Lush greenery might be the theme du jour of brunch spots around the city, but Joey Mah and Keith Koay had a different palette in mind. Mornings at designer bakery Dou Dou Bake in Petaling Jaya are an almost meditative affair — if you can ignore the queue snaking around the block.
White walls conceal this corner lot, identified only by a discreet wire-moulded croissant on its façade. Fronting the space is a wall-to-wall window, comprising panels of alternating striped glass that obscure the view inside while providing privacy and plentiful light. Make your way around the corner to the door, but prepare to pause in your tracks.
Wooden planks form a boardwalk that cuts through an unusual garden. Absent are the carpet of grass and riot of flowers one might expect. Instead, the ground is liberally strewn with white gravel and from this mass of pebbles sprout desert brush: scraggly trees and scrubby shrubs that grow with glorious abandon on either side of the walkway. Whatever the weather — a milky sunrise, moody skies or blazing sun — the muted palette seems to suggest this tiny corner of the universe remains sure and steadfast through it all.
The insinuation that time is suspended here continues at the entrance, a corroded container lifted a few inches above the ground and halved by a glass door. The tunnel-like effect reinforces the idea that you are leaving behind the outside world for an almost sterile sanctuary.
The entire side wall is constructed from seamless glass panes fitted into full-height window boxes that project slightly into the garden. Cement pillars demarcating the boxy extrusions are threaded through with a running wooden ledge. Quilted grey cushioning tempers harder furniture such as the low acrylic tables or wooden slabs bolted to metal bench frames with oversized hardware. Undulating acrylic sheets strung from the ceiling create a subtle sense of flow. The eye takes in all at a glance and rests, finally, upon a long, corrugated concrete counter at the far end from where the aromas of coffee and baked bread laced with sugar and spice swirl to reel you in.
Here is where you might find Mah (of Three Little Birds Coffee and Artisan Roastery fame) manning the cosy coffee nook or Koay (three-time Malaysian Barista Champion and sourdough specialist) overseeing the heaping of baked goods that dominate the counter: loaves, croissants, savoury tarts, knotted buns, iced loaf cakes. The cold canvas that is the interior is ultimately warmed by the product of hands and the breath of the living.
“I’ve never put this on paper before, but the original inspiration for this place was a graveyard,” says Mah. “That’s really what I said. I wanted something clean, empty and calm.”
“At first, we thought of planting dead plants in the garden and using a tombstone for our signage,” chips in Koay.
“But when I told our interior designer this, he said, ‘Joey, this is too extreme, people will freak out,’” laughs Mah. “We stayed away from literal interpretations but he kept certain elements, like the gravel and plants with an almost greyish tinge to them.”
“The wabi sabi life, you know,” jokes Koay, referring to the Japanese aesthetic of embracing the transient through that which is imperfect, impermanent and incomplete. “I love the unfinished walls. I find beauty in that rawness. It exposes the layers underneath that made this space what it is today. But some things we did push for. I insisted on the massive sheets of glass [fitted into the window boxes]. We were getting this place ready for launch when the first Movement Control Order (MCO) was imposed, and shipping from our original supplier in China ran into complications. We finally found a local manufacturer in Penang who could customise this. It cost three times more, but I love these clear windows. That’s my favourite section.”
Meanwhile, Mah finds refuge on a bench in the arid garden. “I like the adrenaline rush of peak hours, when I’m pulling about 50 cups of coffee every 60 minutes,” he says. “But when I want peace, I go outside. I never thought I would like being around plants, but we were working here every day during the MCO and I watched them grow and die and grow again. It’s especially nice at night, with their reflections cast upon the walls. I like the small details best. They take the most time, though; the wire croissant on the wall outside took us ages to position.”
Similar thought extends to the retail rack, intended to furnish the gourmand’s pantry with the likes of Maldon sea salt flakes, locally made Milky Whey cheese, golden honeycomb and premium wine, coffee beans and chocolate bars. “The idea of a provisions corner stemmed from discovering cutlery or ingredients I liked at cafés and being unable to purchase them for myself,” says Koay. “I want to eventually display even our fresh produce because so much effort goes into our sourcing.”
“I’ve built many cafés, but I want places that are distinct from each other,” concludes Mah. “Something like this requires great trust and collaboration. This is a smaller space than we intended, but I like the quiet neighbourhood and its old buildings. It suited the atmosphere I had in mind.”
They might have been talked out of recalling a cemetery within the bakery, but there is no denying this place has soul. Whether it is bustling with customers or winding down come dusk, a contemplative spirit is palpable, as though the spartan walls carry the ghosts of decades of memories made here. As anyone who has ever strolled through a peaceful graveyard will tell you, some places make you simultaneously forget (the outside world) and remember.
Watch our video of their space below:
Dou Dou Bake is at 38, Jalan SS4c/5, Taman Rasa Sayang, Petaling Jaya.
This article first appeared in issue No. 98, Winter 2020 of Haven.