One of the smallest ethnic groups in Aotearoa, Cambodians are making waves - and mouths water - in the Kiwi pie scene. Qiuyi Tan explains.
Born and raised in rural Cambodia, Jason Hay arrived in New Zealand 20 years ago.
A teenager at the time, Hay had dreams of becoming a police officer. But six months into his adopted and still very foreign country he realised that wouldn't happen.
In part because of English - or his lack thereof - he also had a phobia: "I didn't know until I came here, when I saw blood and fainted."
So Hay chose baking instead.
He learned the ropes helping at a cousin's bakery after school. Several years on, he got married. He and his wife bought their first bakery in 2005, one specialising in Chinese buns. They sold it in 2007, getting double what they paid for it, and bought Richoux Patisserie in the Auckland suburb of Ellerslie.
Hay had trouble with the French shop name for months.
"I had to practise, practise, practise. I would laugh out loud as well, Ri-Ri-Richoux," he says, recalling his comical stammering, "Just laughing to the customers because it was so difficult."
But the struggles with the name were the only downside of the purchase.
"After we took over Richoux we were just so lucky," he says.
"We had our first baby, won the lottery from a ticket bought across the road from Four Square, then won our first Supreme Pie award. Then the shop started booming and kept booming."
Hay's name appears five times in the 2021 Bakels NZ Supreme Pie Awards. He won gold for the mince and gravy and wagyu beef curry varieties and three others Three others made the top 10 in their categories.
Hay is far from unique: Cambodian names have dominated New Zealand's pie Olympics for years, making up some 70 per cent of participants in this year's awards.
New Zealand has a tiny Cambodian community (0.2 per cent of the population) but they make up a disproportionate 7 per cent of the country's 5454 bakers, according to the 2018 Census.
That's a significant jump from just 1 per cent of bakers in 1991, the earliest comparable records available.
Cambodians followed each other into baking because of the lack of alternative job opportunities, says Sopheap Long of Euro Patisserie in Torbay on Auckland's North Shore.
Long won this year's Supreme Pie Award thanks to her succulent steak and cheese creation.
She's the first woman to take top prize in the competition's 25-year-history. But like Hay, baking was never her first choice career.
A lover of reading and writing as a child in Cambodia, Long wanted to be an author. But when she came to New Zealand as a teenager with her family, school was not on the cards.
"I started to help out at my aunt's bakery from the first day and the passion for baking grew."
Long's friend Shuly Ngann, of Le Royal Bakery in Grafton, was this year's bacon and egg pie gold winner.
She agrees Cambodians fell into baking more from necessity than choice.
An uncle in Australia offered an interest-free loan to help Ngann and her husband buy Le Royal in 2010.
If not baking, she would probably have gone into hairdressing because of her limited English, she says.
She loves cooking, so baking came naturally. "For Asian women, housewives have to cook."
The rise of the Cambodian baker is a microcosm of the wider Asian presence in the trade.
Census data shows Asians accounted for 40 per cent of qualified bakers (and 42 per cent of people working in small bakeries) in 2018, up from 7 per cent in 1991.
Brent Kersel, managing director at Bakels and organiser of the annual pie awards, says the trend started in the early 1990s, with Asians buying bakeries, especially in Auckland.
Their arrival has coincided with more adventurous flavours, such as butter chicken, pork belly and Moroccan lamb.
"But what they've done is they've perfected how to make puff pastry," says Kersel.
"They all worked bloody hard to get to where they are today. They'll go visit the store that's won the award, have a look at their pies and pull them apart, look at the puff pastry and how good it is."
"They just keep on improving and improving."
For Lee Ing of Fast and Fresh Bakery in Taupō, hard work included a painful sacrifice.
Shortly after he and wife Linna bought the bakery from a friend in 2016, they made the difficult decision to send their two young children, only three years and 15 months old at the time, to their grandparents in Cambodia. The young couple had no family in New Zealand and wanted to focus on keeping their first enterprise afloat.
"It was quite hard, but we had no choice."
They were separated from their children for nearly five years. "My wife cried a lot, and because of that - me too," Ing says.
One year, the kids came to New Zealand for a holiday and loved it so much they refused to leave, marking a surprise end to their separation.
Back in Cambodia's capital Phnom Penh, the grandparents had to throw out the books and uniforms they had already bought the kids for the new school year, but Lee says it was worth it.
He never imagined pie would become such a big part of his life. He bakes it every day, but doesn't eat it much.
"Bread is not really my thing. Always rice for me," says the man who made New Zealand's best pie in 2017. That year, his venison, bacon, mushroom and cheese concoction beat some 5700 others to win the Supreme Pie Award.
In contrast, Jason Hay loves pie. After twenty years in Aotearoa he says he has a Kiwi tummy.
Growing up, his aunt would get leftover pies from a friend's bakery and freeze them for his breakfast and afternoon tea. "I ate a lot of pie, to be honest."
He doesn't get tired of it, saying there are enough flavours to keep things interesting. He's doing his bit to keep it that way, with roast duck and mushroom, chicken and cranberry, and a full range of vegan pies on his current menu.
Kersel has the rewarding job of phoning the supreme winner each year. Some of them get so excited he can't understand them.
"They just go crazy. You hear them yelling in the background."
Things have come a long way since the classic meat pie was made with the cheapest cuts of meat, Kersel says.
Today it's all about fresh and quality ingredients and Asian bakers have helped raise standards in an increasingly competitive market
"They really own it these days. They see learning as the key to success."