GEORGE TOWN: “I wasn’t sure if I was ready to tell my story as I experienced a lot of pain, suffering and heartbreak in the past,” Lai Siew Lin, 33, reveals to FMT in her cosy baking studio.
Seconds later, an alarm chimes and Lai returns with a freshly-baked tray of golden salted croissants – vegan, in fact, and one of FlourLab’s specialties.
“But then again, I think life isn’t always sunshine and rainbows, so if my story can inspire someone then it’s worth it.”
To Penangites, she’s known as Elly Lai, the vegan baker behind FlourLab, but not many know that just a few years back, Lai was miles away in another part of the world – living an entirely different life.
From studying in Japan to working in Singapore and tending to Hollywood stars in a five-star resort in the Maldives, Lai has lived the life one could only dream of.
Nevertheless, she also dealt with much hardship before finding her way back to Malaysia and the kitchen – a place she will always call home.
“After returning to Malaysia in 2019…I was asked by a friend to take over her hostel,” she recalls, explaining how she wound up in Queen’s Hostel which is now her humble abode and baking studio in Penang.
However, she was only a few months into her hostel business when Covid-19 struck, keeping away guests and denying her an income.
This was when Lai decided to start FlourLab, her own vegan baking business, in May 2020, capturing the hearts and stomachs of vegans and non-vegans alike through her delicious croissants, cakes and gluten-free loaves.
Lai’s love for the kitchen began in 2006 when she took off for Japan to pursue her studies.
A four-month course in Japanese proved insufficient and after suffering many “embarrassing moments”, she completely lost confidence in herself and at one point, refused to leave her house.
However, wishing not to disappoint her parents, she studied a one-year course in Japanese and managed to enrol in Toyo University.
Despite chasing numbers in her international economics course, Lai spent most of her time ‘simmering’ her love for cooking.
She even worked part-time at a Korean restaurant when she was 18 and left as a chef at 21.
“I was one of the two girls in the kitchen and didn’t really know much about cooking techniques,” she laughs, admitting that she froze the first time she heard the French word ‘julienne’ – a portion of food cut into short, thin strips.
Lai spent a year in Japan after graduation and collaborated with a bakery to sell her own vegan baked goods.
Although she longed to continue baking, Lai headed to Singapore to work at JTB Corporation, Japan’s largest travel agency, in 2014.
“It was nice but it wasn’t the type of job I wanted to do for the rest of my life,” Lai confesses, saying that her stint with the company lasted 18 months, after which she packed her bags for New York to reunite with her long-distance boyfriend whom she wanted to marry.
Alas that too ended in heartbreak when the two realised they were not compatible. So, after two years of living together, they called it quits.
Nursing a broken heart, Lai bought a one-way ticket to the Maldives.
Thanks to her trilingual skills and economics degree, she was hired by One&Only, one of the most exclusive resorts there, to man the front office and sell packages and services to customers.
“It’s a high-end resort so our customers were A-list Hollywood stars, football players and millionaires,” she reveals, adding that her job involved researching her clients’ preferences and organising personalised activities for them.
Despite the sparkling beaches, fame and an Instagrammable life, she was deeply unhappy and very stressed, Lai says of the 20-hour shifts she worked. Besides, she was still recovering from her breakup.
“It was so stressful to the point that I couldn’t handle it anymore so I quit and came back to Malaysia.”
Although baking is not as lucrative as her previous jobs, Lai’s heart is fuller than ever.
She says: “When I bake, I just focus on the moment and let my inner voice guide me. I love making people happy through baking. It’s definitely the most rewarding part, which is why I plan on baking for the rest of my life!”
If you’d like to sample Lai’s vegan bakes, check out FlourLab on Facebook and drop her a message.