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Cooking Up A Second Career
Tammie Loke could well be the next poster girl for heritage cooking and active retirement.
The long-serving civil servant retired earlier this year as the group director of corporate communications at the Land Transport Authority (LTA). But rather than settle into the relaxed rhythm of post-working life, she's heaving pots and pans in the kitchen of One Bowl - a cosy new eatery in the Sultan Hotel serving local favourites from char siew noodles to stewed pig's trotters in vinegar.
What strikes you first isn't so much how tender her pork belly char siew is with its sticky caramelised edges, but the carefully coiffed elegant lady that emerges from the kitchen in full makeup, with just a few hairs astray and the odd stains on her chef's uniform the only signs of a hectic lunch shift.
How she ended up helming One Bowl is a classic case of serendipity - a friend who was well aware of her cooking prowess who knew a friend who knew about the availability of this restaurant space. It had already gone through several dining concepts without success and it seems to have hit the right formula with Ms Loke's brand of folksy home-style cooking.
Despite her well-groomed looks, she's no pushover in the kitchen especially as she shows you photos of an assembly line of Christmas hams she's roasted as gifts, and the private dinners she cooked at home for paying guests. Cooking is almost an obsession for her, as she tells you how she once stood on a busy corner of Bangkok with cars whizzing dangerously close, just to watch a street vendor cook his noodles.
"That's an example of how I get inspiration from other cooks!" she laughs. "The stall caught my eye - when Singaporeans queue, it's my cue that the food is good. My takeaway from this hawker was how to get rid of the flour from the noodles - but I still did it my way to create noodles I can call my own."
Opening a restaurant was something the experienced home chef had been mulling over when this opportunity came along. "I've cooked for large crowds before - my Loke family, for example, is about 30 each time we meet! But doing it now on a daily basis for long hours is different and I can't say it's been easy. But it's an interesting learning curve and I think I'm slowly getting the hang of it after a month!"
The food at One Bowl is deceptively simple, featuring her signature char siew on al dente noodles or garlic fried rice; fish porridge, roast duck fried noodles, ngoh hiang and clay pot rice. But what elevates them are her special hand-made sauces, from a caramelised shallot topping for the porridge to the Thai chilli sauce that goes with the plump ngoh hiang.
"Sauces are my specialty," she says. "Take the fish porridge for example. Many customers tell me they've had a lot of porridge but mine is different because the infusions lift an everyday dish into something special."
Her now signature char siew originated with her sister-in-law, who would prepare it for every Chinese New Year reunion dinner. "In her honour, I would like to pay tribute to her for cooking this dish for so many years. I have also adapted the recipe and customers tell me it melts in the mouth. Also, many dishes in the menu were made by my mother when we were young and she deserves all the credit for what's being served at One Bowl."
As for retirement, "I'm not the retiring kind so let's see how it goes!" she laughs. If there's any downside, it would probably be that her own family doesn't get to enjoy her cooking. While her son, a pilot, used to come home to hot meals specially prepared for him, "he now has to order from Deliveroo because I don't have time to cook!"
One Bowl, 101 Jalan Sultan, Sultan Hotel. Tel: 6291 9020.