A breakfast staple for many, bread might conjure up memories of bleary-eyed mornings around the dining table or a takeaway lunch, to be consumed in a hurry on hectic days before or during work or school. But for Naadhira Ismail, founder and baker at Mother Dough Bakery, bread represents a time to slow down, and moments to be spent eating together with family and community. Homely and cosy, the bakery which opened this May is far removed from her previous career in the fast-paced world of fashion and public relations.
After almost a decade in the industry, she decided to head to New York City in 2012 to study baking and pastry-making, all in search of a different environment where she could learn a new craft and keep growing. The next four years of experience she gained in the city culminated in Mother Dough. Simply decorated, with plants perched on wooden shelves and benches and stools dotting the space, the bakery is warm and inviting, somewhere to relax and enjoy the company of friends, perhaps with a buttery, flaky croissant or a tangy slice of lemon cake. Behind the counter, we spot photos of Naadhira’s parents, a nod to the people she considers her greatest inspiration and source of support.
Her decision to leave behind a stable career in such a sudden and drastic turn was sure to raise eyebrows, and Naadhira has had to deal with her fair share of doubt. “I just kept doing my thing, and over time, it became clear to people that I was serious about this, and that it wasn’t a hobby.” She cites “chance, and a good feeling” as the factors behind the decision of where to open the bakery, but as we watch her work, we learn that Naadhira leaves little else to chance. From her insistence on using organic ingredients in her offerings to the way she watches for the most minute changes in humidity and temperature, her deeply meticulous nature shines through. She tells us simply, “It all starts from quality ingredients. You’d always want to start with quality ingredients for the end products to be good too.” It seems that this belief in starting from the source and seeking perfection in every detail is rooted deep in everything Naadhira does, whether it’s fashion spreads or baking breads.
What is the inspiration behind the name of your bakery?
The obvious answer would be the literal meaning of “mother dough”, which refers to the sourdough starter that we use for our breads and pastries. But beyond that, it’s a nod to my mother and all mothers, and the feminine presence that’s the start of everything strong and good.
How did you come up with the design of the space?
We didn’t have a big space to begin with. I wanted a space that would feel like an escape, like you were somewhere else for awhile—a take-out place, with small nooks of seats here and there. And I wanted the space to be green, to keep it relaxed and calming, with good music.
Traditionally, bread is typically a communal type of food that is often shared. Has that concept of eating together inspired your bread-making endeavours in any way?
Family meals and breaking bread together are definitely an inspiration, though it’s also nice when done on your own too, sometimes. For as long as I can remember, I’ve watched my dad having bread for breakfast and supper everyday, and it wasn’t till I was in New York (NY), smelling the bread from the bread kitchens in school that I realised how it all brought me back to that memory of him sitting in the same spot all these years, enjoying his bread everyday.
How do your friends and family feel about your bread-making endeavours?
My friends and family have actually been super supportive from the beginning. They’re my support system everyday, especially my dad, who’s my biggest fan. He’s helped me every single step of the way, and he comes by everyday and buys an almond croissant, baguette and coffee!
How did the time you spent training and working in America influence your baking?
Studying and working in a city like NY has brought about many experiences, including working and learning from good bread bakers. Talking about bread with these people and observing how they work has been very motivating and inspiring. Working with freshly milled flour, good produce, good weather, and getting to try the good bakeries in the city have inspired me to bring the whole experience back home.
How was the process of transitioning from being an apprentice to actually starting your own business like?
I was an apprentice while still in school in NY, and after school I worked full time for three years in a small bakery in the city. It was a small space that produced a relatively high volume of bread daily, so there were times when I would either be on my own or working in a two- to three-person team, running the kitchen. I think that experience prepared me to work in our current kitchen space, although I do wish I had a lot more storage. (laughs)
What has the entire process of bread-making taught you?
It’s not easy, but the process is exciting and rewarding, and, in fact, was what attracted me to working in a bakery to begin with. When each batch of bread takes two days to make and each pastry takes three, even the most basic things become precious. You need to be present in the moment with all senses awakened—smelling the mother dough starter, feeling the dough, watching it rise, paying attention to its temperature, the temperature in the kitchen, the humidity levels, how you’re shaping it, the temperature you’re baking it at, and so many other things. I’d say it’s taught me to be present, and to be patient and intuitive. I feel like working in bakeries has made me an improved version of myself.
Name some of the challenges you face when working in the F&B industry.
There are plenty—the quality of the produce that you have to work with, having to manage staff, and dealing with customers who are not so nice. But there are more good days than bad, so we try to focus on that.
Share with us an interesting encounter you’ve had with a customer.
Someone said, “Are you sure you bake everything here? You’re all just girls.” This is the most recent. I can’t remember anything else as of now, but it was totally sexist.
We understand that when you first opened, running the business was pretty much a solo effort. What has that experience taught you?
For the first few months after we opened, it was a one-man team in the kitchen. It was definitely intense, but you’ve got to do what it takes to make it work. Thankfully, I’ve got a good manager who helped to keep things grounded, and now we have a second baker so things are easier.
Have there been any lessons you’ve learned from your previous career in fashion and PR that you’ve found helpful in the present?
The first would be to adapt when shit happens. It’s also important to have good time management and production schedules, and to always keep it real.
What is one piece of advice you’d give to aspiring entrepreneurs?
I’m an aspiring baby entrepreneur myself! (laughs) Keep at it, have a good right hand person, and don’t forget to breathe.
How do you personally like your bread?
I like a good fresh baguette! I can have it with honey and lots of good butter, or just dipped in coffee. I guess if there were any of the items on the menu that I felt a connection to, it’d be baguettes because they’re the first bread I learned to make. Turning out a good batch of baguettes can really make my day.
What, to you, makes a good bread?
To me, a good bread is made with just the basic ingredients—flour, water, salt and yeast. It should have great flavour, even when eaten on its own.
Mother Dough Bakery
749 North Bridge Road #01-01, Singapore 198717
Opening Hours: 12.00PM to 7.00PM Tuesdays to Saturdays, 11.00AM to 5.00PM on Sundays, closed on Mondays.