The Life Interview With Ang Song Kang

Michelin-starred Chef Kang battled cancer, weathered bankruptcy

Michelin-starred chef Ang Song Kang never gave up when he met setbacks along the long road to success

Hunger drove Michelin-starred chef Ang Song Kang, 52, into the kitchen.

As a child, Mr Ang, the eldest of five children brought up by a single parent, often drank water to make himself feel full when food was scarce.

He also asked for a job at a zi char stall, selling Chinese home-style dishes, when he was a teenager because he knew the employees there got free meals.

Mr Ang, who is better known as Chef Kang, has not forgotten his impoverished childhood amid his current, hard-won success.

He battled cancer and weathered bankruptcy before his eponymous restaurant, Chef Kang’s, won its first Michelin star in late June, just two years after he set up shop in Mackenzie Road on the fringe of Little India.

The restaurant, which seats about 33 persons, is small but plushly decked out with maroon drapes and royal-yellow tablecloths.

Mr Ang’s signature dishes include steamed crab with glutinous rice and a double-boiled soup with chicken encased in pig’s stomach.

As a chef, you want things to be perfect. If things don’t go well, I will blame myself.

MR ANG SONG KANG, who is better known as Chef Kang

Instead of resting on his laurels after winning the award, he still spends most of his time cooking, unlike many chef-owners of restaurants. He is assisted by another chef, who is in his 40s.

Mr Ang, who speaks in a mix of English and Mandarin for this interview, says: “I used to run into the kitchen so that I would have food to eat. That’s how I survived as a child. That’s why I will not let go of my kitchen. If I’m outside, no matter how good my skills are, they will decline.”

His parents divorced when he was a child and his mother, Madam Goi Ah Nia, now in her 70s, worked as a cleaner, struggling to raise five children on her own. One of his younger brothers died of illness in childhood.

At the age of about nine, Mr Ang, who has not communicated with his father in years, took on odd jobs such as helping to sell snacks, including goreng pisang and otah.

He also skipped school to serve hot beverages at a coffee shop, incurring his mother’s wrath when his teacher told her he had been missing classes.

But he was only doing it to earn extra income for his family and handed his mum the few dollars he had earned that week as a “kopi boy” when she confronted him.

Around the age of 11, he dropped out of primary school to help support his family and got a job at a factory sticking labels on bottles for about $30 a month.

If he had a choice, he would have wanted to be a “lushi” (lawyer), rather than a “chushi” (chef), he says.

But he has no regrets. “It was time to go out and work to help the family. I have to help my mother. I’m the eldest son, I’m the big brother,” he says.

A few years later, he came across a zi char eatery in an industrial area in the north of Singapore.

“I felt interested. I could makan (eat) there, no need to worry about lunch and dinner. At the factory, I had to pay for food. I asked the people there, ‘You have food for yourself?’”

He approached the eatery’s managers for work a few times and was rejected as they deemed him too young.

But after he asked six times, they finally relented. He was about 16 when he started working there.

He was charged with keeping the fish tanks for live seafood clean and performed tasks such as scooping out prawns that had died and washing dishes. It was more than a year before he was allowed to work in the kitchen.

For a start, he learnt to cut vegetables and fish and was allowed to start the fire under the wok – his favourite piece of kitchen equipment – and eventually was taught to cook.

One culinary lesson he learnt was the value of simplicity.

Putting his soul in the cooking

When he progressed to cooking lunch for more than 10 staff, he used to be berated by his colleagues if he bungled common dishes such as sweet and sour pork.

"When you see a very easy thing, actually it's very difficult to do. My sweet and sour pork was soft, not crispy," he says.

A dish of braised luffa gourd with egg white, simple but tricky to perfect, is often lauded in food reviews as Chef Kang's speciality.

After he did his national service, he landed another job, through a contact, at a restaurant for Hong Kong cuisine in the Thomson area. His curiosity was piqued when he saw dishes he had never encountered before, such as lobster sashimi.

Mr Ang, who was in his early 20s, says he had to "go back to the bottom", cleaning tables. There was a language barrier as the staff spoke mostly Cantonese.

Mr Ang, who is Teochew, says: "I told myself, I have no studies, I need good skills for my future. My English and Mandarin were already poor. It was hard to learn Cantonese, but I forced myself."

The stress and long hours that came with working in a professional kitchen meant that "sometimes, (he) wanted to give up".

He asked to train under a Hong Kong master chef working there, who told him it would take at least 15 years to become a chef of an acceptable standard.

For more than 10 years, Mr Ang followed his late sifu (master) to places such as Hong Kong, Singapore and Indonesia. He spent between several months and a few years at different restaurants picking up specific skills.

For example, Mr Ang, who now speaks Cantonese like a Hong Kong native, says he took about 10 years to learn all about soup.

"When you follow a master, it's like following a father. My sifu told me, if you don't work hard, it's better not to come to this line. He said what he taught me was 40 per cent; as a chef, 60 per cent would come from myself and my own experience," Mr Ang says.

He was introduced to his wife, Ms Annie Pouw Kia Eng, who was working as a hotel receptionist in Batam then, by a friend. Ms Pouw, 47, an Indonesian-Chinese who is a Singapore citizen, runs the front of house at Chef Kang's. She says she defers to him at work as he is more experienced.

Married for 23 years, their 22- year-old son works in sales and their daughter, 18, is a polytechnic student.

By the early 2000s, Mr Ang was ready to be his own boss. He wanted to use his experience in Hong Kong to cook "high-class zi char". But financial troubles consumed him within years.

In 2002, he opened his first casual eatery, Canton Wok, in Havelock Road. It moved to Serangoon and then to Joo Chiat before closing down in 2009.

That year, he filed for bankruptcy after various business ventures, including some in China, failed.

Mr Ang and his wife got through the rough patch by focusing on providing for their children.

Ms Pouw says: "We faced it. Whatever the difficulty, we kept walking forward. No giving up."

The family had experienced tough times before when Mr Ang was jobless for a few months when his first child was born.

He bounced back from his financial woes by working at an eatery at People's Park Complex for about a year. In 2011, he opened Canton Recipes House in Parc Sovereign Hotel in Albert Street. It closed a few years later.

He took a break for 11/2 years before opening his current restaurant in 2015, with a sum of about $100,000 provided by his wife and a few friends.

At the time, he was battling kidney cancer, which is now in remission.

Things started looking up for him this year.

Lawyer Edward Tiong, a fan of Mr Ang's cooking since his first eatery in Havelock Road, has been taking local and foreign friends to savour Mr Ang's food for about 15 years.

"I've always thought his food is remarkable, with its umami taste. He puts his soul in it and cooks dishes himself. There is a passion and consistency in his cooking."

For maintaining the standard of his cooking over the years, Mr Ang received the Silver award at the inaugural Best Asian Restaurants Awards in late March this year.

The awards, presented by The Straits Times and Lianhe Zaobao, celebrate and recognise Asian restaurants in Singapore.

Then, in June, came the unexpected star when the second edition of the Singapore Michelin Guide was announced.

Despite his achievements, Mr Ang says he still feels more like a bit player.

"I've done this for so many years. A calefare chef with a star. I'm very satisfied," he says. "After the Michelin star, this is a new life."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 28, 2017, with the headline 'A chef with tenacity'. Print Edition | Subscribe