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Foodie Confidential

Ready to Savour

Events company executive director Darren Chen is an adventurous diner

He might bring chefs from Michelin-starred restaurants to Singapore for his food events, but Mr Darren Chen, executive director of events company Savour, is not particularly fond of high-end restaurants.

The 38-year-old, who runs the annual casual food festival, says: "It's not my kind of dining. I don't need three waiters standing around me for a long and boring four-hour meal. And I don't remember what I eat, unless it's negative."

While he believes that the Michelin guide still sells well, he is uncertain about the parameters now, with chefs and hawkers both receiving stars. "We are used to the European style of the Michelin star, so I'm not sure what the standard is.

"The guide's image used to be very snooty, perhaps now they want to cater to the everyman," says Mr Chen.

Instead of dining at chi-chi restaurants, he prefers coffee shops.


Mr Darren Chen (above) prefers eating at coffee shops to Michelin-starred restaurants. ST PHOTO: DON CHI

He may be perspiring and on his third glass of cold barley, but speaking to The Sunday Times over bak kut teh at Old Tiong Bahru Bak Kut Teh is "more me", he says. The eatery is his go-to place when he feels like eating the pork rib dish.

"We have a 'today feels like what' day," he says. "If we feel like ramen, we go to Ramen Santouka at The Central and, for prawn noodles, we go to Beach Road Prawn Mee in East Coast Road. I go to Yuhua Village Food Centre for wonton mee from Fei Fei Roasted Noodle and Far East Plaza for chicken rice from Hainanese Delicacy."

The third and final instalment of Savour this year is the upcoming Savour Christmas, which runs from Nov 17 to 20 at Bayfront Avenue, next to the Marina Bay Sands Exhibition Centre. Admission is free and dishes will be priced at either $6 or $12 each.

Mr Chen also runs pop-up dining series 4XFour and $100Gourmet, a dining programme where Citibank credit cardmembers pay just $100++ for a six-course meal cooked by a visiting chef and hosted in a local restaurant.

The Malaysia-born entrepreneur also has fond memories of his growing-up days in a shophouse in Batu Pahat, where his parents reside. His Hakka father, Dr Chen Fun Sing, 70, is a dentist, and his Peranakan mother, Evelyn, 62, assists him.

His sister Doreena, 41, a former literature teacher, lives in Saudi Arabia. Mr Chen and his wife Mandy Chew, 31, who works in an asset management company, live in a four-room HDB flat in Clementi with a 13-year-old pet rabbit. They have no children.

He recalls: "The shophouse was next to a dark and dirty longkang (Malay for drain). The level of food hygiene was zero. We would go out the back door, turn right and be at the kopitiam where the toast was grilled on the hotplate that was boiling the kopi. We still ate it anyway - those were the days."

What are your childhood memories of food?

We have popiah days, where everything is made from scratch - we buy only the skin. Peranakan dishes taste better over time and we would eat leftovers of buah keluak and itek tim (duck and salted vegetable soup). Nowadays, we barely keep things overnight and throw everything that's not fresh.

Growing up, you used to go to Malacca to eat every fortnight. What would you recommend?

I try to go to Malacca a few times a year now, especially for Chinese New Year. Opposite the Ramada Plaza Melaka, behind The Majestic Malacca, there is Restoran Lee, where I go for crab in evaporated milk with chilli padi. Around the corner of Ramada Plaza Melaka, there is a wonton mee stall by day and, at night, someone takes up a space at the stall to sell youtiao, ham chim pang and butterfly dough fritters for just one hour.

At a coffee shop next to Newton Food Court (along Jalan Parameswara), I go to the Hong Kong Chee Cheong Fun stall for chee cheong fun with dark sauce. The rice flour rolls are very thin and the hawker making it works like a machine. I don't eat any other chee cheong fun - they are all too thick.

For desserts such as ice kacang, ice longan and chendol, I go to the old-school Tai Chong Ice Cafe at 42 Jalan Bunga Raya.

While Jonker Street is mostly touristy, I have been going to Kedai Kopi Chung Wah (18 Jalan Hang Jebat) for chicken rice balls since I was a kid and the owner's son was a teenager. Now the son runs the shop.

  • WHAT WOULD YOUR LAST MEAL BE?

  • Anything my mum cooks. She still cooks when we pray for my late grandmother. There’ll be dishes such as itek tim, babi pongteh (braised pork with fermented soy bean), buah keluak and ikan chilli garam. Then I can share my last meal with my grandmother.

Can you cook?

Yes, but while other cooks are very method-driven, I just whack and taste because I want speed. I must be able to cook everything within a maximum of half an hour. It doesn't take that long to steam a fish and stir-fry vegetables. My wife does stir-fried chicken noodles and a fantastic lotus root soup.

What are your favourite snacks?

I love Japanese biscuit Hello Panda, Mamee noodle snack and Cadbury Dairy Milk Fruit & Nut. My wife also makes konnyaku jelly for me. She has a friend who makes the traditional layered agar agar and I can finish half of it in one sitting.

Do you have a favourite foodie country?

I don't think I've ever had a bad meal in Italy. I could live there. After all, pasta is like our noodles and risotto is rice.

Are you an adventurous diner?

I'll eat anything that's in front of me. I've had snake, but never eaten dog or cat. If you put a tiger's penis in front of me, I'll eat it.

In your experience with Savour in Singapore and Shanghai, what do you notice about people's eating habits?

In Shanghai, the festival has become more seafood-driven because that's what people like. If it's tiger prawns versus duck, everyone goes for the prawns.

In Singapore, it's all about value. People will order two "standard" dishes and one experimental dish. So if it's burger versus ceviche, diners will take the burger. Of course, everyone loves anything with truffles, wagyu, lobster and foie gras.

Would you ever consider doing a hawker version of Savour?

I'm not sure how it would work here, but it could do well in China as Singapore's products are highly regarded there. I would take bak kut teh, chicken rice and nasi lemak.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on October 16, 2016, with the headline 'Ready to Savour'. Print Edition | Subscribe