There's a reason why Ben Lai's Sydney apartment always smells like butter; it's the site of his Home Croissanterie business where he makes pain au chocolat and other golden, flaky pastries to sell online. It's also where he once baked (and ate) 3,000 or so croissants with his brother: he wanted to nail the French staple.
"I made a batch of pastries," he says, "every single day, for a very long time."
Each slab of dough, each trip to the oven, each finished croissant was another culinary lesson for the software engineer. He was essentially homeschooling himself in pastry. Lai only baked plain ones – since this was relatively inexpensive – and he didn't waste any of them.
"Me and my brother just smashed them every day," he says. "We were training really hard, so it was encouragement to train even harder and eat croissants."
They worked off their pastries by lifting weights and doing cardio. It was safe to say that eating croissants also became part of their pre-workout energy boost to get them through. After consuming several thousand of them, they still kept going. "At that point, it wasn't even about the taste. We were just eating it because we had it," Lai says. And this was on top of dinner and other meals, too. It was a memorable way to get schooled in baking.
Even though Lai didn't officially train to become a pastry chef – he actually studied computer science at Washington University in St. Louis in the US – he's learnt a few culinary lessons from the world's top restaurants.
During his uni breaks, he undertook short stints at famous kitchens. At top Sydney restaurant Quay, he helped plate Peter Gilmore's celebrated snow-egg dessert by prepping the granita, custard cream and maltose tuiles. It might sound glamorous to work on (it's definitely what you'd lead an "I worked at Quay" ice-breaking anecdote with), but the reality is this: an untrained student is often assigned very rudimentary duties.
"They give you the most basic tasks, and that's where you start," he says.
He also recalls having to grate 20 kilos of beetroot. "Halfway through, a chef came through and said, 'did anyone tell you to grate it on the finest setting?'" Actually, they hadn't. This explained why it was taking him forever to finish shredding the mass of vegetables in front of him.
"Me and my brother just smashed them every day."
During the second-last year of his degree, Lai's fellow software engineer students were busy organising internships for Google and Microsoft. He procrastinated and missed the deadline to submit his applications. He ended up instead at Copenhagen's Noma, which has been named the world's best restaurant four times. He credits an email request he made on a whim – and its open-minded staff – for the opportunity.
"I guess Noma accepts really weird guys," he jokes.
While the application process for Noma was relatively easy, the restaurant kitchen's workload was no breeze.
"Noma's definitely the hardest thing I've ever done. I was not ready for the level of intensity. We were working 18-19 hours at the start," he says.
Like the other interns, he started in the foraging section, which involved picking roses, herbs and lesser-known plants, such as goose tongue. Lai remembers seeing buds of pineapple weed: a sweet, fragrant type of wild chamomile. "It only grows when a tractor runs over the field," he says. "That's what one of the foragers told us."
Hunting wild ingredients in the forest for an internationally renowned restaurant might sound romantic, but it was a humid, challenging ordeal. "There are so many mosquitoes and it's so hot," says Lai, who wore long pants and a winter jacket to protect himself from biting insects. "You just end up sweating a lot."
After working at Noma during the summer of 2018 (when the famous celeriac shawarma headlined the restaurant's first-ever vegetable menu), Lai eventually ended up in Sydney, where he became a software engineer for an insurance company. But his culinary curiosity persisted. He was inspired by The Perfect Loaf, a website about sourdough by Maurizio Leo (also a software engineer).
"I actually wanted to do something like that. Because he was doing bread, I thought I'd do pastry instead," says Lai. "I got two articles deep and then I realised I don't think writing is for me."
However, he'd already splurged on butter, flour and other ingredients for his baking blog. So he decided to roll croissants when he was off duty and offer them to a local cafe. "They were selling out quite quickly," he says.
This inspired him to level up his pastries; cue Lai's croissant-making marathon and subsequent workout sessions.
In July 2020, he launched Home Croissanterie and started selling his pastries via Instagram. The scent of butter-crisp dough overwhelmed his apartment, as he expanded on his range of pastries.
Today, his line-up includes plain croissants as well as versions flavoured with smoked bacon and maple syrup, poppyseed and two types of cheese, almond and vanilla cream, roasted potato and sea salt, and a bun that holds four types of Meltdown Artisan chocolate.
There's also the kardemomme pastry, named after the Danish word for cardamom. It's made from leftover croissant scraps and is inspired by Hart Bageri, a bakery that opened in Copenhagen, Denmark after Lai left Noma.
"I saw so many photos of this stunning pastry that looks so crispy and brown and golden," he said. "Damn, I really want that, but I can't go to Copenhagen, so I'm going to try and make it." His version is a rich pastry, gloriously sweetened with a sprinkling of cardamom sugar.
Currently, Lai juggles his software engineer job with end-of-week baking sessions and dessert deliveries on weekends.
His Saturday mornings start at 2:30am, when he starts proofing the dough for baking at around 5am. Deliveries follow, only for Lai to return to more work. "I tend to forget there's a lot of cleaning [to do]!"
His pastries are incredibly popular: he's sold out until September. However, while he has a strong online following, he wants to serve his fresh-baked pastries on a real-life counter one day.
"That's my goal, I will open a bakery eventually. It's just a matter of when and how," he says. "I'm still figuring out the when, but I'm working on the how."
In the meantime, Home Croissanterie’s shop windows exist virtually on Instagram. And you don’t need to eat 3,000 to know his pastries are worth consuming.
These luxurious croissants are the perfect use for day-old croissants. They're best eaten the same day they're made - but it's unlikely you'll need to worry about that!
The classic French croissant is dark, flaky and buttery. While the dough laminating process is lengthy, it is completely satisfying, and the results are delicious.