Foodie Confidential

Chope the good food

Mr Arrif Ziaudeen, chief executive of restaurant reservation platform Chope, used to visit featured restaurants, take pictures and write reviews himself

Because he runs an online restaurant reservation platform, many people think that Mr Arrif Ziaudeen, 35, eats at restaurants a lot.

The chief executive of Chope says that was true in the past, but not anymore.

"I used to eat at restaurants eight times a week, but I cut down after I put on 8kg in 11/2 years," he says. "It's a job hazard."

He says his wife Kwee Wei Lin, 40, chief executive of Millenia Hotel and vice-president of Pontiac Land Group, also insisted that he stop eating out so much. The couple have two daughters, aged two years and two months.

These days, he eats out three to four times a week, and says he is "on the way" to losing the weight he put on.

He can afford to eat less at restaurants because the business has grown and he no longer has to do everything himself.


    I would like to have lunch at three-Michelin-starred The French Laundry in California, which is helmed by American chef Thomas Keller. I had an amazing lunch there in 2008, which I remember to this day. The meal lasted 41/2 hours. Since this is my last meal, eating here would give me the most time to enjoy great food in a great setting.

The Singaporean, who has an MBA from Stanford University, co-founded Chope with two others in 2011, with the aim of making dining out easier.

The idea came to him in 2011 when he was having coffee with a friend. He recalls lamenting that "you can book everything online, but not restaurants", and they spoke about setting up a website to do so.

His friend suggested the name "Chope" and, upon realising that the Internet address had not yet been taken, Mr Ziaudeen bought it for $12.

He left his job in the finance sector four months later and put down a five-figure sum ("the bulk of my savings") to set up the business.

His co-founders are currently shareholders, but do not participate in the running of the business.

Back then, he and his team reviewed all the restaurants themselves. That entailed going for meals, writing the reviews, taking pictures and conceptualising how they wanted to package the information.

They used to work out of a "dingy office" in Orchard Towers. "Walk past massage parlours and karaoke bars and there we were," he says.

Now, Chope's local office is in Purvis Street. The company has a presence in eight cities, including Shanghai, Thailand and Indonesia, and Mr Ziaudeen has 80 staff across the cities, with editorial teams who look after the content.

From just 12 restaurant partners in 2011 when it launched, Chope now works with about 2,000 of them. Singapore Press Holdings is a minority shareholder in Chope.

"We've come a long way," says Mr Ziaudeen, who has an older brother, a doctor.

"When we started five years ago, we never imagined that we could change dining habits in Singapore and beyond. But we did it. One person at a time, one restaurant at a time."

What are your food memories as a child?

My mother is Chinese and my father is Indian. Growing up with parents of different cultures, I could be having chee cheong fun (rice noodle rolls) for breakfast one day and croissants the next, or spaghetti for lunch one day and biryani the next.

I recall my father having a rather Western palate though. He had a thing for tuna sandwiches for years because he felt it was a healthy snack.

I can't explain this, but he also could never get enough of burgers.

What are some of your favourite restaurants for special occasions?

I have two favourites: Fine-dining restaurant Odette at the National Gallery Singapore and Japanese restaurant Shoukouwa at One Fullerton. Both have two Michelin stars.

Odette is a real gastronomic experience, especially where plating and presentation are concerned. I've not had such an experience anywhere else in Singapore.

There's nothing fancy or showy about the food at Shoukouwa, but the freshness of its ingredients is incredible. My favourite dish there is the crab rice with uni and ikura.

Where would you head to for dessert?

Sunday Folks in Chip Bee Gardens. It is so generous with its soft serve. I hate places which give just half a waffle and a teaspoon of ice cream.

Also, The Fabulous Baker Boy in River Valley Road. Its chocolate chip pancakes are so rich and generously filled with chocolate chips. We've been trying to re-create it at home for the longest time, but have not succeeded yet.

Do you have a go-to place for comfort food?

Regent Singapore's Summer Palace. I love the sweet and sour pork, dim sum and fried rice. The dishes are not fancy, but to me, it's basic comfort food done really well.

Would you travel for food?

Yes. Food is the main reason for us to travel. In fact, we plan all our overseas trips around food. A craving will hit and we'll say, let's go!

What are some of your overseas food haunts?

In Hong Kong, Kam's Roast Goose. It's a bit of a long wait - you could wait for an hour to get in - but the goose is delicious.

My favourite restaurant in Bangkok is Err Urban Rustic Thai. It does a great roast chicken. It comes with crispy skin that restaurant staff very carefully, almost surgically remove from the meat when they serve the dish. It's very cool.

What is the most important meal of the day to you?

It's dinner. My wife and I make sure we have dinner together with our daughters. It's a shared experience, a constant in our days - no one starts until everyone is there.

What does food mean to you and your wife?

Food is what brought us together. We started dating in 2010 and our dating life was about exploring new restaurants together. Even with two children now, we make time for a date night every week and we try an exciting new restaurant each time.

Who is more adventurous in the kitchen, you or your wife?

We're both foodies, but my wife is the great cook. She trained at the French Culinary Institute in New York City and is always trying different recipes. She has an entire bookshelf dedicated to recipe books.

She does a great roast chicken where the skin stays crispy on the outside while the inside remains tender and juicy and can make really authentic borscht - a Russian beetroot soup.

I'm the beneficiary of all that she cooks.

As a foodie, is there anything you find hard to swallow?

Around six years ago, I did a short volunteer stint in Congo, Africa.

As part of the concluding celebration dinner for one of our projects, we caught this super cute little pig in the jungle and had to kill it, cook it and then eat it.

I didn't participate in killing it, but I witnessed its death and that made it hard to eat.

When food is nicely served to you on the plate, you can somehow dissociate what you're eating from the animal. But when you see it being killed, it's a different story.

If you could choose anyone to have a meal with, who would that be?

Colonel Sanders, founder of Kentucky Fried Chicken. I'm a huge fan of the original fried chicken because it's so delicious.

I'd love to ask him what the 11 secret spices and herbs are in the original fried chicken recipe so that the secret is not lost in history forever.

I know it was recently reported that a nephew of Sanders' may have accidentally revealed the recipe to a reporter of The Chicago Tribune. But KFC has rubbished those claims in a statement.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on September 04, 2016, with the headline Chope the good food. Subscribe