In the final part of our series profiling people from refugee backgrounds who now call New Zealand home: Patrick Lam, who fled from Cambodia to Vietnam, and then Australia, and is now an award-winning piemaker in Tauranga.
Patrick Lam has already been at work for a couple of hours by the time the sun starts to rise and is still another 12 hours off finishing for the day. He’s producing a steady stream of pies and sausage rolls and the smell of the freshly cooked goods is wafting through his shop in Tauranga.
This bakery is famous all over New Zealand and Patrick Lam is unofficially known around Aotearoa as the Pie King. For the past six years, he’s won the prestigious Bakels New Zealand Supreme Pie Award; in 2018 it was for his roast pork and creamy mushroom pie.
Life hasn’t always been about pies for Patrick though.
He was born in Cambodia in the early 1970s. Throughout the early parts of the decade, the country was growing increasingly unstable with the Khmer Rouge’s influence growing. In 1975 his family made the decision to flee as the regime seized power. Over the next four years, millions of people would die under the dictatorship.
At only five, Patrick was far too young to remember any of this. He does know that his family had to walk for around a month from Cambodia to Vietnam. His parents carried whatever possession they could and also him when his legs couldn’t carry him anymore.
They had no food and were relieved when they reached Vietnam, a place they believed could bring them safety.
Up until 1980 they lived in the community, but then the government asked everyone to move into a refugee camp.
“In the camp you can’t do anything,” he says.
“They sort of control you and lock you up in there. You can’t work or earn any money. The first camp we lived in was in the bush and there was no school in the camp. We would go to people who understood a little bit of English and they’d teach us for one or two hours a day.”
Although many families were split during this period, most of Patrick’s extended family remained together; his grandparents, siblings, and cousins all living together in one small house. After five years in limbo, Patrick and his family were accepted to go and live in Australia under a family sponsorship visa.
At 19 years of age, Patrick once again packed up his life and left behind everything he knew for a foreign land. He was eager to start working and earning as soon as he could and landed a job in a juice factory packing products.
“They promoted me to a machine operator and then to supervisor,” he says. “It was pretty good because we worked hard so they liked us.”
Calling New Zealand home
Patrick spent 12 years in Australia but it was New Zealand he was destined for. He had met a woman in the Vietnamese refugee camp who he’d kept in touch with. They’d been next door neighbours and while he ended up in Australia she was offered resettlement in New Zealand.
They met up again in Australia and got married before deciding to move back to New Zealand.
“We decided to come back to New Zealand to be close to her family and because we wanted to start a small business. When we came to New Zealand we liked it because it was a really good country, nice weather and people.”
Patrick bought a small lunch bar in Avondale which he ran for two years. It was here that he made his first pie – mince and cheese.
“When we started the lunch bar people would supply us with cakes and pies and things,” he says.
“Slowly we learned from other families about making pies and began making them for ourselves.”
After a couple of years Patrick sold his lunch bar and moved to Rotorua where he opened a bakery. By this time, he’d perfected his technique and began making his own pies. He’s never been afraid to experiment and learn, listening to feedback from customers and creating new flavours.
“We believe you can put anything in pies: duck, chicken, pork, whatever you want is suitable. Making a pie is easy, you just make the pastry, bang it out on the tin, put in whatever filling you want, put the top pastry on, glaze it with egg, and cook it. So simple.”
He does make it sound, and look, simple but there must be something else to it or everyone would be winning awards for their pie making skills. But Patrick is adamant there’s no special technique.
“It’s not a big secret, you just have to do the whole process right. If you do any of the stages wrong your whole pie is different. So it’s important that you do it right.”
It was his experimental attitude and perfect technique that won him his first awards in 2003; two Gold and the much-coveted Supreme Pie Award. Although his customers already knew how good his products were, Patrick says it was still a surprise.
“We were just told we should go to the awards ceremony but we didn’t know why or what we’d won. It was a big surprise.”
Business grew from there, as did his award count. In 2007 he moved to Bethlehem in Tauranga and started Patrick’s Pies, the now famous bakery that taxi drivers tell their customers about.
However, despite all the awards, Patrick doesn’t take his title of Pie King for granted.
“We never stop learning and the competition is getting harder and harder every year. A lot of bakeries do really good pies and we know we have to keep doing better to get up there. So we try really hard and we’re happy with what we’ve done.”
Patrick Lam is a multi-award winning baker and part of New Zealand Red Cross’ Kiwi Legends series, profiling people from refugee backgrounds who now call New Zealand home.
Previously on Kiwi Legends:
The Bulletin is The Spinoff’s acclaimed, free daily curated digest of all the most important stories from around New Zealand delivered directly to your inbox each morning.