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Foodie Confidential With Wong Ah Yoke

Gryphon tea brand founder Lim Tian Wee: Frying an egg with granny

Gryphon tea brand founder Lim Tian Wee cooked his first sunny-side-up when he was in Primary 3, supervised by his grandmother

Singapore tea brand Gryphon is going places.

Started 10 years ago as a subsidiary of family-owned tea-trading business Lim Lam Thye, its elegantly packaged teabags are now exported to 11 countries, including those in South-east Asia and Europe, as well as Japan and the United States.

It recently inked distribution deals for South Korea, Australia and New Zealand.

Founder Lim Tian Wee, 47, says that when he joined the family business in 2002, he had no idea how to take the company forward.

"The first four years, I kept getting rejections from customers," he recalls. "They would say, 'I like your product because it's good, but I can't put your company name on the menu because it looks funny.' It's a Chinese company, it's not hip.

"After hearing that so often, you realise it's a problem you need to address. That's how I started to bring out the branding and that was the turning point."

  • WHAT WOULD YOUR LAST MEAL BE?

  • A bowl of wonton noodles and a cup of milk tea. My helper always prepares a cup of milk tea for me when I return from a trip. The tea is a reminder of home for me. I also drink milk tea before I sleep. It has become a habit.

    It has been a constant pursuit of mine to find the prefect wonton mee. I like the wonton mee in Hong Kong.

In 2006, he came up with the brand Gryphon, which he named after the griffin, a mythical creature that was also on the logo used by the parent company for some of its products.

Under the new brand, fine teas, many of them original blends created by Mr Lim, are sealed in silk bags and packed in classy square boxes in attractive pastel colours.

As Gryphon gets ready to celebrate its 10th anniversary in October, it plans to open its first retail store. The teas have until now been marketed through restaurants, fine supermarkets and online.

It also plans to launch a new sister brand called Monogram, which lets customers come up with their own blend of teas.

Mr Lim feels it is time to introduce Monogram as consumers have become more exposed to fine products and are more savvy. "Blending tea and creating your own signature blend is a luxury," he says. "It may not be expensive, but it is one of life's little luxuries."

Customers can also get him to create bespoke teas, but that will be by appointment only.

Mr Lim has been married for 13 years to private banker Joyce Low, 45. They have no children.

What are your food memories?

I began to understand food when I was between Primary 3 and 6.

I used to live near my maternal grandma in Tiong Bahru and I would hang out at her place after school.

One day, when I was in Primary 3, I was very hungry and I asked her to fry me an egg. She looked at me and suggested I cook it myself. That was my first sunny-side-up, cooked under her supervision.

A dish that always reminds me of my childhood is chao san si, which is a Cantonese stir-fry of julienned pickled vegetables, mushroom and pork. I ate that almost every week because I kept telling my grandma I wanted to eat it. I will always associate the dish with her.

Do you eat out much?

I don't except when I'm travelling. I enjoy cooking though. Recently, I made slow-baked baby back ribs. It took 21/2 hours to get them tender before I seared them. But that gave me a lot of satisfaction.

How often do you cook?

I try to cook once a week. Every week, my godchildren come to my place and I'll cook something child- friendly that adults can also eat.

The kids eat things such as steamed broccoli and steamed cod fish. Recently, I cooked steak Milanese (thinly-sliced breaded steak) for them, which they enjoyed.

Once a month, my team at work comes to my place for a meeting and I'll cook. This week, I'll be preparing Korean food - fried chicken, japchae (sweet potato noodles), tteokbokki (fried rice cake) and watermelon soju.

I learn everything through YouTube.

Do you have any specialities?

My Hainanese chicken rice is popular with my friends.

I'm not good at cooking Chinese though - it's too complicated for me. Western food is technique- driven - you can cook good food if you get the technique right. But for Chinese food, you need a certain flair and I'm just not getting it.

Do you research where to eat when you travel?

Yes, the easiest way is to look at guides. But I'm also not short of friends who travel. We collect the cards of restaurants we like and share them.

Where are some of the memorable places you have eaten abroad?

On my last trip to France, I had good food in a bistro by chef Alain Ducasse. I like soulful food that shows a lot of passion in the cooking.

And on a recent trip to Florence with my wife and some friends, we visited the Antinori winery, which is one of the larger wine producers there. It has a beautiful restaurant over its office. The food at our lunch was impeccable, the pasta was al dente and the meat cooked to perfection.

On a day trip to Siena from Florence, we visited a restaurant, Osteria Attica, that was unpretentious, but every dish was a hit.

Where else do you like to eat?

Japan never fails to impress me with just simple food - it could be a humble bowl of noodles at a train station. I enjoy sitting beside another working man, enjoying a bowl of udon with some tempura and egg. That's so comforting.

Where do you eat when you dine out in Singapore?

I eat mostly Chinese food, usually at Hua Ting and Jade Palace. I like the fried frog legs with ginger at Jade Palace. It also does a good claypot beef brisket. I also like to go to Aura for brunch on weekends.

Do you enjoy hawker food?

I do, but I think Singaporeans underpay hawkers. If we don't start paying them more, soon we won't have these hawkers around any more.

I wonder why they are so uptight about increasing prices and worried about losing customers. It's okay to increase as long as they provide quality. I'd rather pay them than a foodcourt operator, which in the end goes to paying the landlord.

If we can pay more, our hawkers can buy better-quality ingredients and I think we'll have a very strong hawker culture.

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

My wife. Her companionship is something I enjoy. We don't have children and as we grow old, we have only each other to depend on. I can't think of choosing any other person to dine with besides her.

• Follow Wong Ah Yoke on Twitter@STahyoke

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on July 31, 2016, with the headline 'Frying an egg with granny'. Print Edition | Subscribe