(THE BUSINESS TIMES ) - Four enthusiastic home cooks have taken the plunge and opened their own restaurants - without leaving the comfort of their own homes.
You might think Lynnette Seah has already done it all. She's an acclaimed violinist, a founding (and still active) member of the Singapore Symphony Orchestra (SSO), and was awarded the Cultural Medallion for music in 2006.
Despite successfully conquering the classical music scene, she now has a very different dream – to one day run her own cooking show. Next to music, the other big passion in her life is food.
“Music and food have been with me since I was small. My mum would tell me: if you don't practise, you won't get your dinner. So I had to do one hour of piano, one hour of violin, then help her in the kitchen. That's where I learnt the basics of cooking,” says Ms Seah, 60.
Even as she went on to be a professional musician, she would often invite her SSO friends over and cook for them. One day a friend suggested she go into private dining, and that's how Lynnette's Kitchen started.
Over the past two years, groups of eight to 17 people would dine with her at her five-room flat in Tiong Bahru, over a customisable menu of six dishes and one dessert. It costs about S$120 per person, and dishes are served in sharing portions.
“It's a very interesting thing for me because as a performer, I don't get to meet my audience very much. But now, people who know me from the stage can come over for dinner,” she says.
Though she also offers Western options, she usually gets requests for Peranakan cuisine (she is Peranakan on her father's side), so she would cook things like beef rendang or laksa, or her own dishes like a buah keluak fried rice with hae bee hiam.
Drawing similarities between her two passions, she says: “Music is all about timing, same as food. Curries need to be done the day before, certain seafood an hour before guests arrive, prawns and crab must be done just before serving. It's something my classical training has prepared me for.”
Even the dinners themselves are very much like concerts. “I serve starters dish by dish, main courses two at a time, and meats come out singularly. Then I give them a 10-minute break and serve dessert. Like in a concert – you've got the overture, the concerto, then the main symphony, and dessert is the encore.”
For now she intends to keep her recipes for her diners to enjoy, but she hopes that when she does do a cooking show – one that will probably involve a pairing with classical music – it will be a way to help keep Peranakan cuisine and culture alive.
She says: “Cookbooks have recipes, but don't teach you the right methods. Like in Peranakan food, the most important key to a good sauce is how you fry your rempah – it's something nobody has ever taught. I think TV can better capture the essence of the cooking process.”
To Rose Sivam, hosting private dinners at home is just like doing a TV production. “It's a whole creative process, where we're all playing in this stage performance or TV drama, and it always has a happy ending,” she says.
Which suits her just fine, since her colourful resume includes multiple TV production roles for both international and local media – one of the most well-known being Mediacorp's TV sitcom Phua Chu Kang Pte Ltd.
Though she still does freelance production work, just earlier this year, she started Relish.sg to host weekly private dinner sessions. The star of the show, however, is her husband, Christopher Choo, 48, who heads the kitchen.
She says: “It's funny because a lot of what he cooks were my mum's recipes. She has passed away and my husband didn't get to taste all her dishes, maybe just one or two. But when he cooked her recipes, they tasted just like my mum's food. It was like she was back. Even my dad – he's 80 – was floored when my mum's chicken curry came back to life.”
Mr Choo’s repertoire is wide and includes curries, Moroccan, French and Spanish cuisine.
Her role in the kitchen is not small either – she plays the crucial role of “marketing”. “My friends ask if I do marketing as in publicity, I say no, I go to the market and buy the food,” says the 52-year-old with a chuckle. “That's new for me because suddenly I have to learn to buy fish and order meat.”
Relish.sg initially started because the couple used to make chutneys (or what they call relishes) – different flavoured jams with spices and shared them with friends. In 2016, some people suggested they bottle these spreads for sale. As the bottled relishes started selling well, they progressed to doing high-tea sessions in January, and eventually had their first Relish.sg dinner party in February this year.
Since then, the number of guests to their weekly themed dinners is usually between 10 and 20. It costs from S$38 to S$58 per person depending on the menu and whether there is entertainment. At a recent “Moroccan Escapade” dinner, they hired bellydancers to perform.
She says: “My husband didn't go to cooking school; he learnt to cook on his own and has a flair for it. He's a Chinese from Penang, where it's a food haven, so cooking is intuitive for him. He has a whole philosophy about watching the fire, knowing your ingredients, getting fresh ingredients. It's like an art.”
For now, it's a great way for the couple to keep themselves home-bound so they can spend time with 10-year-old daughter Aleia, and do freelance or consulting work on the side.
“Of course, the thought of eventually doing a restaurant has come to mind, but right now we're keeping it very simple. We do enjoy having people come over. But maybe when our daughter is older, we might consider opening a proper place.”
After spending around 15 years writing about the food industry, Annette Tan has finally found herself on the other side of the stove.
“I am primarily a freelance writer, but in the last six months, business has been slower than usual. So since I have some free time now, I thought, why not do something I’ve always wanted to do?” says the 44-year-old self-taught cook.
So just three months ago, she started her own venture called Fatfuku, where she runs private dinners at her home. “ I often have friends over for dinner, and there’s always talk about wrangling an invitation for a friend of a friend. I can’t afford to cook for every mutual acquaintance who wants a feed, so I figured why not charge for it,” she explains.
The first official Fatfuku meal took place just last weekend, starting with a group of Ms Tan's own friends. At the dinner, she served dishes like her mee siam, babi assam, gado gado with homemade keropok, and a sugee and caramel dessert.
Says Ms Tan: “I grew up on my family’s Peranakan food and that of my closest friends and neighbours who are Eurasian. So what I cook is an amalgamation of both. Some of my favourite comfort foods are Eurasian dishes that my friends’ parents cook for me, like curry devil (debal) and a cabbage and Spam soup that my Aunty Pam makes. You won’t find dishes like these unless you go to someone’s house.”
For now, her private dinners are limited to about six to eight people, and priced between S$80 to S$120 depending on the menu and group size. Eventually though, she hopes to be able to cater to groups of up to 10, and possibly cook at clients' homes.
It's no money-spinner though, which is why a lot of private dining outfits have disappeared over the last few years, says Ms Tan. She would know, since Fatfuku isn't her first hurrah – she did a one-off pop-up dinner with a friend about two years ago.
“The truth is, when I told my friends in the F&B industry, they looked at me like, 'Are you mad? You kill yourself doing this once or twice a week, charging an average of S$100 a head? You can’t make much of a profit doing this.' But for me it’s a passion project – I like communicating with people about food and eating, and in some ways, it’s an extension of the writing work I already do. It’s nice to get to know people over a meal.”
Will it eventually lead to a proper restaurant, against her better judgment as an experienced food industry-observer? Probably not, she says with a laugh, adding that if the correct opportunity arises then she would definitely consider it.
“(Fatfuku) is what intend to do for now. I have some ideas brewing, but I want to do at least six months of these dinners to get a sense of how it feels before I can say what’s next,” she says.
When Felicia Tan moved into her current home in Emerald Hill Road last year, it was with the intention of turning it into a space for hosting guests for private dinners.
So, when you enter through a large metal sliding door, the first thing that greets you is a living room, a dining room, followed by a full view of the kitchen. “That's why when people come, I always say this place was done for you. It's not much, but I hope people feel comfortable here,” she says.
Ms Tan lives in a two-storey unit which is part of a charming cluster of Peranakan shophouses. Though most of them are considered conservation shophouses, ask her and she will enthusiastically tell you that her block is an exception because (according to a neighbour) it was destroyed during the war and later rebuilt – resulting in an unusual ground floor and basement configuration with a more spacious interior.
In fact, you could probably talk to her about anything and she would respond enthusiastically, just like any warm and bubbly hostess. You would never guess that the 30-year-old used to work a regular office job doing commodity sales for Goldman Sachs.
She left that job last February and launched 108 Dining two months later.
“I was the sort who would have people over every weekend even when I worked full-time. It did not really matter who was eating, I'd be very excited as long as I got to cook. So going into private dining made sense,” she says.
Since 108 Dining started, she has hosted dinners about three or four times a week. Any group between 10 and 15 gets the whole space to themselves, while smaller groups have a chance of being combined with others. Each meal costs S$100 nett per person, and features about six dishes.
The menu changes every month or so, and usually consists of Asian flavours. Some examples are a prawn mee chawanmushi, a “surf and turf” mantou platter with homemade otah and beef rendang fillings, and a crab spring roll with a chilli crab dip.
“I started cooking in my mum's kitchen. She was a typical housewife and cooked every day, so we didn't eat out much. She taught me Chinese cooking, like how to wrap dumplings,” recalls Ms Tan, who later practised by cooking home-style food when studying in Australia.
“That sort of explains why my set-up is like this – I always tell people I'm not a chef, just an enthusiastic cook.”
She might eventually attend culinary school though – hopefully in Japan – but opening a restaurant is not quite her ultimate goal.
Says Ms Tan: “I would love to contribute to the private dining scene in Singapore. Maybe get in touch with common minds and work on something under the same umbrella. But I want to keep it to home dining because of the comfort element: many people have fallen asleep on my couch like they would at a friend's home. That personal touch will be completely lost if I go the commercial route.”