Diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer, former SAF captain quits & starts home-based bakery after learning from scratch

33-year-old Fuad started baking out of necessity to provide for his wife and one-year-old daughter, but has now grown to love the art.

Lee Wei Lin | May 03, 2022, 12:34 PM

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What's in a name?

For 33-year-old former Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) captain and cancer survivor, who asked to be identified only by his first name Fuad, his home-based bakery Captain Roti is the embodiment of his journey from military man to viennoiserie artisian.

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A post shared by Captain Roti Bakehouse (@captainroti)

The cancer diagnosis

The then-infantry officer was diagnosed with Stage 4 choriocarcinoma cancer in 2017, which came as a complete surprise.

He tells Mothership:

"One of the first few symptoms that I experienced was lower back pain, but I was a frequent gym-goer and we had rigorous physical activities in the army so I thought it was just a strain.

But it got worse and I got a high fever on and off. I also lost a lot of weight, which was a red flag and I got myself checked. I was diagnosed with full-blown Stage 4 cancer when the blood test result came back."

Photo by Fuad.

After being diagnosed, doctors found metastatic tumours in Fuad's liver, lymph nodes, and lungs, and he was given a 30 per cent chance to survive.

The months ahead were especially hard—one of his tumours burst, he suffered from internal bleeding, and went through surgery along with chemotherapy.

There were also close calls. Multiple tumours in his liver rupturing caused intense bleeding, and he was rushed into surgery.

In the days that followed, he was unable to eat and drink, and doctors were "worried" that his liver would stop functioning as he was unable to urinate or defecate.

For days, all Fuad could do was to breathe through a tube and vomit gastric juices.

He had to force himself to urinate in order to rid his body of all the toxins, and says he was "prevented from resting and [asked to] keep hydrating" whenever he didn't urinate enough.

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A post shared by Fuad Fahmi (@fuad.fahmi)

Nurses were always on alert in case his organs stopped functioning, and his stomach was "constantly distended".

Fuad would spend eight months receiving treatment before his cancer went into remission. Despite being in full remission, he decided to leave the SAF in 2019 after serving the nation for six years.

He explains:

"I left the army on my own accord—they didn't sack me or fire me—it was my decision to leave because of my health condition and I needed some time off to focus on my health and spiritual healing."

How a former military man became a baker

It was sheer serendipity that led Fuad to baking.

According to him, he was unable to find a job as his would-be employers were "very wary" about his health condition.

He ended up working at a small curry puff shop in Tampines for a few months, where he learned how to bake buns and work with yeasted bread.

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A post shared by Captain Roti Bakehouse (@captainroti)

Even with no culinary background whatsoever, his interest in baking bloomed as he found the process "therapeutic and fulfilling."

"My drive stems from the need to provide for my family. I was already married at the time and it was difficult to find a job—I tried upskilling myself to no avail. I needed funds quite promptly and that drive to support the family and to be proactive about the situation is what keeps me going."

Fuad started his home-based bakery (HBB), with its name Captain Roti lovingly coined by his 27-year-old wife, who asked to be called Ferra.

The baker chuckles over the phone, saying that Ferra was inspired by "very catchy [but] kinda corny" names such as Beard Papa and Roti Boy when they were in Johor Bahru, and she turned to him to say, "Eh, you were a captain in the SAF, and you like to bake, so why not Captain Roti?"

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A post shared by Captain Roti Bakehouse (@captainroti)

View this post on Instagram


A post shared by Captain Roti Bakehouse (@captainroti)

Fuad's first bakes were made with yeasted bread, including items such as anpan buns, curry buns, hot dog buns.

After mastering yeasted breads, he turned his attention to pastries and viennoiseries, which are far more complex to make.

It was also about this time when he decided to leave his part-time job to focus fully on Captain Roti.

He reasons that it was a "leap of faith" that he took after extensive discussions with his loved ones, in particular his wife and parents.

Acknowledging that it was a "pretty risky move", especially with their now-one-year-old daughter in the picture, Fuad was nonetheless spurred on by his customers' "very positive response".

He would spend countless hours poring over forums and YouTube videos to learn the tricks of trade from professional French pastry chefs, which he then had to tweak to suit our hot and humid weather.

It took him about one-and-a-half years to master the art of lamination (folding butter into layers of dough). Learning how to create the perfect honeycomb structure in his croissants took another nine months.

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A post shared by Captain Roti Bakehouse (@captainroti)

Rather than lament at the fact that he took two years and three months to master the art of croissant-making, Fuad called it a hallmark of "sheer will and persistence".

"I still remember the day when I sliced open my first-ever perfect croissant and saw a honeycomb structure. It was really a eureka moment and I literally cried. My parents don't really quite get it but it was a victory for me because I failed so many times, so being able to do it was a victory in itself."

Unsurprisingly, the french butter croissant is also Fuad's favourite pastry.

A day in the life of a home-based baker

These days, Fuad spends most of his time in the workroom that he fashioned out of the balcony of his parents' apartment.

Gone are the days that everything was done by hand—he's shelled out S$10k over the course of two years to purchase equipment to handle the number of orders, along with portable air conditioners to regulate the temperature of his workspace.

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A post shared by Captain Roti Bakehouse (@captainroti)

View this post on Instagram


A post shared by Captain Roti Bakehouse (@captainroti)

Fuad's days now start at 3:30am, and he finishes baking by 1pm. Afterwards, he packs the orders as delivery partners and customers who have opted for pick-ups arrive to whisk the boxes away.

The baker then sneaks in a power nap before starting prep work for the next day after the sun goes down.

His working hours might seem odd, but the baker avers that it's the cooler air that aids in the baking process, which is extremely temperature sensitive.

Despite his erratic sleep cycle, Fuad tells us that his health remains in the pink:

My health has been good; it's been fantastic. To be very honest, chemotherapy sessions that I did in the past were very intense so it had a detrimental effect on my body.

I still experience neuropathy —mild numbness on my fingers and the balls of my feet—and I do have anxiety attacks every now and then from pressure. The chemotherapy had an effect on my hormones, but I've learned to live with and cope with it.

When [an attack happens], I do some reflection and meditation to calm myself down and to make sure that everything is okay before I continue with my work.

His loved ones have also been instrumental in keeping him grounded, as Fuad says that reaching out to them is one of the "primary ways for [him] to regain composure" whenever he has an anxiety attack.

It also helps that he remains cautious, and intends to build Captain Roti at his own pace, rather than to expand as quickly as possible.

Pre-order slots for the bakes of the week are available from Thursdays to Sundays, and he gets an average of 30 orders per day, which works out 120 orders per week.

He also caters to bulk orders, such as wedding favours, that he receives from time to time.

Fuad, Ferra & their daughter. Photo by Fuad.

Throughout the ups and downs, Fuad's family is what has kept him going.

Calling his wife his "pillar of strength" and his mum the "unsung hero" behind the business, he gushes about how they've given him "unconditional moral support and faith" to pursue what he loves doing.

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Top photos by Captain Roti.