Raymond Tan didn’t have an oven until he moved to Australia from Malaysia in his late teens. It was 2006 and technique-heavy pastries were the home baker’s ultimate weekend project. For his first attempt, Tan chose delicate macarons – an ambitious undertaking for an experienced cook, let alone someone who’d never used an oven before.
But in his typically laid-back way, Tan tells Broadsheet, “I just turned it on, and I started baking.”
Fast-forward to today and the boyish baker from Selangor now co-owns and operates Raya. The bakery at the top of Little Collins Street in the CBD specialises in cakes, cookies and other pastries with a Malaysian twist – like beef rendang pies and Ribena pound cakes. But Tan’s journey towards a culinary career had more steps than even the most involved recipes.
This year, gift them a dinner to remember with a Broadsheet Gift Card.BUY NOW
In 2005, he was an architecture student in Malaysia. The intense course load coupled with a long drive to campus in chaotic traffic every day caught up with him, and he found himself in a serious car accident. (Tan was fine. The car was not.)
Then his dad struck a deal with him. Tan would move to Australia for study, but only if he pursued a degree in business. Tan agreed and moved to Melbourne, but he didn’t discover a passion for corporate work. Instead, he found himself with a growing interest in creating – and eating – sugary treats. “I didn’t have a sweet tooth,” he says, reflecting on the food he enjoyed before moving, “but then I discovered Tim Tams.”
After undergrad, Tan worked retail at Burberry before undertaking a master’s degree and becoming a certified practising accountant. But he hated accounting and wanted something more for himself. “I thought, ‘If I’m able to sell four cakes from my apartment, that’ll cover me for a week.’ Which I did, to friends and family.”
By 2014, the pastry newcomer started sharing his bakes on Instagram. Early posts include homemade croissants, cookies and brownies, and over time he developed his own style. A typical Tan gram features fortune cookies decorated to look like clementines and ang-pau (red packets); Magnum Mini-sized and -shaped cake pops styled as Pokemon, colourful abstract art or cartoonish versions of fashion world icons like Anna Wintour and Grace Coddington; and tiered layer cakes with decorative flowers and chocolate shards running up the side.
His bakes got picked up by Vogue, reposted by MoMA in New York and featured on the official Instagram account back when that could move the needle. Things took off from there, and Tan started travelling to cities including New York and London to teach baking workshops.
“This bakery was an accident,” he says of Raya. The venue – which he found at the end of 2019, complete with modular tables and bright lighting – was originally supposed to be a workshop space. But Covid hit, and the concept had to change.
“I was like, ‘I can’t sell croissants. I can’t sell tarts.’ It was already done,” Tan explains. “So then I was like, ‘Well, what can I bring that’s different?’ I think I found a sweet spot for Raya, which is to show off my heritage.”
Since baking has become his profession, Tan doesn’t turn his home oven on as much as he used to. But Raya still feels homey, he says. “I want people to feel like they’re in my apartment while I bake.”
Raya’s just the start. Tan now co-owns Nimbo on Hardware Street, a dessert shop that specialises in decked-out versions of French toast and the Korean shaved ice dessert bingsu. Next, Tan is looking for a space where he can finally host workshops again – and inspire a fresh cohort of home bakers to switch their oven on and try something new.
This article first appeared in Domain Review, in partnership with Broadsheet.