Patrick Lam: My story, as told to Elisabeth Easther

Patrick Lam is the country’s most awarded pie maker, with seven Bakels New Zealand Supreme Awards under his belt. With bakeries in Tauranga, Rotorua and Bethlehem, Patrick is back this year defending his title with pie entries submitted today and winners announced at the awards night on July 27.

In Cambodia, my parents sold clothes in the market, so we were low income. Then, in 1975, when I was four, the Khmer Rouge started a war in Cambodia. My parents dragged me, my brother and older sister out and we walked all the way to Vietnam. My parents tell me it took roughly 30 days. When we were walking, we saw bombed villages and dead people. Once we had to hide in a little shed, and there was a body inside it, but we had nowhere else to go. When we were close to the Vietnam frontier, where all the Vietnamese people were being sent back to their country, we pretended we were Vietnamese, to squeeze in with them. This was risky, but we managed to jump in a boat and go with them.

Because of the war in Cambodia, the Vietnamese government took us in as refugees. They gave us food and shelter. They also controlled everything in the camp and we couldn’t leave it. The Red Cross donated a lot of our food. Our relations from Australia would send us a little money to help us survive. There was no school. I never went to a proper school for one day in my life but other people in the camp who understood a bit more English, or other languages, would teach us a little, maybe an hour a day at their house, but it was not actual school.

There were a lot of people in the camp and my family stayed in one room of about 10sq metres. It was very small. We couldn’t do much as children, or as teenagers and our parents were so worried. We have no education, we have no idea of our future, we were just waiting to go to whatever country would take us. When the camp closed,most refugees went overseas and some went back to Cambodia. We stayed in the camp for 14 years, until I was 18.

Back then the Australian government took a certain number of refugees every year and we have an uncle in Australia who tried to sponsor us. We were lucky to be accepted in 1989. When we got our tickets, our family just wanted to jump on the plane and go, but when we get to the airport, we don’t know what to do. So we waited for people to help us because it is our first time on a plane, our first time overseas. We just stood there, until we saw another family doing the same thing, so we followed them. We didn’t know where they were going but luckily they were going to Australia too. We felt so lucky, because our future was going to start.

When we get to Australia, my uncle and auntie give us food and clothes and help us get started, and the government also looked after us. After three weeks I go to afactory and get a job as a process worker at a soft drink and apple juice company, packing and putting things on palettes. I do that for a year, when they promote me to machine operator.After about five years they promote me to supervisor. My English isn’t very good, but they promote me because I do a good job.

Australia made us feel very welcome. Slowly we learn the language, and about the culture and lifestyle. We also work really hard. At the juice company I did a lot of overtime. I would work seven days a week. Sometimes I would do a 12-hour shift and if other people were sick, I’d cover with a double shift, so 24 hours, then after 24 hours I would stay to do cleaning. Sometimes I worked up to 30 hours over the weekend because other people don’t come in. I would work whatever hours the boss would give me. I never say no. That is how we saved for our first business.

My wife and I were neighbours in the refugee camp. That’s how we met. Our houses were very close,and when we were about 18,we fell in love. We kept in contact after I went to Australia and, a year later, her family went to New Zealand. We can both write a little bit of Vietnamese, so we stayed in touch with letters. Then, when she is in New Zealand, we ask our parents if she can visit. She flies to Australia and we get married in 1995. We are both 24. We live in Australia for one year, then we move to New Zealand, just me and my wife.

In New Zealand we buy a small lunch bar in Avondale. Our first business. We know nothing about food or what is sold in a lunch bar. The people who sold it to us tried to show us everything in about three weeks, then we learnt as we went. But day by day, we always think about how to do better. Maybe we try an idea, if it works it works, if not we try something else.

I’ve never been to cooking classes, or baking school. I’m not qualified at anything. Everything I know I’ve learnt from working. We ran the lunch bar about two years, then sold and moved to Rotorua in 1999, where we started our first bakery. At the lunch bar, most baked goods were supplied, but in Rotorua, we do everything ourselves, starting at three in the morning and finishing at six or seven at night almost every day. I needed sleep, but the pressure to do well was more important. Not many people want to be bakers, because it’s such hard work.

My children work hard and do well at school. My older boy is a pharmacist, my second boy is in his last year of optometry and my daughter is in her first year studying biomedical. Maybe she’ll be a doctor. Because we don’t have the opportunity to go to school, my wife and I try to give our children the best education. Once we took the children back to Cambodia, to teach them about the Khmer Rouge. They were so scared when they heard the stories. But because they live here, they have a different lifestyle and a different education and they don’t really understand.

The secret to a good pie is pastry and flavour. Puffy pasty is key, then the balance of flavour. We work hard playing with flavour relationships. and we are patient with pastry. You can’t over mix, you have to let it rest. And you don’t want to overcook it. All these things add up to make a good pie. Because our parents’ great-grandparents were Chinese, and we are born in Cambodia and lived in Vietnam, we combine all those flavours, Vietnamese, Cambodian, Chinese. We eat a lot of different foods so we know about good flavour and texture. The best pie looks good and tastes good.

I don’t eat much bakery food because I am making it every day and smelling it. I might try a little corner but I won’t eat the whole pie. I’ll cut one in quarters and give other parts to the staff. I join the gym for a couple of years,but I give up because I’m so busy. Instead I walk on a treadmill for 45 minutes while I watch the news. I do that every day.

Last year the pie competition was cancelled due to Covid, but there was a blind entry sausage roll competition instead. Being our first time with sausage roll competition, we didn’t know what the judges look for, but we still won. After that, we were so so busy. We’d usually sell about 100 sausage rolls a day, but overnight, after the announcement of the win, that jumped to 1,500 sausage rolls a day.

We’re not planning to retire soon. The business is successful and customers keep coming back, saying how much they like our food. We enjoy the success but we’re not doing this to make a lot of money and be lavish, it is the whole process that makes us enjoy this business. And I’m just so happy for my kids, that they’re all grown up and doing well in life.


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