The article first appeared in The Sunday Times, Jan 18, 2014

Moulding Heman into Ironman

Chef, ceramic artist and triathlete Heman Tan overcame dyslexia and gangster past

Heman Tan opens the door to his 1,900 sq ft jumbo flat in Woodlands.

A poster of him in a chef's suit hangs on one wall, partly obscured by four racing bicycles stacked one atop the other on a rack. Many of the ceramic art pieces that dot the spacious apartment were sculpted and fired in his home studio which is equipped with a kiln, potter's wheel and work bench.

True to his artistic leanings, the 47-year-old chef, ceramic artist and Ironman triathlete is fashionably decked out in a navy blue floral shirt and a pair of powder blue slim-fit trousers.

He is polite and a little diffident, but that, he says with a laugh, has not always been the case. "You wouldn't have liked me in the past," he says. "I was a b*****d. Every word which came out from my mouth was foul."

Up until his early 20s, he was every parent's nightmare. Dyslexic and deaf in one ear, he dropped out of school in Secondary 2 and became a hell-raising gangster and drug addict.

Two people changed him: the late sculptor and Cultural Medallion winner Ng Eng Teng, and accountant Lydia Lim, who became his wife.

"And when I really matured was when I became a father," says Mr Tan, who has three children aged between eight and 13.

Driven by a hunger to make good, he conquered his learning disability and slogged tirelessly. From a humble cook, he is today the executive chef of JP Pepperdine, overseeing about 30 food outlets including 17 Jack's Place and four Hoshigaoka Japanese restaurants in everything from menu planning to quality control and training.

He says sculptor Ng, regarded by many as the Grandfather of Sculpture in Singapore, once asked him if he wanted to be an ordinary man. "I said I didn't mind. But he scolded me, saying, 'Why do you want to be an ordinary man? You only live life once. You should aspire to be someone special.'"

The third of five children of a vegetable dealer and his wife, he started life on a morbid note.

When he was five, he saw his 12-year-old sister killed in a road accident right in front of him.

"We were going to cross the road together but she stopped and told me to stay where I was and that she would come back and get me," he recalls. Then she was hit, the accident happening in front of their walk-up flat at Havelock Road.

The shock and sight of her bloodied, lifeless body traumatised him. "I couldn't touch or stand the sight of raw meat and blood or anything red for years. It took me a long time to conquer the fear," he says.

The episode probably disturbed him psychologically in other ways. It did not help that he was dyslexic and lost the hearing in his left ear after a high fever when he was 10.

He became impossible at home and in school. He joined a gang, picked up drinking and smoking at 11 and moved on to drugs including heroin at 13.

"I just couldn't cope. I could not read or spell. I could not do maths, especially multiplication and percentages," he recalls, of his days at Nan Chiau Primary School. "My teachers could not understand why my English was so poor and my Mandarin so terrible. To them, I was just lazy and naughty."

He dropped out of Bukit Merah Secondary in Secondary Two. By then, he had driven his parents - who had lost a second child to illness - to their wits' end.

He ended up in a boys' home where he stayed for more than a year after he left school. "It made me even more angry. I asked myself why they didn't want me any more and why they put me in this place?"

After he left the home, he helped out at his father's vegetable business in the mornings and at a relative's Teochew eatery in Clarke Quay in the evenings.

"I helped to wash dishes but was really interested in the cooking. I was amazed raw fish could be so delicious after steaming and suckling pig could become so golden brown and nice after roasting," he says.

Despite stints in halfway houses, he could not quit the company of his ruffian friends or his need for pills and drugs.

After national service, his parents decided to send him to England, hoping that distance from bad company would help him turn over a new leaf.

"My brother got me a job as a cook in Walker's Inn, which catered to backpackers," he says.

It was tough but the kitchen skills he picked up served him well.

"When I dealt with Caucasian customers, I had to look at their lips to fully understand what they were saying," he says.

To get around his dyslexia, he resorted to visuals and graphics to remember recipes.

Narcotics, however, were like his stalker.

He came back after a year and a half and ended up in Agape, a halfway house, where one of the directors noticed his talent in woodcarving and introduced him to Dr Ng.

The artist took him under his wing and taught him how to work with clay. "Dr Ng was very strict. He made me throw clay for nearly half a year. I was so mad," recalls Mr Tan.

ST 20150118 CHANGED 528110m

But by then, he had managed to overcome his drug habit.

Somehow, working with clay intrigued him.

"Clay is a very different medium from wood. You need to wedge it properly; you can't have air bubbles. Only when everything falls into place will you be able to fire it and come up with a nice piece. If not, it will collapse or even burst."

His fascination with the medium intensified when he found out from one of Dr Ng's students that the artist had actually stopped taking students for more than a decade.

"He said, 'Do you know how lucky you are? So many people have knocked on his door but he said no'... Dr Ng motivated me a lot. He was my spiritual father, very patient and he never gave up on me," he says.

Softly, he relates how he once asked Dr Ng why he helped him.

"He laughed and replied, 'Wo qian ni de ba.'" he says, using the Mandarin expression which means "Maybe because I owe you".

In fact, Dr Ng had so much faith in him that he helped him secure a place to study ceramics at Lasalle College of the Arts, and even took him along as his assistant when he taught at The Potteries at Stoke-on-Trent in England for a few months.

Unfortunately, Mr Tan did not finish his course at Lasalle because the sponsor for his scholarship ran into financial difficulties. Still by 1990, his works were featured in several exhibitions and could fetch a few thousand dollars.

He toyed with the idea of becoming a full-time artist but decided to concentrate on his culinary career because he felt it would help him to make a stable living. He decided to head back to London, where he spent another year at Walker's Inn.

Back in Singapore, he found work as a cook for a small cafe in the police officers' mess near the Botanic Gardens. Over the next decade, he climbed the ranks, from chef de partie to sous chef working for the likes of Prima and Seoul Garden. A chef de partie takes charge of one section of the kitchen while a sous chef is the head chef's right-hand man.

At Seoul Garden, he met his wife Lydia, who was then working in the company's accounts department. They married in 2001 despite strong objections from her parents and friends.

Mrs Tan, 52, says: "He went through a lot. What I admired was his strength in wanting to change, and overcoming what he had gone through."

She reveals a little more. "We were listening a lot to the song Kum Guan," she says, referring to the Hokkien classic titled Willing. "When you are willing to do them, many things are possible."

Just when he thought his trials were over, Mr Tan found himself grappling with another setback.

The couple had taken some loans and poured their savings into opening a restaurant cum lounge called Maxus at the International Business Park in Jurong East in 2003. But poor business and partner problems forced him to throw in the towel barely a year later, just as their first child arrived.

"It was a big lesson. I was too impatient and too impulsive," says Mr Tan, who lost a six-figure sum.

The next couple of years were spent rebuilding his career and life. It was tough as his wife had stopped working to look after their baby and was also pregnant with their second child.

He found work as a canteen manager with catering company ISS.

"I would eat at 4pm at work so that the extra dollars I saved on dinner could help to feed the family," he recalls.

It took a toll on him and his weight plummeted from 78kg to below 60kg.

Around that time, he started running as a way to cope with the stress. Swimming and cycling came next, and he decided to take part in races the following year.

Since then, he has completed countless marathons as well as three Ironman events, where participants must complete a 3.86km swim, a 180.25km bicycle ride and a 42.2km run.

As a child, he loathed such pursuits. But his mother had forced him to take swimming lessons and his father had gone out of his way to teach him how to cycle.

"It made me realise that whatever you learn will not be wasted. It will come back and be of use one day," he says.

Meanwhile, he moved up from canteen supervisor to become executive chef at ISS, overseeing more than 50 factory and hotel canteens.

He went on to work for a couple of other companies, including the JR Group - the catering arm of saucemaker Sin Hwa Dee - before becoming executive chef at JP Pepperdine in 2013.

An executive committee member of the Singapore Chefs Association, he has led local culinary teams in competitions abroad.

He has worked hard to ensure that his dyslexia does not get in the way of doing his job.

"I put a lot of pressure on myself and my staff. Because I represent the company, I make sure that every e-mail I write is correct before I send it out. I always have a dictionary with me, and whatever I do not understand, I will ask my wife."

His wife also taught him how to use spreadsheets and read numbers. "My secret weapon is my accountant wife," he says with a laugh.

Mr Tan is determined to live up to his promise to his mentor Dr Ng and become someone special. That is why he has started a Facebook page and launched a Vimeo series called The Iron Man Chef to offer not just culinary and health tips but also motivational lessons.

His only son - who is eight years old - is dyslexic too. Mr Tan plans to write a cookbook and donate the proceeds to the Dyslexia Association of Singapore to help raise awareness about the condition.

"I don't know what's next but I walk with faith. I've learnt that the journey is as important as the destination."

kimhoh@sph.com.sg

The article first appeared in The Sunday Times, Jan 18, 2014