Foodie Confidential With Wong Ah Yoke

Spa Esprit Group's Cynthia Chua: Eating what makes her feel good

Spa Esprit Group founder Cynthia Chua does not believe in fad diets

Ms Cynthia Chua just does not seem to stop.

The founder of the Spa Esprit Group, which started in 1996 as a beauty day spa in Holland Village, now owns more than 100 beauty shops in cities such as New York, London, Beijing, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Manila, Kuala Lumpur and, of course, Singapore.

In 2007, she also moved into the food and beverage business when she opened House in Dempsey, a huge project that included a Western restaurant and bar, plus a spa called Beauty Emporium on the second floor.

Now eateries under Spa Esprit include Tippling Club, Open Door Policy, 40 Hands, Bochinche, Ding Dong, Open Farm Community, Skinny Pizza and Tiong Bahru Bakery.

Her latest project is The Beauty Block, which opened in Chelsea, London, in March. It comprises a Browhaus brow bar, a Ministry of Waxing depilatory salon and a cafe called A Wanted Man.

Ms Chua, 44, who is in a relationship, lived in London for a few months at the beginning of the year to oversee its opening.

  • WHAT WOULD YOUR LAST MEAL BE?

  • Muahchee in shallot oil because that was what I liked growing up. If I could bring that old man in Hougang back to life, that would be what I want to eat.

The cafe is a new concept with a Wild Wild West theme and a focus on breakfast dishes with original recipes, some of which were cooked up by her.

Next on her plate: opening Common Man Coffee Roasters in Kuala Lumpur and planning two new concepts for Shanghai next year. She says: "I'm also thinking of opening A Wanted Man in New York."

For Singapore, something is brewing at Open Door Policy in Tiong Bahru, which will be changing to a new concept that she will not reveal. And two of her restaurants, Bochinche and Ding Dong, are moving to Amoy Street this month.

How involved are you in planning the menus of your restaurants?

Very much. You can see a slice of my life through the things I do.

If I have a very good chef, I let him execute the menu. But a lot of things have to be what I love.

For A Wanted Man, for example, the food is focused on breakfast because everywhere I travel, I want a good breakfast. But everybody does the same thing, such as Eggs Benedict.

Being in the spa business, I'm careful about what I eat. But I'm also a foodie, so my food cannot be two stalks of asparagus. So it's how to make food that's good for you tasty and different.

How is your influence seen in your restaurants in Singapore?

I express how I feel through the language of food.

House is about community, how people can come together. Common Man Coffee Roasters is about how you combine good coffee with good breakfast. And 40 Hands is about lost heritage food with a Western touch.

Being in the spa business, do you eat only health food?

No, I still chomp down a tau sar pau (sweet bean bun) when I'm home in Singapore. You can't eat that every day, of course.

I don't believe in fad diets. I eat what makes me feel good. People like to pigeonhole food, but they need to understand it. Of course, if you eat white bread that's not fermented properly, you're going to have a gluten problem. But if you eat a sourdough that's made properly, you won't have a problem.

Coffee should be drunk with full cream milk, it's not going to kill you. Skimmed milk is just not nice. You just have to exercise.

What are your favourite local foods?

I love min chiang kueh, muah chee and ang ku kueh, which I missed when I was living away because you can't find these in London.

I was crazy over muah chee from a market stall in Hougang when I was a little girl. My dad got so sick of me pestering him to buy it that he lied to me that the old hawker died so I would stop. But I went to the market and saw that he was still there. The old man has since passed the stall to his son.

The muah chee came with peanuts and shallot oil.

There's also a min chiang kueh stall in Petaling Street in Kuala Lumpur that I love. It's made over a charcoal fire and there is a version with coconut.

What about your favourite local restaurants?

I love the dry hor fun at Happy Crab in Pahang Street, which has a lot of wok hei. It also serves barbecued crab with a wasabi dipping sauce.

The eatery is in a corner coffee shop and is run by four former air stewards, so you get first-class service.

I also like Shinji in Raffles Hotel for its sushi. Its anago sushi, which comes in both salted and sweet versions, is so clever. And I love the sushi with chopped tuna.

For dim sum, I like to go to Swee Choon Tim Sum in Jalan Besar.

Of course, you get good dim sum at places such as Crystal Jade Golden Palace and Imperial Treasure, but though the food at Swee Choon is coarser, it's the experience that I love. You sit in a back alley and pay just $10 a person. Business is always bustling and sometimes you hear the workers washing chopsticks non-stop at the back.

My uncle is the chef at Hokkien restaurant Beng Hiang and I love the suckling pig there. Every time I come back to Singapore, my father would make sure I get to eat it.

What restaurants did you discover during your stay in London?

What got me excited is Gymkhana in Albemarle Street. It's Indian food that's made modern and done so well. The nasi briyani there is like a French onion soup with a pastry on it that you have to crack open. The cocktails are amazing too.

I'm also impressed with Hoppers in Frith Street for its ability to execute a concept really well and make it affordable. The way it interprets Sri Lankan food through the ingredients is clever.

I also went to Kitchen Table, a speakeasy behind Bubbledogs in Charlotte Street. It's quite molecular - modern and creative - but not stifling. It serves things such as rhubarb that is grown in the dark and a lot of fermented food.

I also travelled to Paris where, after working hard in London, I had a meal at Le Verre Vole in Rue de Lancry that just melted my stress away. It was nothing fancy, just something cooked very well and that was very nourishing.

I remember a cuttlefish dish with a bit of burnt taste and served with some capers. After the meal, I understood how food can be healing.

And at Le Baratin in Rue Jouye-Rouve, everything was cooked to perfection. The fish was so tasty and the panna cotta was so smooth. It was a place I went back to often.

For my Asian fix, I went to Kunitoraya, an udon bar in Rue Villedo. It did a good bottarga with radish. And the cold udon and udon in yuzu soup tasted so clean.

How did you develop your love for food?

My father, a retired businessman, is a real foodie with very good tastebuds. I was trained by him. He would take the family out to eat and say, "this roast duck is the best, done by a Hong Kong chef" or "this chendol is the best".

Now, he goes to all my outlets and tells me what's good.

Do you cook?

Because of my tight schedule in Singapore, I seldom cook unless I have friends coming over.

What I cook depends on my mood.

At one time, it was salads and later, I was playing around with sweet potato leaves. I would think what else you could do with them other than frying with belacan, so I would mix it with wasabi sauce - things like that.

Now, it's what you can do with pandan, what you can add to pandan sponge cake, for example.

When I tell my European friends that there's no artificial colouring in the pandan cake, they would go: "No way, what cake can look like this?"

I tell them it's from the juice of a plant and they go: "But it looks like The Incredible Hulk."

If you could choose anyone in the world to have a meal with, who would that be?

My parents because they are the people who influence me.

I'd take them to a place they would normally not go to, such as The Fat Duck in Bray. I would love to see the expression on my mum's face.

My parents are into just Chinese cuisine and that kind of experience can be very interesting for them.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on June 05, 2016, with the headline 'Eating what makes her feel good'. Print Edition | Subscribe