-starred establishment in Europe, was scuttled by the pandemic. Baking bread at his home in Shah Alam was like starting from scratch, from creating his own sourdough starter to designing his own business logo and relying on word of mouth from relatives for sales.

It was an exhausting, humbling beginning. On busy days, he'd remain awake overnight, from 11am to 8am the next morning, baking two or three dozen loaves, then delivering them personally to curb the cost of transportation for customers. Driving 200 kilometres across Klang, Puchong and Cheras was part of his routine.

Despite his efforts, many older customers voiced dissatisfaction about his bread's hardy crust and chewy crumb. But Jonathan was determined to take charge of his destiny, personifying the name of his baking business, From Passion To Reality.

Jonathan began earning steadily, investing his revenue back into his business. Selling fruitcakes and other festive treats reaped him RM30,000 in profits for Christmas 2020, but everything was poured back into better equipment and ingredients.

In 2021, the seeds of his labour bore fruit, blossoming into Bray Bakery.

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Jonathan and several collaborators subsequently founded the Altruist Group, an F&B brand that seeks to "serve, educate and do good." Bray is their first cafe, located in Menara See Hoy Chan on Tun Razak Road.

They've tried to make a difference at Bray, to build future F&B leaders with a genuine sense of gratitude. The crew of bakers, baristas and servers comprises about a dozen full-timers and a couple of part-timers, nearly all below 24 years old. 

Many have no previous F&B experience. Jonathan says he hires based on their heart, not on their skills. He seeks to create a culture of learning, without the shouting, the scolding and the scalding pressures of many professional kitchens.

Bray wants its team to thrive on their journey, to take personal ownership of their work, from baking with soul to serving with sincerity. Team members are motivated to respect each other, having their colleague's back without letting their egos come in the way.

All these philosophies are reflected in Bray's open-space layout, where customers can interact freely and comfortably with the team in the spirit of hospitality. Baristas prepare your coffee barely a metre in front of you, encouraging you to chat with them about beans and brewing.

While they work hard, the team isn't expected to devote all their time to work. Bakers come in at 6am - two hours before the office crowd flows in - and end their shift no later than 3:30pm. 

"I was lost chasing perfection," Jonathan reflects about his own journey. "I had to sacrifice friends, relationships and family to pursue this, but I couldn't find solace in the end. It's not something I'm proud of.

"My team shouldn't have to go through what I did. You can't create something significant if you're not happy while doing it."

In the future, Jonathan hopes Bray can evolve into an institute that contributes positively to their industry, offering real-life training for culinary students and practical learning such as sourdough classes for customers.

It's all part of Bray's mission to help people find their passion. Even the bakery's name conveys more than meets the eye. On one hand, it means the process of pounding and crushing, evoking how coffee, fine grains and whole recipes are crafted. But Bray is also the loud cry of a donkey, resonating with how its founders strive to make their voice heard in their professional field.

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Bread - the cornerstone of a bakery - takes a position of pride behind Bray's counter.

Above the shelves of loaves, a notice informs customers that this bread is "made for families," with a thin crust, soft crumb and a less-sour flavour. This might break with European sourdough traditions, but it's a nod to what many Malaysians favour, introducing a wider community to the basics of sourdough bread before their preferences mature.

Jonathan nonetheless spent three months fine-tuning this bread, tweaking the flour and water before he settled on mainly Thai flour that channels familiar Southeast Asian flavours, mixed with Japanese, German and French flour.

The result is uniquely enjoyable sourdough bread, made by Malaysians for Malaysians. It's lighter and won't stick to your teeth, offered in varieties like the house loaf, European porridge multigrain, and fermented apple onion, for contrasting savoury and sweet nuances.

Bray's thoughtfulness extends beyond the bread recipe - even the plastic bag that holds each loaf is custom-made, inspired by the convenient style of classic Malaysian bread packaging, keeping the bread supple for a week without requiring refrigeration. 

It's a formula for success - Bray sells 70 whole loaves per day on weekends. Customers can relish them with house-made spreads like aromatic, earthy herb butter blended with mushrooms and nutty buah kulim, or a gently sharp jam of apple, fig and rose. Sandwiches are also available, showcasing salt beef, spiced lamb, house-smoked trout, chimichurri chicken or charred eggplant, served in rice sourdough bread that retains its crunch for takeouts.

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Bray's pastries are a distinctive delight too, rich with fermented French butter, with a confident crisp and full-bodied flakiness.

Jonathan springs several striking surprises, influenced by childhood encounters with Malaysian Chinese baked treats and dim sum. 

He harnesses the power of lamination to craft croissants with one-of-a-kind Asian flavours, such as the Fond Memories Croissant, a pork-free take on hawker bakkwa sandwiches, layered with marinated chicken ham, chicken floss, chilli jam and pickled cucumbers, bursting with old-school sweet-saltiness and nostalgic textures.

Bray's Dumpling Croissant is our favourite, rooted in xiaolongbao, with a centre that represents a dumpling's filling of chicken, prawn and squid cake, moistened with balsamic black vinegar, brightened by fried pickled ginger - it's a brilliant union of a soupy Chinese bun encased in a firm French pastry.

Other reinterpreted, reinvigorated pastries include the crowd-pleasing Curry Puff Croissant, packed with chicken, curried potatoes and egg, something we'd happily eat every week; the Glazed Ham & Cheese Croissant, a combination strangely reminiscent of char siu; and the Elderflower Croissant Tart, with a luscious core that recalls egg custard, elegantly uplifting, crackly with a pistachio crumble topping.

The classics also embrace change via subtle enhancements - the Smoked Rosemary Honey & Sea Salt Croissant features Malaccan honey punctuated with rosemary that's been smoked with applewood for six hours, resulting in refreshingly floral smokiness, while the Pain Au Chocolat contains house-made melted chocolate sticks, tempered with four types of chocolate, harmoniously milky and dark all at once.

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With Jonathan's experience as a chef, Bray is impressively capable of ambitious hot meals, worthy of KL's most vibrant cafes.

The Baker's Breakfast is a should-try for brunch enthusiasts - it elevates the cliched Big Breakfast with a gorgeously colourful ensemble of creamy eggs, perfectly ripe Cultiveat tomatoes, mushrooms, salad, and instead of frozen supermarket sausages, Bray's own chicken-and-duck confit spam, smoothly juicy and mellow-tasting.

For a full-fledged, fulfilling lunch, possibilities include the Eggs Benedict, lined with salt beef and avocado hollandaise; house-smoked trout with poached eggs, warm peas, pea shoots and horseradish cream; and a stellar seafood stew that's thickened with sourdough and made extra-tempting with saffron, brimming with prawns, mussels and squid.

The PB & J French Toast is the ideal indulgence - intricately elaborate with house-made peanut butter, mixed berries, coffee crumble and orange syrup, but instantly enjoyable at first bite for anyone who adores a beautiful bake. Everything about Bray is wonderfully addictive.

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Bray Bakery

G-02, Menara See Hoy Chan, Jalan Tun Razak, Kuala Lumpur.
Open Tuesday-Sunday, 8am-5pm. Tel: 012-582-2519