People throng Strangers' Reunion to support cancer-stricken chef

Strangers' Reunion (above) was packed at lunchtime yesterday after the cafe posted on Facebook that they would be open on Tuesdays to help raise funds for their cancerstricken head chef Sebastian Tan.
Strangers' Reunion (above) was packed at lunchtime yesterday after the cafe posted on Facebook that they would be open on Tuesdays to help raise funds for their cancerstricken head chef Sebastian Tan.PHOTO: ANJALI RAGURAMAN
Strangers' Reunion was packed at lunchtime yesterday after the cafe posted on Facebook that they would be open on Tuesdays to help raise funds for their cancerstricken head chef Sebastian Tan (above).
Strangers' Reunion was packed at lunchtime yesterday after the cafe posted on Facebook that they would be open on Tuesdays to help raise funds for their cancerstricken head chef Sebastian Tan (above).PHOTO: STRANGERS’ REUNION

Crowds turned up at Strangers' Reunion cafe in Kampong Bahru Road yesterday, all wanting to help raise funds for its cancer-stricken head chef.

At noon, when the cafe opened, there was already a queue of about 30 people outside the cafe and by 12.45pm, it was full.

The cafe and its sister outlet, Curious Palette in Prinsep Street, are both usually closed on Tuesdays.

But both will open on that day to raise funds for him. The staff are volunteering to work free of charge, and the takings will go towards paying for head chef Sebastian Tan's cancer treatment.

The aim is to raise about $100,000, so the cafes will continue to open on Tuesdays until they reach the target. As of 4pm yesterday, Strangers' Reunion had raised $3,000.

Chef Tan, a Malaysian citizen who has worked at the cafe since it opened in 2013, has no personal insurance.

He was diagnosed with stage four cancer, which spread from one lung to the other, and also to his brain, bones and lymph nodes.

Among those present was a group of healthcare professionals from the nearby Singapore General Hospital. The group of five had seen a Facebook post by the cafe, which has since been shared more than 1,500 times, about the chef's dire situation and the initiative to raise funds for him.

"Working in a hospital, we see these things first-hand with patients, and we empathise with his situation," says Ms Maya Sofhiana, 25, a transplant coordinator.

The chef, who is 26, was diagnosed with lung cancer after he sprained his ankle during a basketball game with his colleagues in October and suffered a relentless bout of hiccups.

Speaking to The Straits Times from Johor, he says two doctors told him he had acid reflux, but a scan of his lungs at the Singapore General Hospital showed there were white spots on his lungs.

While his grandfather also had lung cancer, doctors told him there was little chance it was hereditary.

The chef is the oldest of three children and his family is from Johor. His father runs a gasoline business while his mother is a housewife.

Sounding weak, he says: "I'm doing fine."

But he adds that his hair has started to fall out and there are ulcers in his mouth as a result of radiotherapy. He has undergone 10 sessions so far.

He says he is grateful to his colleagues for helping with his medical bills. "I can't thank them enough, I can't say any more to them," he says, choking up.

Many of those in line to have a meal at the restaurant and contribute to the cafe's Save-A-Stranger initiative also had cancer affect their lives.

Mr Kenneth Lai, a 31-year-old photographer, went to the cafe with his parents, both retirees. He was moved by the chef's story. "My own grandmother died of cancer so I can understand his plight," he says.

The cafe's co-founder, Mr Ryan Kieran Tan, 30, hopes to accommodate everyone who comes through the doors and has streamlined the menu so that his team can get food out efficiently.

There are about seven staff at the front of house, and another five running the kitchen. He says: "Based on the number of seats, I don't think we can accommodate so many people. We've stocked up as much as possible, but we'll see."

Some of the staff working the floor yesterday no longer work at the cafe, but felt compelled to go back and help.

Ms Denise Tan, a student at Nanyang Technological University, left her job at the cafe last year to focus on her studies.

The 20-year-old says the chef is a very cheerful person, who likes to tease his colleagues.

"He would make the situation less tense because it can get very stressful in an environment where people are waiting for their food," she says.

She says seeing both old and new staff helping out is heartwarming.

"I don't have enough money to donate so I just wanted to help in any way I can," she adds.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 09, 2015, with the headline 'People throng Strangers' Reunion to support cancer-stricken chef'. Print Edition | Subscribe