Seasoned chief

Madam Soon Puay Keow is used to drawing looks and whispers when she dines at restaurants here.

"People will mumble 'Spring Court, Spring Court' when they see me," says the 73-year-old matriarch of the family-run Spring Court Restaurant in Upper Cross Street.

The ripple of excitement suggests a celebrity sighting and, indeed, Madam Soon is a notable figure in the dining scene here, synonymous with one of Singapore's oldest Chinese restaurants.

She has been running Spring Court, set up by her father-in-law in 1929 at the iconic Great World Amusement Park, for close to four decades. Long-time patrons know her as the youthful face of the storied dining institution because she is there almost every day; walking among the tables and making sure customers are having a good time.

Even if she is not instantly recognisable, her old-world glamour has a way of commanding attention.

She shows up for the interview at the four-storey, 15,000 sq ft Spring Court restaurant in a full-length black-and-white floral organza dress, tailor-made to her design. A bakelite necklace, two shiny rings, a Patek Philippe watch and sensible black pumps complete her outfit and show off her effortless style.

Her long hair, pulled back into a loose bun, frames a confident, barely made-up face and her dainty features match her gentle voice.

Traditional Singapore Chinese cuisine is Spring Court's legacy. People often say food, even simple dishes such as mee siam and laksa, tasted better in the past. Everyone longs for the goodold taste.

MADAM SOON PUAY KEOW, managing director of Spring Court Restaurant, on preserving the authentic taste of its food

She could easily pass for a socialite-restaurateur who never gets her hands dirty - indeed, she pursues pastimes of high society such as ballroom dancing and ikebana - except she is not one. Beneath her poise, this lady boss is all pluck and spunk.

It is her never-say-die spirit and hands-on approach to business that saw Spring Court progress beyond its mid-century mark.

The year was 1978 and the shutters were coming down on Great World. The entertainment complex would be sold off soon and Spring Court's future seemed bleak. Its founder Ho Loke Yee was too old to continue running the 600-plus- seat restaurant known in those days by its Cantonese name, Wing Choon Yuen. No one in the extended Ho clan wanted to take over the gruelling business.

Madam Soon, who married Mr Ho's son, Hun Cheong, in 1969, had until then never worked at Spring Court.

The third of six children born to a businessman father and housewife mother, she worked as a clerical officer at a bank after completing her education at Nanyang Girls' High School. But she found it hard to say goodbye to the iconic restaurant.

"Closing Spring Court would mean the loss of its legacy, which seemed like such a pity," says Madam Soon in Mandarin. "So I told my then-husband, who was working as a Chinese-English translator, 'Why don't we give it a try?'"

He was hesitant to take the risk - they had three young children to provide for. But she was dauntless.

"I felt we had nothing to be afraid of; the future is ours to make," she says. "We will give it our all and, if the business fails, we can always try something else since we are young."

Comfort food that tastes of home

She eventually won him over and, with her father-in-law's blessing and the support of the restaurant's staff, Spring Court re-opened that year at Oriental Theatre in New Bridge Road.

Her husband oversaw the kitchen while she mostly worked front of house, taking telephone reservations and food orders for the 200-seat restaurant.

"I worked longer hours than at the bank and, yes, we were tired, but happy," she says.

One thing, however, worried her - the restaurant's inconspicuous frontage. Its new home was tucked away on the second floor of the building.

To draw people's attention to the restaurant, she would stand on the ground floor and look up in the direction of Spring Court.

When she sensed curious passers-by following her gaze, she would walk upstairs.

"They would follow me and enter the restaurant," she says gleefully, still thrilled after all these years that the idea, which came to her "naturally", worked.

Business at the new location proved to be brisk and the $100,000 bank loan they took to start the restaurant was quickly repaid. Her business savvy also led her to launch a popular, long- running promotion at the restaurant, offering diners a Peking duck for less than a dollar.

The deal was introduced in 1997, a year when the restaurant faced two major crises.

The first was the prospect of imminent closure. Madam Soon and her husband had divorced and they wanted to sell off Spring Court but there were no buyers.

Her family and friends urged her to give up the restaurant but having run it for 20 years, she could not bring herself to wind it up.

After she took over the restaurant, the Asian financial crisis hit.

"It was one thing after another and I was shouldering all of this alone. It was upsetting," she says. "But I kept things to myself. I didn't want others to worry. I told myself, 'There must be a way out of this.'"

She speaks calmly of those tough times, but her eyes slowly turn misty. She blinks to hold back tears and, when she fails, she dabs her eyes hastily.

Ask if she ever broke down in private during this difficult period, she says the only time she "wanted to cry" was when she was moved by a poem the youngest of her three children, Stephanie, now a dermatologist, composed to cheer her on.

Her eldest son, Mike, runs a commercial property investment business and her older daughter, Giao Pik, works in a bank.

Determined to reverse Spring Court's fortunes, she launched the Peking duck promotion - diners could enjoy the delicacy for just 69 cents with a minimum spend of $69, an amount easily exceeded by ordering two signature Spring Court dishes. The prices mirrored the restaurant's 69th anniversary that year.

The bargain proved irresistible and queues quickly formed. The promotion was so successful that it ran for another 17 years until last year.

What keeps generations of diners returning to Spring Court, however, is the taste of its food.

Mr David Lim, 60, a division director at a property firm and a Spring Court customer since its Oriental Theatre days, says: "Its food is traditional Singapore Chinese food, comfort food. It tastes of home."

The signature dishes include steamed chicken with ham and kailan, cabbage with dried scallop, claypot chilli crab and a larger-thanaverage popiah packed with more than 10 ingredients, including fish meat and shredded seaweed.

To preserve the authentic flavours of its food, Madam Soon, who is a skilful cook at home, insists on doing things at the restaurant the old-fashioned way. This means ingredients are still cut by hand instead of machine and stock is made from scratch.

Her 46-year-old son, Mike, who also helps run Spring Court, says he has tried in the past to get her to switch to less labour-intensive cooking methods, but she would not be persuaded.

He says: "A lot of restaurants these days use machines and combination ovens, which get things done faster, but the taste is different. I see the pros and cons and why she doesn't want to make the switch blindly."

Productivity, though, is important to Madam Soon. "I tell the cooks they have to be quick. And when it gets busy, the distance that usually takes two steps for a waiter to walk should be covered in one."

This credo is one of several which she mentions during the two- hour-long chat. Others include: "I tell my staff they need to take pride in their job. Their mission is to promote Singapore's food culture." And: "The plate that a chef sends out to a guest is a mirror of who he is, so it should be presentable."

These rallying calls point to the high standard she sets for the restaurant and her no-nonsense approach when she needs to get down to serious business.

Her son says: "When the going gets tough, she'll gather the troops and tell them, 'If you want to keep your job, we have to be in this together.'"

And her 50-strong staff respect her for that.

Her son says: "In 2003, when Sars hit, I saw the head chef help with the washing of plates. This was otherwise unheard of."

Mr Cao Wen, 35, who rose through the restaurant's ranks in five years to become a supervisor, says Madam Soon is a fair boss. "This is a place that lets anyone who is willing to work hard fulfil his potential."

Having seen the restaurant through ups and downs over the last four decades, Madam Soon, a grandmother of seven, is preparing to hand over the reins of the restaurant to her son and the team of restaurant managers.

Ask her about plans for the eatery, she says it is up to her son to call the shots. But she does have one wish.

"I hope Spring Court can become a 100-year-old restaurant," she says. "If that happens, we will have a big celebration because it is an honour to have the support and favour of the people for so long."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 25, 2016, with the headline 'Seasoned chief'. Print Edition | Subscribe