By 11.30am an eclectic line of pie lovers is forming at Patrick Lam's famous Gold Star Bakery in Bethlehem - selecting their favourites from the warmer, below rows of framed pie-making accolades.

Few of Mr Lam's loyal customers know the cheerful man behind their favourite Kiwi mince and cheese or steak and veg was once fighting for survival in Cambodia and spent nine years living on donated food in a Vietnamese refugee camp.

A humble, hard worker, you'll find Mr Lam at one of his two bakeries seven days a week, 14 hours a day. He only takes time off if he has something particular to do and brushes off the idea of a holiday.

He would rather talk about the 56 awards he's picked up at the Bakels Pie Awards, since they began in 2003. Five of them are supreme wins - the latest for his bacon and egg pie - crowned Supreme Gold Award winner 2016 in July.


Not bad for a man who spent his school years in a refugee camp in Vietnam, living mostly on rice supplied by Red Cross volunteers.

This year marks the 40th anniversary of Mr Lam, his parents, and four siblings, fleeing Cambodia on foot to Vietnam.

At just 5 years old, he remembers little of the 30-day trek to escape the Khmer Rouge Regime, except for the bodies littering the roadside.

With Cambodians being killed for being well educated - deemed more intelligent than the Khmer Rouge leaders - he puts his survival down to being a child. With little food or water, and the threat of execution, he says it was fortunate his entire family survived the journey.

Once at the camp they received small amounts of money from extended family in Australia and after nine years in the camp Mr Lam's uncle sponsored the family to become refugees in Australia.

Mr Lam met his Cambodian wife in the camp and the couple, who can communicate in six or seven languages, decided New Zealand would be a good place to start a small business.

"We started from zero," he said.

With no formal baking training, and never having seen a pie before, the couple moved to Auckland with their 1-year-old son and bought a lunch bar.

They "just learned day to day" and two years later moved to Rotorua where the original Gold Star Bakery in Springfield was born.

Despite numerous requests for Mr Lam to sell his pies wholesale, he prefers to stick to two retail bakeries where he can keep a close eye on quality control.

"You've got to be organised and be there to keep an eye on what they're doing - it's very hard," he said. "Heaps of people ask us to supply, we can't keep up and we have a little kitchen. You want my pies, come to Bethlehem."

The 45-year-old arrives at work about 4 or 5am and travels between both bakeries most days. Weekends are his busiest time, when it is not uncommon for the queue at Bethlehem - his busiest shop - to stretch well out onto the footpath.

"We're so happy with what we do," he said.

Despite the gruelling hours, Mr Lam appreciates life in New Zealand where he and his wife have raised their three children.

"We're so proud that we can be here, so lucky."

Gold Star Bakery in Bethlehem and 2nd Ave have been crowned the supreme winner of this year's Bakels Supreme Pie Awards for a bacon and egg entry. What do our reports/taste-testers think?

The couple's eldest son is in his second year studying pharmacy at university, his next is considering a bio-medical degree at the University of Auckland next year and his 14-year-old daughter attends Bethlehem College.

The children help their parents in the bakeries at the weekend and after school.

They may inherit them one day - if that's the path they choose.

The family are all pie fans, with Mr Lam eating three or four a week.

Sweet lamb curry, bacon and egg and mince and cheese are his favourites - depending on the time of day.

"My daughter is very good at giving me ideas for flavours," he said.

There is no secret formula for pies or successful business - other than hard work, Mr Lam said.

"It is not easy at all to get up and running when you start from nothing."