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The Poet Who Became A Chef

- Chef Judy Koh

Who is Chef Judy?

As I stepped into Caffe Pralet, I felt at home in this cosy yet spacious cafe tucked inside Tiong Bahru’s Eng Hoon Mansions.

Caffe Pralet serves a delicious variety of cakes, including sugarless ones!

The menu was uniquely tantalising. Sesame chicken with quinoa and salad. Seafood tom yam pasta. Sugarless Kueh Sarlat. Yuzu Mousse cake. Sugarless Signature Pralet cake.

Caffe Pralet was set up in July 2006 to showcase the culinary creations of Creative Culinaire the School, which was in turn founded six years earlier in May 2000 under the leadership of Principal and Executive Chef Judy Koh.

Through Creative Culinaire, Chef Judy has been spreading the love of baking with a fully equipped commercial kitchen studio via baking and cooking classes. Beginners to professionals can choose from a wide selection of classes with a chance to engage and learn from leading industry experts and celebrity chefs.

Caffe Pralet has also built its own reputation for cakes (my favourites are the sugarless cakes), seasonal festive goodies, premium rice bowls and fusion dishes, and regular favourites like the 3 Musketeer Whole Loaf bread that has been around for years.

However, Chef Judy did not start her career as a baker. She was actually a literature and linguistics teacher who still loves writing poems, who decided to venture into F&B and subsequently set up her own culinary school and cafe.

She shares with us about the ups and downs of her journey as a F&B entrepreneur.

Why did you start Caffe Pralet?

“Caffe Pralet was started 14 yrs ago…when my first marriage ended. I felt a great need to give birth to something new.

Although I was a chef and baker, I did not have any business background. Despite this, I plunged into starting the cafe/bakery and put my heart into the school (which I was already doing before the divorce).”

How did you survive in the F&B industry?

“Managing people was not exactly my forte and since I was on a very tight budget, I was initially the chef, baker, instructor, cleaner and delivery person. But being busy also meant that I did not have time to get depressed or feel sorry for myself.

When I first started, I had only three staff running the cafe and bakery. Today it has grown to a team of 12 staff.

By the grace of God, despite being an introvert, I have learnt to be a more empathetic leader and although I am still learning, I think I made a lot more mistakes as a leader in the earlier days compared to now.

Running this business has taught me that while as humans strategise, plan and strive for our goals, actually there are many things beyond our control which may not turn out the way we planned.

That is why there are businessmen who rely on Feng Shui, fortune tellers etc. For me I have chosen to believe in the Living God.

I have learnt the wisdom of trusting God each day and not stress or be flustered too much. ‘Be still, and know that I am God’ as the Bible says. When I do this, I just do my best and leave God to do the rest. As a result, these days I am a lot more calmer and peaceful compared to the earlier years.”

What were some of your greatest challenges?

“Some six years ago, due to new competitors entering the market and some personal legal expenses, I was down to only $50 in my personal bank account and faced great difficulties in coping with monthly rentals of $20,000, excluding salaries and overheads.

I really had to go on my knees and cry out to God for help.

Out of the blue, I was offered an $80,000 catering project for some Indian clients (which meant 4 months worth of rentals to me then). Miraculously I got the deal and saw how God provided everything from manpower, talents, and help from people who provided resources, skills and information which we lacked.

Once again I saw the hand of God in my business , sustaining us and walking with me through the whole process and truly it was ‘Jehovah Jireh (God provides)’.

How has these experiences changed your perspective?

“I have learnt the wisdom of trusting God, being more sensitive when referring to money to others who may be in financial difficulties, and being open to share and encourage others with my experiences.”

Could you share how being an introvert has helped you be an entrepreneur? I think as an introvert. We are more introspective and empathetic and will consider all sides before making a decision. What introvert strengths do you encourage fellow introverts to exercise more often?

We can exercise our ability to listen more — this is a very useful skill.

Listening allows us time to hear the views of our customers, clients and business associates, so we don’t act rashly.

What advice would you give to aspiring bakers?

“Being passionate is important , but we need more than passion to stay in this line.

We need wisdom, and love … love for what we do and love for the people who are with us …. “

Here is a section from Chef Judy’s poem for my Friend, written 18 June 2004. 

“When clouds get darker and storm batters,

and tears threaten to rain,

I remember the blessing of a friend in you

who will wait with me,

and paint a picture of days brighter.

And point me to a path lighter,

and then, for a while, the seas get calmer

and I will soar with the flying fish and smile,

when I remember, the blessing of a friend

in you.”

Special thanks for Chef Judy Koh, founder of Creative Culinaire and Caffe Pralet for sharing her story.

Interviewed by Julia Chan

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