Foodie Confidential

Acting on his ambitions

Entrepreneur Derrick Chew says his theatre experience comes in handy in running his cafe

After a decade of working in theatre, Mr Derrick Chew was plagued by what he called “a quarter-life crisis” in his mid-20s.

He was then juggling a marketing job at theatre company Pangdemonium and involvement in theatre productions, but felt that something was missing in his life.

Mr Chew, now 31, recalls: “It was a combination of age and boredom. I was curious to explore something else before it was too late.”

His new venture turned out to be a cafe – the British-styled Hyde & Co in North Bridge Road, which opened in 2014.

His foray into the food business was not surprising as the half-Peranakan entrepreneur has an insatiable interest in food that was developed from the time he was young.

He was close to his late maternal grandmother and grew up on her dishes, including babi pongteh, salted duck soup, lettuce pork roll and nasi lemak. His parents are serious foodies who go on food-hunting trips to restaurants and hawker centres on weekends.

In 2012, Mr Chew quit his job with Pangdemonium and started Sight Lines Productions, a theatre and events outfit.

  • WHAT WOULD YOUR LAST MEAL BE?


    My late grandmother’s lettuce pork roll, babi pongteh and nasi lemak.

He initially wanted to open a bakery. As he had no experience in the food-and-beverage sector, he spent eight months doing research and getting training – including working at One Man Coffee in Upper Thomson Road for three months to learn about cafe operations.

However, the bakery did not pan out as he and his business partner had different plans.

The communications graduate from Australia’s RMIT University then pumped in about $100,000 to open a cafe.

Fascinated with British culture, he named it after the famed gothic novella, The Strange Case Of Dr Jekyll And Mr Hyde, which features a character with dual personalities.

True to its name, the cafe serves a melting pot of modern Singaporean dishes such as chilli crab pasta and pulled beef mantou.

Mr Chew, an only child, says the cafe is an avenue for his parents, who are retired auditors in their 60s, to maintain an active lifestyle. They help to manage its finances.

In hindsight, he says his theatre experience, such as in directing and producing, came in handy for his career switch.

“Both are like putting on a performance and the show must go on,” he says.

What is his secret to survival amid a competitive dining scene and cafe fatigue among diners?

One strategy was getting halal certification for the cafe in end-2015, as Muslim diners frequent the area.

He also grew the business through pop-up events and takeaway/delivery services.

Apart from the cafe and Sight Lines, he also runs a business consultancy that gives start-ups a leg-up. The bachelor says: “It is stressful to keep chasing new trends, it is better to explore how to ride on trends and creatively work around them.”

Hyde & Co will participate in next month’s Singapore Coffee Festival. How big of a coffee drinker are you?

I need to have at least two cups of coffee a day to function properly. I usually go for a cappuccino or a piccolo latte that has a nutty and  chocolate-like finish.

What is your favourite local food?

I am going through a pig organ soup phase soup now. I go to either Authentic Mun Chee Kee King of Pig’s Organ Soup in Jalan Besar or Cheng Mun Chee Kee Pig Organ Soup in Foch Road. I order the soup with the lean pork and meat balls, but without the organs as they can be quite exotic. I like soup that is comforting and flavourful.

Whenever I am in the Jalan Besar area, I also go to the cafes, Chye Seng Huat Hardware and Two Bakers.

What is your comfort food?

Steamed minced meat with salted fish. Perhaps it is because my family always orders this dish whenever we eat in zi char restaurants.

You are half-Peranakan, so what are some of your favourite Peranakan restaurants?

I like Candlenut in Dempsey for its modern spin on the cuisine. The buah keluak ice cream is out of this world. I love its punchy flavours.

Another favourite is Violet Oon Singapore in Bukit Timah Road. Its dishes, such as dry laksa, have the strong flavours that I grew up with.

Where is your favourite overseas foodie destination?

Malaysia. I go there once or twice a week for work.

In Johor, I go to Meei Shih Seafood Restaurant for its barbecued salted crab. I love the combination of the smoky grilled flavour with the richness of the butter.

In Kuala Lumpur, I like Lian Bee Hokkien Mee. The black-style noodles are authentic and very sinful because of the amount of pork lard used.

In Klang, I like Samy & Ah Her Bak Kut Teh Restaurant. Unlike the peppery broth in the bak kut teh here, the dark-coloured broth has a herbal taste that I like.

Do you cook at home?

No, but I bake brownies, cookies and Victoria sponge cakes to relieve stress. I find it therapeutic to see the entire baking process through. I eat some and give most of it to my friends or staff.

What is your advice to those who are looking to start cafes?

Think about marketing. Be clear about your cafe’s unique selling point and why you want to do this.

Another thing is to know the operational costs well, especially since profits are thin in the food and beverage line. You need to guard your numbers to not be in the red.

What is always in your fridge at home?

Orange juice, Vitagen and butter and eggs for baking.

If you could dine with anyone, who would that be?

Jack Ma, the founder of Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba. He is my hero as he had such great foresight to champion the power of e-commerce decades ago, despite being put down by people around him. He is always in tune with trends.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on July 23, 2017, with the headline 'Acting on his ambitions'. Print Edition | Subscribe