16 February 2019
Li Kwok-cheong, owner of Levain Bakery in Central, holds a Master's degree in Physics. Photo: HKEJ
Li Kwok-cheong, owner of Levain Bakery in Central, holds a Master's degree in Physics. Photo: HKEJ

A passion for bread: from physics to baking

Cooking involves a lot of chemistry and physics.

While we wait for our order to arrive at the table, people in the kitchen are busy mixing ingredients, sifting flour and sugar, sprinkling spices, transforming liquid into solid or gas, and harnessing the powers of water and fire to transform these raw materials into delightfully delicious things called food.

In fact, there’s now a style of cooking called molecular gastronomy, which takes advantage of a multitude of technical innovations from the scientific disciplines to offer culinary treats that gratify both your taste buds and sense of sight.

So it’s not really out of this world for a Hong Kong citizen, who has studied in the university to make science – physics, in particular – his career, will choose making bread to be his lifelong pursuit.

Li Kwok-cheong, who owns Levain Bakery on Caine Road in Central, says he decided to become a baker rather than a scientist because he really has a passion for baking, thanks to his father who led him into the wonderful world of bread.

One day, when he was still a university student, his father brought home a small oven and started to make make bread.

The elder Li could not be faulted for his passion, but his many attempts at baking were far from being considered successful.

The son, inspired by his father’s tenacity, decided to use his knowledge of physics to experiment on how to make bread look and taste better. The home kitchen soon became his laboratory.

Li’s father was amazed by his son’s sudden conversion into a baking enthusiast. Whenever he was in the kitchen, he looked like a man possessed, feverishly working on yeast and dough as if they held the secrets of the universe.

And so after the younger Li received his Master’s degree in Physics, he decided to pursue a career as a baker instead of a scientist.

He said he had to conceal the fact that he holds a postgraduate degree in science so a local bakery would accept him as an apprentice.

During the years of his apprenticeship, Li only earned as little as HK$5,000 a month and went home dog-tired after all the hard work in the bakery, but that did not stop him from making more bread at home in the evening.

Why so? Li said no other work could make him feel more satisfied than making bread.

And so after a few years he opened his own bakery in Jordan, calling it Levain, which, according to him, is a sort of combination of the words lactobacilli, yeast and long fermentation period.

He closed the business after only six months, realizing that managing a store requires more than his knowledge of making bread.

But the setback didn’t stop him for long. Soon his passion for bread started to possess him once more and push him to try again.

And so he reopened his bakery in Central in 2009, and has been operating it there since.

Specializing in artisanal European breads such as sourdoughs, Li insists on making purely natural yeast bread without any help from sophisticated machines.

His relentless efforts to remain true to the essence of traditional baking have paid off, with satisfied customers, both local and foreign, swearing to the high quality of his products.

Li acknowledges that his background in physics has contributed a lot to the way he makes bread, saying the secret to making delicious bread is doing extensive studies, experiments, comparisons and inductions.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on March 10.

Translation by Taka Liu

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Li Kwok-cheong says the secret to making delicious bread is to follow the scientific method. Photo: HKEJ

Writer of the Hong Kong Economic Journal

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