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The Life Interview with Darren Chen: All set to Savour the world

Entrepreneur Darren Chen wants his food festival Savour to set up shop in 10 to 12 cities

Call him the king of food festivals.

After running the successful Savour, a casual gourmet festival, since 2012, its executive director, Mr Darren Chen, 37, is taking on the world.

He will be doing three shows in China - Shanghai in September, Chengdu in October and Zhuhai in November - and will take Savour to Bangkok next year.

"We're ready to grow exponentially," he says. "Ten to 12 cities is probably a nice fit."

In Singapore, there will be three editions of Savour this year - Savour Gourmet, Savour Wine and Savour Christmas. A fourth one - Savour Kids - will be added to the roster next year.

The first instalment - Savour Gourmet - runs from Thursday to Sunday.

I'm very optimistic. That is bad for business. So you want to do everything and try new ideas, which is not so easy realistically. Risk management is something you have to pick up. No one teaches you emotional resilience in school.

MR DARREN CHEN on his trusting character in the business

The vibrant food festival is known for bringing in Michelin- starred chefs to cook alongside veteran and up-and-coming young chefs in Singapore.

Its Jasons Gourmet Market has been a hit for the wide variety of premium produce and its wine appreciation sessions.

Its other workshops have also been well-received. Prices are attractive, from $6 for a dish from a Michelin-starred chef.

Over the years, Mr Chen has brought in French chef Alain Passard of three-Michelin-starred L'Arpege in Paris, Peruvian chef Virgilio Martinez Veliz of Central Restaurante (ranked No. 4 in The World's 50 Best Restaurants 2015 list) and chef Bart de Pooter from two-Michelin-starred Pastorale Restaurant in Belgium.

Singapore chefs featured in Savour include Saint Pierre's Emmanuel Stroobant, Artichoke's Bjorn Shen and Labyrinth's Han Liguang - all of whom will return this year.

Mr Chen also does pop-up dining series 4XFour and $100Gourmet, a dining programme where Citibank credit cardmembers pay just $100++ for a six-course meal cooked by a visiting chef and hosted in a local restaurant.

Even though he hobnobs with chefs, Mr Chen is not a foodie.

In fact, he often skips lunch and survives on coffee and junk food.

Instead, he is a savvy entrepreneur and salesman whose life experiences have honed his business acumen.

The Malaysia-born Mr Chen came to Singapore at age 16 as a recipient of an Asean scholarship. The permanent resident has since applied for Singapore citizenship.

He studied at Victoria Junior College, getting by with a minimum passing score of three Es at the end of the first year.

"I always did what was just enough," he says, remembering a fellow scholar who would just flip through the syllabus the night before and on the morning of the examination.

The scholarship was not extended for his university degree.

As a mechanical engineering undergraduate at the National University of Singapore (NUS), he spent more time playing than studying. In his first year, his grade point average was just 1.76 out of five.

In 2001, he did a six-month internship at the Ministry of Environment.

It involved working at the Newater plant in Bedok, which treats waste water, turning it into drinkable water.

It was an experience that shaped his views on his current partnership with The Food Bank Singapore for Savour. The charity receives donations of unused or unwanted food and distributes it to the needy.

For the three editions of Savour this year, Mr Chen wants chefs to pick ingredients from The Food Bank to use in their dishes to educate people on reducing waste.

"With The Food Bank, we are trying to teach people to manage their food before it becomes waste. That knowledge is powerful. The origin of this plan came from my s***ty experience," he says, chuckling.

He was not keen on being an engineer. "I don't really know why," he says.

So he drifted through many interviews after graduating, which he says was to "test the system" by rejecting job offers even after getting accepted.

He ended up teaching at a secondary school for eight months before joining a sports marketing company to do telephone sales.

He stuck it out for three years selling sponsorship and hospitality packages.

He says: "The job trained me to hunt people down and to be resolute in rejection. When you have 50 to 60 people in the office doing the same thing, you get up and you perform."

More mellow and frugal

One of the products the company was handling was the Shanghai Formula One in 2004. When he moved to Hong Kong in 2005 to set up the company's office, it was partly to manage the Shanghai F1 product.

This gave him the inside track to working with F1 and he left the company for the Singapore Grand Prix to be the corporate sales director from 2007 to 2011. He quickly learnt that it was a rough ride when the race debuted in Singapore in 2008.

He says: "We had a Post-It tradition. We would go around the rooms and hospitality suites and mark every possible defect with a Post-It. Probably 90 per cent of the issues would never be seen by the naked eye. But we know and that is not acceptable."

Calling the four days of F1 the "best weight-loss programme" - he lost 5kg in the first year - it taught him the value of working in a team. "Everyone, even the directors, was sweeping the floor and replacing carpet because there was a thunderstorm."

Noticing that "good food unites" at F1, he quit his job and decided to set up Savour to make Michelin-starred food accessible to the masses. With just three staff as well as sponsors and investors, they pulled off the show which cost $2.1 million.

He now has a team of 11 people.

He says: "Food is very transferrable - people appreciate food and every event needs good food, so I knew that building a high-quality food festival that was accessible to a larger audience was a no-brainer."

The food festival's attendance for the first year was 14,226. It grew to more than 18,000 for the 2014 edition. Last year's attendance dropped to about 15,600 as it coincided with the death of Singapore's first Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew.

This year, the festival will move from the F1 Pit Building, where it was held last year, to its new home in Bayfront Avenue, next to Marina Bay Sands Exhibition Centre. And unlike in previous years, the event will not be ticketed. So entrance is free and dishes will be priced at either $6 or $12 each.

When asked how Savour can make money without selling tickets, he just laughs and says: "I don't know."

That is when the cost-cutting instinct kicks in.

He says: "Now we think, we need to run a cable that is 100m long. But can we just run 10m? The money saved from the 90m can go into marketing or savings for diners. Using the money better does not mean we are kiam (Hokkien for stingy)."

He has spent more than $7 million on Savour over the past four editions. Now, he spends half of what he used to spend.

Two decorative penguins he bought on a whim from fashion retailer Club 21 are housed in his office as a reminder of his extravagant ways. He sheepishly admits: "I spent $200 on them, so I can't throw them away. I put them here to remind me not to waste money."

For Savour this year, he is using EverBlocks from Aunix International to build the counters for each stall. The Lego-like stackable blocks are reusable and help to cut down on costs, he says.

It also helps that his NUS sepak-takraw teammate, Mr Wong Kum Chuen, 37, is the managing director of Aunix International.

Recalling their school days, Mr Wong says: "Darren was the joker in our team, cracking jokes to help relieve the pressure in a competition. He was the team's main attacker and would taunt the opponents.

"He has realised his potential and is always thinking of making Savour better with new ideas and products. And he is open to helping a fellow entrepreneur."

All these frugal methods come from someone who has mellowed over the years. Years ago, Mr Chen would show up in a suit for a press conference. He laughs about it and says candidly: "The suit was just a facade to be relatively presentable."

These days, he dresses in polo T-shirts and jeans and does not hold press conferences any more.

Turning contemplative, he says: "When I was 24, I could pull in $35,000 a month doing telephone sales. But I don't want to go back there. With money, you become very materialistic.

"When I was in my late 20s, I would go back to an empty apartment and realise I have nothing. Now, family is No. 1."

He returns to Batu Pahat to visit his parents once every few months.

His father, Dr Chen Fun Sing, 69, is a dentist and his mother, Mrs Evelyn Chen, 62, assists him. His sister Doreena Chen, 41, a former literature teacher, lives in Saudi Arabia.

Mr Chen and his wife Mandy Chew, 31, who works in an asset management company, live in a four-room HDB flat in Clementi with a 13-year-old pet rabbit. They have no children.

The couple met in 2010 when she was doing marketing work in a bank and had to work with him for F1. They got married last June.

She recalls: "My first impression of him was not fantastic. I thought he was quite abrasive. Once, we had a deadline and I urgently needed to reach him, but he just wasn't answering any of my calls. I remember lamenting in frustration to my boss that I have never called anybody so many times in my life.

"Now he grumbles that I am not picking up his calls instead."

Like Ms Chew, his employees also say that Mr Chen has mellowed over the years.

Savour's general manager Eunice Chua, 28, remembers that in her first year working for Mr Chen in 2012, he would bang on tables, slam down the telephone and shout at staff.

She says: "Before anyone went into the office in the morning, we would text one another to ask who was there and what the 'weather' (his mood) was like.

"Now, we make jokes and take every opportunity to poke fun at him. He seldom shouts unless we make a really stupid mistake and we know he always has our back."

To manage his team, Mr Chen emphasises that he is a "failure collector". "Fear of failure is very important, but you cannot fear trying. But, of course, you don't simply fail and lose millions of dollars."

Salesman and entrepreneur aside, his mind is constantly thinking of new ideas.

As he picks at a lunch of pork ribs and fries in the office, he finds out that one of his staff is a talented pastry chef. Immediately, in a frenzied burst of energy, he fires off ideas rapidly and offers her a spot in Savour to showcase her baked goods.

And there is no stopping his mission to continue championing Singapore on the foodie map.

Part of Savour this year is Live Your Dream, a competition that allows the chef-owners of each restaurant to showcase young talent at Savour. Diners vote on a slip with each dish they buy.

He says: "When I'm old and dying and I see a young chef, I would like to hear him or her say, 'Hey, you got me started'."

On where Savour is at right now, he laments: "Where Savour is now, we should have been three years ago. Back when I wanted to start a company, I was in love with the idea of running a business. I wanted independence and the freedom to create and it was very naive. If you don't start with a clear vision and mission, you struggle to keep focus.

"Now, I actually don't think we should be on schedule, but just focus on doing great things."

And he adds with determination: "We worked our a**es off to get to this point. We want to be a dominant player in the food industry. And I'm not letting it go."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 09, 2016, with the headline 'All set to Savour the world'. Print Edition | Subscribe