Man at His Best

An Insight To The Much-Maligned Gastronomic Scene In Singapore

We eat out frequently yet we donít always consider the work and the people behind the food that we eat.

BY Lestari Hairul | Aug 31, 2017 | Food & Drink

A queue snakes down the street, business is great. “That one not my type of place. Where got money to waste, so expensive. I can only afford the hawker centre [sic],” an uncle at a reflexology joint nearby had told me. It wasn’t my kind of place either, for different reasons.

Disappointment was the prevailing emotion when I dined there. In theory, it is a reasonable concept. But when it comes to taste, alas the jarring discordance annoyed me more than anything else. Nasi lemak is best eaten as a mixture, the rice with its whiffs of pandan need only be accented by the coconut; otherwise, the lemak gets far too cloying and threatens to overwhelm. Likewise, the sambal needs to meld well with the other components of the dish, and not stick out. This is, after all, a simple dish that was eaten predominantly at breakfast, providing much-needed calories for those who actually laboured. It’s a meal eaten with one hand scooping up and mixing all the components together to create a harmonious party in the belly. Trying to make it hip by elevating each component individually forgets that its beauty lies in the sum of its parts.

But lines are aplenty in Singapore and there will always be fans who will love what you dislike. A hawker stall that probably garners longer queues is my choice for lunch instead. At A Noodle Story in Amoy Food Centre, the line slowly moves with each person hopeful that in their bellies will be one of only 200 bowls served that day. Not having visited the stall in a while, I notice a large piece of paper plastered on its menu board. Written on it is a long, apologetic letter explaining the price increase. Intrigued, I speak with Gwern Khoo, one of the two hawkers behind the stall.

“Actually, the cost of food is not that cheap. It should be higher because the real cost is actually not SGD7, although we are selling the noodles at SGD7. It should be SGD9. But if we sell it too high, nobody will come. We need to maintain the quality so we throw away a lot of things. There are maintenance costs, breakages, bowls getting lost, rent and utilities, all that. If I were to add all these to this food, it’ll be SGD9.”

Has the price increase caused a drop in sales?
“There has been no drop in sales, some customers say that they think it’s still worth it, though the price is higher than others. Because I still believe in giving massive value to the customer anyway. At 48 percent food cost, we are still pricing it very cheap because the industry average should be 30 to 35 percent.”

Should hawker food be priced higher?
“It should actually be priced higher. But the market needs to accept it also, because that’s where you need to differentiate and stand out. The food needs to be delicious, it needs to provide value, your service must be good, the food must look good. And then maybe customers will pay for it.”

We place a value on our local food, and that is it must never veer beyond cheap. It is a disturbing thought, especially when you look at the hawkers’ faces. Khoo is tired, though he wears a warm smile. I’ve seen him and his business partner together with their sole staff member slogging away in the tiny, hot stall, and it’s always looked torturous. Fourteen-hour days serving quality food every single day save for Sundays and public holidays, it’s painful.

Could you explain why prices increase?
“Things are always increasing because of inflation. For example, last year, you earned x amount of money, and you expect to earn more next year when wages increase. So, to pay your wages, your company needs to increase sales; thus, they will start to charge higher for a product, and all this will lead to the delivery man getting higher pay, this other guy getting higher pay, so it’s actually a circle. When water is increasing by 30 percent, the food will increase, coffee will increase. Everything is a chain reaction.”

Then Khoo expounds further on something that quite possibly never crosses most people’s minds, mine included. It’s brilliant in its simplicity and, after hearing it, I am aghast at the thought again of how entitled and selfish we are to expect hawker food to remain the same price.

“Of course, the ingredient supplier to hawker stalls wants to make more money also. Because their employee expects 10 percent wage increase, so to do that, they must increase their price. We have office workers who are increasing their wages by maybe 5 to 10 percent annually, but they expect hawkers to maintain the same price. That means they want it SGD3.50 for this year, three years later still SGD3.50, yet they want their wages to increase. So, it’s not fair. You expect things to move up gradually and everyone takes a share.”

The grind

Over a meal at Cheek by Jowl, I got to talking with Head Chef Rishi Naleendra about the general attitudes towards the F&B business. For a better perspective, he invited me into his kitchen instead. And that’s how I accepted a one-day gig working as a kitchen hand after swearing eight years ago that I would never work in a restaurant again. Now here I am, clad in the familiar uniform of black attire and safety shoes (okay, I wore Timberlands).

Nasi lemak is the last thing they’ll serve at this modern Australian restaurant. But I find myself prepping another Malaysian dish that I’ve often eaten in my years there. Miles away from the classic butter chicken, the Malaysian butter chicken is popcorn chicken smothered in a savoury-sweet sauce made of butter, evaporated milk, curry leaves and chilli padi. A bunch of other ingredients goes into it, of course, and for a full, complete lunch, a few more dishes need to be created.

By the time I popped into the restaurant at about nine that morning, everyone was already there, bustling about. One of the guys offers me breakfast, a nutritious porridge from a giant pot around which the all-male kitchen crew were gathered, having their first meal of the day. Chef Rishi stresses the importance of good, filling meals for his staff that will sustain them through the gruelling hours to come. Hence, a hot breakfast each morning, and a lunch prepared based on a duty roster.

Which brings me to the Malaysian butter chicken. Joshua and Shane are in charge of me for the day, away from the heat and the spills of the hot station. Both boys met at and graduated from At-Sunrise Culinary Academy. Shane, who’s also an engineering graduate, is responsible for lunch today and, after I cleared about an hour’s worth of cutting squash circles, picking leaves for garnishing and mixing up beef, I’m sent away to get the prep work for lunch ready.

Hip hop blares as everyone preps for lunch service—some having started way earlier from eight in the morning—the energy is great and I soon get into the swing of things. Seven in the kitchen can get pretty cramped. It is a careful dance around the multitude of potential hazards and good food creations. Jokes are a-plenty but the guys are serious about their work. Once the music is switched off and Chef Rishi’s pep talk about having a sense of ownership at work ends, it’s all business. Everyone concentrates at his station, the few words spoken are choruses of “Yes, Chef!”, “Behind you!”, and by Chef Rishi himself, conducting an elaborate symphony at the head of the kitchen, carefully watching the food, and with eagle eyes on his dedicated team.

Any time there is a lull, the guys are at work tweaking and tasting a new dish. Today, it’s experimenting with a beef heart and, as strange and unfamiliar as it sounds, I’m game to try. Delicious. And so are the assortment of other dishes I’m asked to taste so that I understand what they’re serving. Dylan, he of multiple cool tattoos and tunes, offers up the spare lamb tongue he’s just finished cooking, a meat I would normally avoid. But this time, I don’t, and boy, was that delicious too. I’ve eaten at this restaurant a few times before, but tasting the food in the very kitchen it came out of, whilst in the midst of preparing other dishes, is a different, cooler, experience altogether.

Sitting down on the toilet feels like heaven. Respites in the chiller room to pick up ingredients feels like heaven. And finally eating the fruits of your labour for lunch whilst sitting as a family is as close to Nirvana as it’s going to get. The Front of House staff, whom Chef Rishi’s wife, Manuela Toniolo, works mainly with, prepare the fresh juices for our beverage. Butter chicken, thick omelette and Chinese vegetable soup never tasted so good. The down-to-the-marrow weariness of the work almost melts way in this environment.

“I’ve been there. I’ve been without money and I know how it feels. I’ve lived without proper food for days. They’re young kids, and I know they’re hungry in the morning. That’s why we prepare breakfast for them. You need to be able to like work. You need to eat well. At the end of the day, whatever we do, if we don’t eat well, if we don’t drink well, we’re missing a big part of life. What else do you work for? I’m not saying that we should live to eat, but you need to eat well and it has to be a priority in life. I eat a lot. I’m not telling everyone that you should eat as much as I do, but you need to pay attention to what you eat. I hate shit food. Even when we cook at home, it needs to be proper,” says Chef Rishi emphatically. Hear, hear.

The nitty-gritty

With the exception of Oppa, the sole Korean on the team, everybody else is a local lad. Chef Rishi has been fortunate in the formation of his team, and they’ve even surpassed their goal of having the restaurant run smoothly without either himself or Manuela around. From a projected goal of 18 months from opening till autonomy, his team pulled it off within 11 months. He’s fiercely protective of his boys as a result. “With our staff, we always say, ‘Don’t ever think you’re lower than anyone else. Just treat people like they’re visiting your place. We just look after them, and we look after them well.’ We would not, in any case, let anyone mistreat our staff. You want to mistreat our staff? I’ll make sure we’ll let you know. You’ll get mistreated before you can mistreat anyone else. It’s a family. You don’t mistreat anyone.”

Several years ago, I’d worked at a casual Japanese restaurant as a FOH staff and was standing at the entrance being the host for the day when an older lady walked up to me. As I’m explaining the menu, she told me, “You speak very well, you shouldn’t be working here. Better find a job at a hotel.” It was evidently meant to be helpful advice, but looking back now, it reminds me of a Wisdom interview that I did in last year’s Big Food and Drinks Book with Chef-Owner Bjorn Shen of Artichoke and Bird Bird. With regards to the problem of staffing, Shen brought up a pertinent point: that our upbringing as Singaporeans contributes significantly to the way we treat service staff and, in turn, our impression of how much respect the job deserves.

For Chef Rishi, perceptions have changed for Back of House, and his ensemble of Singaporeans have proven it. Being a chef is now cool again, as cool as being a bartender, especially with the big push in the media in the form of cooking shows and celebrity chefs like Gordon Ramsay.

“But there are hardly any Singaporeans who want to work Front of House professionally. I don’t think they see this as a career, because when you start, it’s not good money. But as you make your way up, you can actually earn really good money. There’s so much opportunity just being Singaporean and doing this. But I get why a lot of Singaporeans
don’t want to get into the service industry—because it’s not a career. At the end of the day, we’re still in Asia, and the Asian mentality, especially from parents, is you’re either a doctor, or an accountant, or a lawyer, or an engineer. Apart from those few things, people don’t see far. But we’re coming to an age in this world where only skilled jobs will survive eventually. Jobs that can’t be done by robots. To be a server, you need certain skills. In Singapore, that’s why the service industry is so behind compared to a lot of other places. It’s not considered a skilled job. When you go to other countries, it is. Selling is a skill, having knowledge about wines is a skill, having knowledge about food is a skill, having knowledge about service is a skill. I hope it gets better,” says Chef Rishi.

Restaurateur Indra Kantono who owns Jigger & Pony, Sugarhall, Flagship, Humpback and Gibson has his own story about staffing. 

“I put up two listings on LinkedIn: one was for a marketing associate role in our organisation and the other for a restaurant manager. I received—I kid you not—more than 900 applications for the first role. Quality applications, more than 70 percent of them had a Bachelor’s degree or even a Master’s degree. Some came from Ivy League schools. I had to recheck my posting: did I say something wrong? There was a strong desire for that role. I don’t know why, maybe it sounds sexy? We got about 80 applicants in the same month for the second role. Not bad, 80 applicants, I was quite happy. But it’s less than 10 percent of my marketing associate pool. Now, out of the 80 applicants, I’d say 50 to 60 percent were from overseas, and the rest were Singaporeans and PRs. It’s still not bad. For the marketing role, we received a lot more Singaporeans. I think 70 percent of the 900 applicants.”

I still can’t get over the issue of pricing and, clearly, it’s a different issue for premium restaurants and bars compared to hawker centres. Asking both Chef Rishi and Kantono about the hot topic in Singapore a few years ago—free water inrestaurants—and I get two perspectives. Says Chef Rishi:

“When you sell water, you make money and it’s something you don’t have to prep. To be honest, for a lot of customers, that’s the hardest thing to decide on the evening: should I have still, sparkling or tap water? Sometimes, I’d rather they order tap water, which is free, and then order alcohol. It’s different if they don’t buy alcohol or water because what customers don’t understand is that pouring water into your glass requires somebody to fill the jug and somebody to chill it, and a person to come and ask the customer, Would you like water? and that person needs to go back and get that water to come pour it and keep refilling it. It’s not really free for us, is it? Utility bills are SGD4,000-5,000 and, if someone expects anything for free in this world, especially in Singapore, you have to be really naïve. The standard pricing cost for a dish is 30 percent. But you can never get 30 percent; it’s either less or more. So, through all the menu you need to be smart. For instance, the steak, you can’t price it at 30 percent. They’ll pay around SGD80-something for a 220g steak. Again, do I want to price it at that and sell only two steaks? Or should I price it SGD20 or SGD30 less, take a cut, and sell a few more? Then it becomes a moving product, and then there’s other products that you try to sell where the food cost is lower than 30 percent, like water, so at the end of the day, when you get the spreadsheet, it makes sense. The overall food cost can be kept at 30 percent or slightly lower, but you can’t just cost every dish at 30 percent.”

Kantono, on the other hand, takes a different view:

“So, one of my pet peeves is a restaurant asking: still or sparkling? I’ve no issue with customers having a preference. All of our restaurants do stock still and sparkling water for customers who would like that. But for us, I hate to start our hospitality with an opportunity to price-gouge. That’s what it is. In restaurants, it’s different from bars. In restaurants, you don’t have a lot of opportunity to engage your customers. Usually, it’s at the beginning, when you welcome them. Once you take the orders, you kind of disappear. But, with water, it allows you an opportunity to go to the table and observe if they’re touching some dishes or not. It’s also an opportunity for you to interact with the guest when there’s a lull in the conversation at the table. Topping water is actually an extremely important part of our service, I feel, because it opens up so many things. But if it becomes an SGD6 transaction every time the crack sound is made, then the customer feels like, ‘Is this guy topping water on my table because he’s generally interested in finding out about my day or is he just, woohoo, six more dollars—crack—six more dollars—crack?’”

Closing Time

By the time dinner prep rolls in, I feel like somewhat of an old hand at this. A medley of “If I Ain’t Got You/Gravity” prompts a rousing singalong as everyone preps for the second part of the day. It is energising, even exhilarating to observe and work alongside these professionals. I’m even starting to see everyone’s quirks and personalities. Shane has an almost inhuman calm about him, executing orders with precision and without a trace of fatigue. Joshua is more jovial, joking around with Shane, but then switching up when crunch time hits, and they work in tandem like a well-oiled machine. Oppa the saucier is constantly working away at something; even during lunch whilst everyone feasts, he’s lost in his own world perfecting a technique or doing never-ending prep work. Jay is a wizard at the stove, and has been with the restaurant since day one and the most familiar—aside from Chef Rishi’s second-in-command Mark—with the way his boss works. Dylan, also at the stove, seems brash, but is a wickedly funny guy with quips and remarks at the ready. His favourite victim for a good-natured ribbing being the dishwasher, Abang, who grins and takes it all in his stride.

The initial feeling of being in the way dissipates as I’m given more and more tasks to do, including plating the actual dishes. As I help to load an edible “cigar” with mousse, I think about the gripes that I had with the nasi lemak I had eaten. My ire was initially sparked by its plating, all careful sectioning of the parts of the dish making for a pleasing visual. But the way it was plated reflected its taste too: gorgeous when eaten separately; unfortunately, a mess when you mixed the pieces up as you should.

Chef Rishi spoke of understanding that between 30 and 50 people have been involved in bringing the meal that you’re eating to you. Closing down a restaurant would impact far more people than just the restaurant directly. Kantono also explained the importance of an open mind when it comes to eating. Sometimes, when a restaurant does something out of the norm, it may be easy to dismiss it as incompetent, but perhaps, it would be more worthwhile to try it out anyway and be pleasantly surprised.

The F&B scene here needs its customers—that’s us—to be more adventurous, but also to be more understanding of the realities behind the scenes. Perhaps a day working at a restaurant is what’s needed to change perceptions.

I still think that dish was wack though.

This article was first published in Esquire Singapore's The Big Food And Drinks Book 2017.