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Chip off the old wok
Lee Tong Kuon and son Adrian
FOR over 20 years, from 1991 to 2012, Chef Lee Tong Kuon was well-known on the Singapore dining scene, as the executive chef and co-owner of Thai Village Holdings, which ran Thai Village Sharksfin Restaurant.
In 2012, he relinquished his directorial duties and sold off his shares when he decided to retire. Thai Village is now managed by Chef Lee's younger brother.
Chef Lee's retirement didn't last long. Since last year, he's been back in the kitchen, this time at Tao Seafood Asia, which is started by his son, Adrian.
"I was thrilled that Adrian was willing to take over my trade as F&B requires a lot of hard work and hours, dealing with heat in the kitchen and all. I feel now that there is someone carrying on what I had worked hard to do all my life, and we are now able to serve quality food with the best raw ingredients without the restrictions I faced before," he says.
While dad runs the kitchen, Mr Lee runs the front of house. "Adrian told be one morning when we were having mee pok that TAO would be better with me in the spotlight. I came out of retirement readily upon hearing that," says Chef Lee, 68.
Mr Lee, 37, says that he pulled his dad out of retirement because his values are an inspiration to the team at TAO. "We assembled a team of like-minded staff with the same ideology of serving quality food in the most comfortable environment, providing a wonderful dining experience and memory for our customers and their families. And with my dad in the team, it is like the whole team has a father figure to look up to and we all adhere to his philosophy."
Neither father nor son would agree on who's the real boss at TAO. "Rather than say there is a boss, I prefer to say that I am the spokesman of the entire team we have put together to carry on my dad's ideals and tradition," says Mr Lee.
On his part, Chef Lee says: "Rather than have too many decision makers in the restaurant, I preferred to let Adrian be the figurehead. Besides, our family is so close that there is nothing we don't talk about."
TAO prides itself on serving sustainable seafood. Some of Chef Lee's signature dishes include Crispy Fish Skin with Salted-egg Sauce, TAO's Signature Soup with Premium New Zealand Fish Maw and Crab Meat, Steamed Marble Goby with Preserved Radish, Pot Roasted Crab with Glass Noodle, and his new creation, Fried Fish Maw with Prawns.
Chef Lee ventured into the F&B business when Mr Lee was 12, and it was difficult for both to spend time together. "Dad would go off to work at 9am, and be back only at 10.30pm, even on weekends and public holidays," Mr Lee recalls. But the family would make it a point to be home for dinner every Tuesday, when Chef Lee had his day off. As a child, Mr Lee would spend some of his school holidays in the kitchen, "trying to help wherever I can, from preparing the plates as the chefs are tossing the woks to peeling crab meat from live crabs which I still do today".
Contrary to what most might think, Mr Lee didn't have sharksfin soup every day. "We would go to Thai Village for special occasions such as birthdays, or family gatherings, but not as often as most people would imagine," he says.
Mr Lee joined Thai Village after he graduated from London School of Economics. He was posted to Shanghai to learn the ropes of the restaurant business. At that time, Thai Village was already a listed company, and the restaurant group expanded rapidly into its franchise operations in China.
"Adrian joined the restaurant group after graduation, but with his education, I felt that it was a pity to just put him in the kitchen. Hence I sent him to Shanghai to see how he can bring this business to the next level," says Chef Lee.
After five years in Shanghai, Mr Lee decided to return to Singapore, and he left the restaurant business, and worked as a roulette dealer at Marina Bay Sands, before he decided to come back to it.
He says that it is his father's insistence for excellence in food and raw material quality that inspired him to open his own restaurant because father and son found that over the last few years, "the food scene has changed so much and that consumers are now looking for fresher ingredients, higher standards and how more and more people are looking for the 'taste of the 90s' when it comes to his signature sharksfin soup," says Mr Lee. "Naturally, the answer is to open our own restaurant to carry on dad's tradition and cuisine that he brought back from Bangkok."
Chef Lee had plenty of advice for his son when it came to running a restaurant. "Dad's first advice is to take good care of my team - treat them like I would treat my family, never forget the hard work they are putting in to make the business succeed," says Mr Lee. "The second is to never compromise on raw materials and food quality, cutting costs on some ingredients may seem to look good in numbers but it is like a slow poison, killing the restaurant one day at a time."
Asked what he thinks of Mr Lee as a boss, Chef Lee says: "His years in Shanghai and Marina Bay Sands taught him to be humble and down to earth and to treat everyone with respect. If we don't take care of our customers and staff, someone else will."
With both father and son at TAO, Mr Lee says: "This period is much like making up for all the family time we lost when I was younger. The father and son bond between us is so strong that we never had a quarrel, anything that needs sorting out is quickly done, with a compromise between us."
Mr Lee doesn't rule out cooking full time one day. He spent a year in the kitchen both before and after he left for London to learn how to cook from his dad, as well as to make sure that the secrets to dad's recipes will not be lost. "Though I'm quite sure that I can take over as chef someday, my advice to everyone is to enjoy my dad's cooking before he goes into retirement again," he quips.
- TAO Seafood Asia
12 Marina View, Asia Square Tower 2 #02-10
Exploring culinary options
Sam Leong and son Joe
WHEN he learnt that his son, Joe, wanted to enter the culinary industry, Chef Sam Leong neither dissuaded nor encouraged him to do so immediately.
Instead, the 49-year-old presented the facts squarely to his 22-year-old son. "I know that Joe likes Italian and French food, but those cuisines take a long time to master. Chinese cooking requires lots of physical strength, which Joe didn't really have," says Sam.
"I suggested that he should consider learning to make dim sum or be a pastry chef," says Sam. "It is easier to master the basics of pastry making, and if you are good, and at the same time, be thrifty, you can be on the fast track to becoming a chef/owner of your own pastry business."
Joe knew that he wasn't academically inclined and having spent his growing up years in the Tung Lok kitchens where his father worked, the idea of working in the kitchen appealed to him.
But he had no idea that being a pastry chef would be his choice of career. "I would listen to Dad's advice since he had lots of experience in this field," says Joe, the younger of two sons. But he had to finish his O levels first before he stopped school. "I insisted on that, so that Joe would have at least an O level certificate," says Sam.
Joe's first stint was at 2am:dessert bar, thanks to Dad. "Owner Janice Wong and I are friends," says Sam. "She's all about art and dessert, so Joe can pick up some special skills there."
Joe, who had zero knowledge about pastry making, trained under Chef Derrick Wong and learnt how to make French pastries and to work with chocolate. "Tempering chocolate was difficult initially, but now I would consider that my speciality," says Joe, who has also mastered the art of making chocolate sculptures.
Later, again through his father who is the consultant chef for Forest restaurant at Resorts World Sentosa, Joe worked for RWS as well, under executive pastry chef Kenny Kong. Working for the resort meant making pastries to cater to 2,000-3,000 guests at a time. "Working at a hotel is good training for Joe, as he will learn about making things in a big volume," says Sam.
After completing his National Service, Joe went to work at Fairmont Hotel, and is now the demi chef for pastry at the InterContinental Singapore. At both hotels, he got the job on his own. "I didn't even list down who my parents are when it came to filling up the application form," he says. The more senior staff in the kitchen know who he is the son of, but his peers don't. "No, I don't get any special treatment," he says.
Instead, he keeps his Dad's advice of always "being humble" to heart. "Because Papa is so well-known, people have certain expectations of me," he says.
"I tell Joe, not only to greet his bosses, but also his peers, and colleagues from the other departments," says Sam. "Also, he shouldn't be thinking about money just yet. Now is the time to set up a good foundation, and to get experience."
To be a successful chef is not just about skills, which is a constant process, he told his son. "You also need to know how to manage people, which cannot be taught, but I try to give him guidance."
Having grown up with both parents in the culinary industry, Joe is all too aware about the long working hours, but that has not deterred him from hard work.
"I feel proud when my chef friends tell me that Joe is very hardworking and humble," says Sam.
The two sometimes talk about work and people issues at home, but not about cuisine, as Sam does Chinese cooking, while Joe does desserts.
Neither has thought about Joe joining Forest. "My goal is for a few young chefs, like myself, to come together, and open a restaurant together," says Joe.
Sam says: "What both of us do are very different."
Instead, he is open to the idea of Joe being a guest chef at the restaurant. In July, Forest will hold a three-generation lunch every Sunday. Sam has also roped in his mum for this. A Leong family member will present a different dish each Sunday.
Mama Leong will whip up her doubled boiled soups, such as one with pork ribs and watercress and another with lotus root.
Wife Forest Leong will pay homage to her Thai roots, and present her beef brisket soup with rice vermicelli, bean sprouts and white radish.
Sam will whip up his signature deep-fried prawns with wasabi mayo, while Joe will serve up his matcha tiramisu with Kahlua jelly.
Where possible, Sam also takes Joe on his guest chef stints overseas. "I don't do desserts, and often leave it up to the host restaurant's chef, but with Joe on board, he can show what he can do," says Sam.
He adds: "My father, who was a chef too, was constantly telling me what I should do, but I don't want to do the same with Joe. I'll let him explore his options."
In the works is a cookbook which will be released later in the year, featuring recipes from the Leong family, including Joe's.
"But now that Joe has joined me in the culinary industry, we can definitely work together to plan exciting collaborations," says Sam.
8 Sentosa Gateway,
Equarius Hotel - Resorts World Sentosa
‘Old school’ charm
Goh Cheng Hian and son Eng Gee, granddaughter Siok Bee, grandson Kok Liang
IF YOUR father ran a restaurant for 364 days a year, how would you spend time as a family? Goh Siok Bee, 37, came up with a simple solution – she got a job working with him at the same restaurant. Of course it helps that said restaurant is their own family-run business – a traditional Hokkien restaurant named Bee Heong Palace Restaurant in Telok Ayer.
“From a young age, my favourite holiday was National Day because parade road closures made it the only day the restaurant would be closed,” explains Ms Goh, who now works full-time as the restaurant’s manager. “Having the whole family together was almost impossible otherwise. So since I love food anyway, working in the restaurant meant being able to eat and interact with my family 365 days a year.”
Ms Goh joined the restaurant officially in 2002, when her grandfather retired and handed it down to her dad, Goh Eng Gee. Her brother Kok Liang, 34, also joined at that time, except he now works in the kitchen as a chef alongside their father.
“My brother has been in love with cooking since a young age. He used to follow my dad around the kitchen during his school holidays, and chose to work in the restaurant after his national service,” explains Ms Goh.
Bee Heong Palace Restaurant was established in 1981, by Ms Goh's grandfather Goh Cheng Hian, who is 87 years old this year. According to Ms Goh, some of their traditional dishes have been slightly modified due to availability of ingredients and customers' tastebuds, but most of them still remain the same to this day.
She says with a hint of pride: "For three generations, we've served authentic Hokkien dishes to our faithful fans, and we've refused to take any short-cuts in the kitchen. We prefer to stick to traditional recipes that are true to our cuisine's heritage, but we do periodically create new (non-Hokkien) dishes that appeal to the younger generation."
Unlike most of the food however, the restaurant's look has gotten a facelift in the years since Eng Gee took over, although it still retains its "old school" charm.
Explains the 62-year-old: "(My father) was a very traditional businessman who focused only on food quality and not atmosphere. When we took over in 2002, we realised we had to do something about the 'old folks home', so we upgraded our tableware and renovated the whole restaurant."
While he is open to revamping the restaurant's look and staying updated, Eng Gee emphasises that one of the most important aspects of their business is maintaining the authenticity of their traditional Hokkien cuisine, lest they lose their originality by becoming "too modernised".
He says: "I believe 20 or 30 years down the road, there may be fewer Chinese restaurants in Singapore as youngsters refuse to work in Chinese kitchens. They would rather do Western and other foreign cuisines as it's perceived as being more prestigious. "It will be a hard journey for my children in the future to retain tradition, but together we strongly believe that we should continue."
- Bee Heong Palace Restaurant
134 Telok Ayer Street
Three generations in the kitchen
Lee Liat Huat and son Chiang Howe, granddaughter Jasmine
IMAGINE a child taking over the reins when the chef was suddenly unavailable, and cooking an oyster omelette good enough for the customer's table. "That was me!" chortles 25-year-old Jasmine Lee. Since she was five, Jasmine had spent her free hours playing and helping in the kitchen, sometimes in front of the stove at Teochew Restaurant Huat Kee.
The business was started by her great-grandfather as a zi char stall in an open-air car park, later becoming a stall in the Happy World amusement park peddling "canteen" food, and finally opening as a full-fledged Teochew restaurant serving traditional cuisine at Amoy Street in 1993. The man responsible for this last move was Jasmine's father, Lee Chiang Howe, better known as Fa Ge in the industry.
Learning spans three generations in the Huat Kee kitchen. Fa Ge, now 52, picked up the craft from his 79-year-old father, Lee Liat Huat. Jasmine, after graduating with a degree in professional communication from Monash University, and a brief stint in the private sector, joined the family enterprise.
During Fa Ge's own apprenticeship under the elder Lee, he had explored and researched dried premium delicacies such as shark's fin, sea cucumber and abalone, eventually becoming very successful serving them on the menu as well as manufacturing and distributing them throughout the region. As Fa Ge acquired traditional kitchen craft from his father, so does Jasmine today apply modern technology in the company's centralised kitchen, synthesising new recipes and products, bolstered by her dad's knowledge of Chinese dried delicacies. "There are times when I have to balance preserving Teochew tradition and selling to the market, and that's when I most value Dad's judgements," says Jasmine.
"I educate Jasmine in product knowledge and acquaint her with our sources," says Fa Ge. "She has good business acumen and our work rapport is good."
Father and daughter travel the world together on sourcing missions and Jasmine's role, apart from research and development, is to market and grow the business. "Networking and personal relationships are very important in our business," says Fa Ge. "I introduce to Jasmine all my contacts, which I built from zero. I trust in my daughter completely. She closed a deal for HK$1 million (S$170,000) at the recent FHA in Hong Kong all by herself."
Navigating such competitive waters is tough enough for anyone, let alone a young lady. "I know I have to stand on my own eventually, but for now, Dad is my bridge," says Jasmine. The restaurant recently moved to a 700 square metre location to better showcase Teochew cuisine and their collection of family heirlooms. "My grandparents and mother continue to be involved with day-to-day operations, while Dad and I look for potential business partners around the world," says Jasmine.
"Children today look at things differently," Fa Ge says, eyeing his daughter fondly. "They travel further; are more exposed to current trends and happenings; and most of all, have less 'baggage'. So they are mentally free to explore new heights."
- Teochew Restaurant Huat Kee
30 Orange Grove Road #02-01
Appeal of continuity
Tan Yong Siang, wife Jenny and son Shaun
GENTRIFICATION is the buzzword of the day; and its most rampant example - its poster boy - has to be Tiong Bahru.
Once a warren of kopitiams, mamak stalls and mom-and-pop shops, the neighbourhood today overflows with bistros, patisseries and ethnic-chic restaurants and the lingua franca is no longer Chinese dialect but American-inflected English.
But there is a lonely handful of holdouts from the old days in this hive of hip. Tiong Bahru Galicier Pastry is one of them. Its proprietors, Tan Yong Siang and his wife, Jenny, have doled out traditional Hainanese pastry and Nonya kueh to a constant stream of buyers for almost 20 years, with the sponge lady's finger, kueh dada, ondeh ondeh and kueh ambon among their blue-chip items. The shop's old-world quaintness has survived largely intact and is perhaps its biggest seduction apart from the confections.
The Tans' only son, Shaun, joined the business two years ago, citing the idea of continuity and its appeal to him. "For now, I'm trying to learn as much as possible from my parents about our family traditions," says the 28-year-old. "Many of our recipes and techniques were passed down through word of mouth, and some have been in the family for four generations."
His mother's grandfather, for one, learned the art of British pastry-making while working onboard British naval ships back in the 1950s, while his father, aged 62, picked up Nonya kueh-making skills from his grandmother.
While still in school, Shaun was already drawn to the baker's oven, continuing through National Service. "I really enjoy the sense of solitude and serenity during the mixing of the dough, when it's just me and the electric machine," he muses. After obtaining his business diploma from the Singapore Institute of Management, he joined his parents and their lean workforce running Galicier. For the young man, joining the team would mean participating in buying supplies from different vendors every day to manning the shop counter to running deliveries.
His father was delighted. "This is a family business and it's hard to find a business partner who has the same mindset outside of the family," says Mr Tan. Shaun's familiarity with the taste of the food also ensured an easier learning curve. "After all, he grew up eating them," smiles Mr Tan, "He's a quiet boy and he enjoys the craft; that helps in a business where a lot is still done by hand. He has the patience. I'm glad I've found a successor."
A generation gap can cause conflict in family businesses but here, the father-son chemistry is evident. "My father is meticulous in the kitchen and not everyone can take his strict regimen," says Shaun. "However, it's easier for me to work with him since I know his temperament well."
How do father and son see the future? "We're not too worried about the current invasion of concept cafes and restaurants in the neighbourhood," they chime. "Ours is Singaporean traditional food and we have our own ardent supporters and new-found customers."
"On top of that," Shaun points out, "there is a revival of interest in authentic, traditional food among the young; and the numbers of tourists seeking out traditional foods is growing. So I'm sure we'll remain relevant for a long time."
- Tiong Bahru Galicier Pastry
Blk 55 Tiong Bahru Road #01-39