Getting to know: Food critic Wong Ah Yoke

Food critic Wong Ah Yoke enjoying a meal in Hong Kong.
Food critic Wong Ah Yoke enjoying a meal in Hong Kong. ST PHOTO: DESMOND WEE

This short Q&A series with ST's beat reporters lets readers meet the person behind the byline. These are the experts who will be answering readers' questions in our new askST section.  

1. How long have you been writing about food, and what made you so passionate about writing food?  

It's been 32 short years, how time flies when you're having fun! My first writing assignment on my first day at work in my first job was actually to cover a Greek food festival. That was in 1984 when I joined the now-defunct Singapore Monitor as a reporter.

I started a weekly food review column for that newspaper later that year - something I continued when I joined The Straits Times in 1992.

I've always loved eating, and all my family members do too, I guess it's a Cantonese trait. Or I'm just born into a family of gluttons. Even as a poor undergraduate, I would read the food reviews in newspapers although at the time I couldn't afford to eat at any of those places I read about.

2. What are some of the biggest challenges of being a food writer or breaking into food writing?

My expanding waistline, of course. This job is a health hazard. Unlike wine writers, food writers cannot spit out the food. That would be so rude. And gross.

Another thing is that you always have to be the one to suggest the restaurant whenever you plan to meet friends over a meal. It's like a bus driver's holiday, you never get a break.

In the past, the only way to get into food writing was to be asked by the editor. But these days, anyone can start his food blog and call himself a food writer. Whether anyone wants to read you is, however, not guaranteed.

3. What are some of the greatest joys? 

Getting to taste all sorts of wonderful food. And the fact that you never stop learning, because there is always something you haven't seen or tasted before. And, er, getting my company to foot the bill for the meals at restaurants I review. Well, most of the meals anyway.

4. And the downsides of reviewing and writing on food?

Many people think I never have to pay for any of my meals at restaurants. But that's far from the truth. In actual fact, the biggest chunk of my expenses goes to dining out because I sometimes visit a restaurant more than once before I write my review, but I'd claim for only one meal. But if I am to write an honest review, that is something I need to do to be sure that the restaurant is consistent.

A negative review may be fun to read, but I find it really tough to write. I'd agonise over whether I have been fair to the restaurant. But so far, I've been able to sleep at night. And of course, I can never go back to those restaurants because the staff would probably spit into my food.

The other thing is something people may not think of as a downside, but it can be. It's being recognised and having wait staff constantly ask you how the food is. It's fine if they do it once or twice, but I was once asked that question six times over a three-course meal. Sometimes, I'd tell them it was bad just to see how they'd react. That is also a good way to judge how well the service staff handles complaints.  

5. Where around the world has food writing taken you - and do you have a favorite destination?

Most of the time, it's places around the region such as Hong Kong and Australia. I've also been to South Korea, New Zealand and Hungary. But I also try to check out popular restaurants when I go on holiday because the global food scene has become so exciting. My favourites are Hong Kong and Japan, which I have been to a number of times. They have so many good restaurants and each time I go, I'd discover new places I would recommend to friends.

6. Do you eat to live or live to eat?

I live to eat, definitely. That is why I do not really watch my diet and eat anything I enjoy, including pork belly and fat-laden wagyu beef. But everything should be eaten in moderation, of course, even food that is supposed to be good for you. I'm lucky in that I enjoy all kinds of food, so I usually eat a balanced meal comprising both the good and sinful stuff. It's so sad if you eat to live because you would miss out on one of the greatest joys in life. 

7. How many meals do you eat in a typical day?

Just three meals - breakfast, lunch and dinner. Breakfast is the lightest as it's usually the only meal where I can control the amount of food. Lunch is often invited meals from publicists who want me to try new restaurants or new menus. Dinner is when I do my unannounced tastings for my reviews in The Straits Times. I do not eat after 10pm, so supper is a strict no-no.

8. Do you cook? What is a simple dinner you can make to nourish your body and soul?

I do not have much opportunity to eat at home, so I do not cook very often. But I do enjoy it. And unless I'm having friends over, I cook very simple meals. A Cantonese soup that has brewed for hours or a congee with meat and seafood is my kind of comfort food. That's the Cantonese boy in me. 

But when I'm lazy, it's just a simple noodle soup, maybe with yong tau foo or a chicken drumstick that I buy at the wet market. And when I'm really, really lazy, it's instant noodles, my guilty indulgence. But I make myself feel less guilty by adding lots of vegetables to it.

9. Any tips for people who want to become food writers (or writers in general)?

Do not feel squeamish about food. You should try everything at least once. If you don't like it, you don't have to eat it again. But you may find that you do, and then you have one more food item to enjoy. Isn't that wonderful?

And never write for the restaurateur. Always write for your reader.