Foodie Confidential

Foodie Confidential: I was a good copy cat, says Comida Mexicana's Vivian Wee

Vivian Wee, director of Mexican restaurant Comida Mexicana in East Coast Road, with a plate of crab and avocado quesadillas.
Vivian Wee, director of Mexican restaurant Comida Mexicana in East Coast Road, with a plate of crab and avocado quesadillas.ST PHOTO: NG SOR LUAN

Vivian Wee, who heads the kitchen at Comida Mexicana, learnt to cook by observing others and trying dishes out herself

It was a busy Thursday and the restaurant was full. But the chef was nowhere to be found.

He had asked for the weekend off the day before, but the restaurant owner declined. So he did not turn up for work the next day.

Not knowing how to cook at the time, all the owner could do was hide behind the bar and cry.

Thankfully, her business partner answered her call for help. Eventually, he arrived at the restaurant with another chef.

"By the time he arrived, people were streaming out. For those who stayed, we gave them free meals," she says.

"That made me realise I needed to know how to cook."

  • WHAT WOULD YOUR LAST MEAL BE?

  • My mother's braised bamboo shoots with pork belly. It is a very Hokkien dish. She usually cooks a pot for me and I will eat it for a week, with plain rice.

That was how Vivian Wee, 46, director of Mexican restaurant Comida Mexicana in East Coast Road, decided to become a chef in 2000.

From knowing nothing about cooking, she became an expert chef who designs her own menu.

She says she learnt by observing others and trying dishes out on her own. "I realised I was a good copy cat. I could replicate a dish after watching how it is done just once," says the former insurance agent.

Now, she is such a pro that she heads the kitchen at Comida Mexicana, a casual dining concept in East Coast Road.

The menu features dishes such as Mexican Yucatan Chicken ($28), comprising five chunky chicken skewers coated in an achiote, garlic, orange juice and lemon juice glaze; and Enrollados ($18), which has chicken, Monterey Jack cheese, jalapeno and tomatoes rolled in a wheat tortilla and fried.

Comida Mexicana (which means Mexican food) used to be an outlet of Mexican restaurant Margarita's.

One of Singapore's first Mexican restaurants, Margarita's opened in Singapore in Faber Drive in 1988. It soon opened two more outlets in East Coast Road and Dempsey Hill. The Faber Drive outlet closed in 2013.

Since 1996, Wee has been director of the Margarita's in East Coast. She started as a regular customer and became friends with restaurant owner Andy Yap. Eventually, he asked her to come on board as a partner and take over the restaurant.

In 2002, she became the eatery's head chef too.

In July, to differentiate the East Coast outlet from Margarita's Dempsey Hill, she rebranded the place and transformed it into Comida Mexicana. The menu is more affordable and there are bigger portions for sharing.

Asked what she loves about cooking and food, the mother of a 19-year-old son says: "When I know that people are enjoying my food, it brings me a lot of satisfaction and happiness. It helps me destress."

She adds that food is also a source of comfort.

"I often cook for friends in distress because food brings comfort. I hardly give presents. Instead, I bake cakes for birthdays and special occasions. It is always food because I love to eat."

What do you love about Mexican food?

The simplicity yet depth of flavours. Using very simple ingredients, you can get such robust tastes.

Do you cook only Mexican food?

No, at home, I don't make anything Mexican. It is always just regular Chinese food such as oyster sauce chicken, braised pork, stir-fried vegetables and a lot of soups. I rush home to cook in between service time so that when my son comes home, there is always food.

What is your favourite Mexican food?

Tamales, a dough that can be filled with meats, cheeses, fruit or vegetables and wrapped in a banana leaf and steamed. It's like a Mexican bak chang.

I first tried this in Guadalajara in Mexico. It was a really cold night and I had tamales with cheese and poblano strips. It was so yummy and comforting.

What are your favourite eating places in Singapore?

Eng's Noodles House inTanjong Katong Road. I love the wonton noodles with their fiery hot chilli sauce. The noodles are always al dente.

I also love Imperial Treasure Super Peking Duck Restaurant at Paragon. My son and I can polish off one whole duck by ourselves.

There is also a Teochew restaurant called Chin Lee in Bedok North. It has simple food, but it is so nice. I love the steamed pomfret, which is always fresh.

If you could have a meal with anyone, who would it be and why?

A good friend of mine died just when I reopened the restaurant.

Patrick and his wife were our neighbours and we became friends four years ago when he fell sick with colon cancer. I helped his wife to care for him. He inspired my son like a father.

They moved to Japan for cancer treatment, but moved back to Singapore in April.

I was busy with the rebranding and we did not have a chance to meet. Then his wife called me and told me he had died. If I could, I would cook a scrumptious meal for him and his family.

What is one item that you always have in your fridge?

I always have different fruits depending on the season. I will eat some fruit before every meal because it helps with digestion.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on October 01, 2017, with the headline 'Copy cat chef'. Print Edition | Subscribe