In the idyllic town of Canggu, Bali, a gastronomic spark has been bubbling for a while now. Amidst surfing schools and yoga studios, there’s Starter Lab — a little unassuming bakery that’s baking what has been dubbed ‘the finest sourdough on the island’ by Balinese restaurants.
Starter Lab’s artisanal bread draws in more than just curious tourists and expats. Renowned eateries and fine-dining restaurants swear by these fresh bakes. Take for instance Locavore, Indonesia’s only restaurant on Asia’s 50 Best, which has become a frequent Starter Lab collaborator for some experimental sourdough creations.
But Bali’s (and some say, South East Asia’s) best bread is not baked by pastry chefs who have worked by hot ovens for nearly a lifetime.
Founder Emerson Manibo was formerly a teacher but abandoned that career path to attend a course in pastry arts and to do stints at the famous Per Se restaurant and Tartine Bakery in the US. His partner, Min Siah, had been in the advertising field before building up Starter Lab in 2017.
Two years later, the humble concept is sharing its sourdough and philosophy to Singapore with its first-ever cafe. Starter Lab Singapore is led by three young bakers — all of whom trained in Starter Lab Bali — sharing the same romantic ambitions and love for bread.
Unlike the original bakery in Bali, Singapore’s branch is a 30-seater concept with coffee, sandwiches and ‘posh toasts’ for all. A typical day for the team of three starts at 7am, when they get to mix the bread dough and prep for service. The next few hours are dedicated to proofing and baking bread for evening sales by the kiosk at the storefront, where people and neighbours can get a few loaves in time for dinner.
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From Singapore, Manibo has access to great imports and quality flour around the world from his creations. But he’s been putting his trust in his long-standing employee: a three-year-old mother dough starter. This hardy thing is the key to keeping Starter Lab’s future success in Singapore’s dining scene: it has brought to life loaves of bread in Bali and survived a three-hour plane ride to get to the heartlands of Havelock Road.
Besides plain sourdough, the mother starter has birthed nine different kinds of bread. Signatures included the miso baguette and the rosemary lemon with sea salt. When the cafe opens, there will also be the ‘Baker’s Choice’ selection which will see rotations of unique, original creations from the baking team.
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When Starter Lab Singapore officially opens on Monday, the duo will see their responsibilities split apart. Manibo leads as a consultant here but will continue to focus on Bali and future expansions there (a 2,000 sq-ft Starter Lab cafe is set to open in Bali soon). Min takes charge in Singapore, working with local producers and bakers. While the cafe is putting together the final touches, we take a quick moment with Min to talk about the sourdough journey so far.
How did you guys start baking in Bali?
Bali is home for us. I met Emerson there, who’s also spent quite a long time on the island before heading to the US for his culinary studies. We had a child together and wanted to raise him in Bali too. It was more of a lifestyle choice than anything. Since Emerson has the baking talent and I have the know-how is advertising and marketing, we wanted to blend these together and build something for our child.
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Baking in Bali was challenging, Emerson had to take a few attempts to create a starter there. The humidity and heat were different in the US and Bali, everything is different. So we had to experiment a lot — that’s why this place is called Starter Lab. Ingredients were a challenge to get in Bali, we come across many major holidays and issues with customs. Also, we had only one supplier who provided us with American wholewheat and German rye. We knew quickly that we had to stockpile, we run out of grains when the Bali customs don’t let things through.
Did you expect such a response to your bread in Bali initially?
That was a surprise. Starter Lab was literally just a hole in the wall. We started it to share a love for good bread and I guess there was no one else on the island doing what we do. We started off with just wholesale accounts. Diners tasted our bread in cafes and wanted to buy more. Then we had a lot of amazing partnerships with respected restaurants in Bali that helped us grow very quickly.
What’s the inspiration behind your bread creations and what are you working on next?
When you look through bread recipe books, there are so many ways to make sourdough and add to sourdough. We have a display come up where we are planning to showcase ancient grains, modern grains and the future of grains. There are so many flours, ingredients and combinations to put in bread. We can’t put a number on it. Our country and seeded bread have wholewheat content and we try to make them as healthy as possible and definitely all-natural.
“It’s tempting to speed up the process especially for bulk production, making sales and whatnot, but you also lose the craft and the romance behind bread making.”
So why Singapore? How different is it baking here?
I’ve worked in Singapore and I know there’s good bread here made by some really amazing bakeries. It tells me that there’s a market for our type of bread and I thought it would be a good idea to open here.
We started looking for a space but it was really tough — Singapore’s so compliance is different. We first considered going Kampung Bugis, just above Camp Kilo but there were so many licensing issues. Ironically, Starter Lab did a pop-up in that very space while we were getting ready to set up our cafe. Eventually, we settled with this space along Havelock Road. It used to be a Teochew restaurant and we transformed the entire space for something more contemporary.
We wanted to find the right space that represents who we are: a little bit funky, located in an area where people will check out or travel for bread. We could’ve chosen to go to Tiong Bahru, which is nearby. But we like to do things differently and independently. There’s a nice neighbourhood here: there’s space to wander and it’s quieter. We love that people from the HDBs around come here and tell us that they’re excited about our opening. We give them some loaves too.
“After all, bread symbolises charity and community. It’s the thing that all cultures together. To be able to break bread with neighbours and friends is very nice.”
Clearly, community building is crucial to Starter Lab. How else are you connecting with other artisanal producers, such as yourself, in the gastronomic sphere?
If we’re trying to bring the best bread in Singapore, I thought we should also bring in the best coffee to the cafe. So we have a partnership with Josh Liew, co-founder of The Glasshouse cafe, to help us with the coffee programme here. We like that he’s supporting local roasters and sources for seasonal beans. We also work with UglyFood, a local company that sources surplus fruits and veg that gets thrown out. We buy from them and whatever we don’t use, they buy back and turn it into juice which we will have here as well.
In our retail section, we want to highlight products that are good for the community and sustainability. We’ve got a couple of products here from East Java and Co, a Bali-based small batch company, that’s making us quite homesick. Everything from the brand is sourced from Bali, like sea salts and honey and we use it in our original bakery as well.
Right now, we’re also working with Fossa. Their chocolate is amazing, we had a tasting recently and I was settled on collaborating with them for a Starter Lab chocolate. We’re trying to see if we can use flavours in our rosemary, lemon and sea salt loaf with Indonesian chocolate. We want to support Singaporean when we can.