Being a chef was investment analyst Wilson Low's childhood ambition.
Growing up, his interest in cooking was piqued while helping his grandmother and father wash and chop ingredients before they fired up the wok for family meals. Though the chores were tiring, he relished the opportunity to observe them cooking.
After completing his O levels, he considered joining the Singapore Hotel and Tourism Education Centre (Shatec) to learn to be a cook, but his mother was concerned about opting for such "an unconventional career". His father died more than four years ago. Mr Low says: "I didn't want to disappoint my mum and I was quite uncertain of my future then."
He took up an electronics engineering course in Singapore Polytechnic and went on to do an economics and finance degree in RMIT at SIM University.
Now 35, he is giving his childhood dream a shot. In April this year, he enrolled in the part-time WSQ Certificate in Culinary Arts (Asian Cuisine) course conducted by the Asian Culinary Institute (ACI).
He had chanced upon an Instagram post by a friend who had attended the institute's cooking classes. Knowing that SkillsFuture credits can be used to offset course fees also helped.
Over the past four months, he got a taste of working in a professional kitchen, picked up knife and food-hygiene skills and learnt to cook more than 10 dishes such as Hainanese pork chop and achar.
He put his cooking skills to good use at last month's Culinary Star Quest competition. Organised by the ACI, the competition aims to unearth aspiring culinary talents, aged 18 to 50, to work in the food and beverage industry.
Mr Low beat 14 others to clinch the top prize in the 11/2-hour-long competition, during which participants had to cook a plate of fried rice and a dish centred on a mystery ingredient - chicken.
He whipped up garlic fried rice and his older sister's version of chicken stew, which was a hit with the judges, including celebrity chef Eric Teo.
His secret to a good chicken stew? "The onions, potatoes and carrots need to be cooked for 30 minutes until they caramelise in the broth," Mr Low says.
A fan of reality cooking television shows, such as celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmare, Mr Low had an "adrenaline-pumping" taste of cooking within time constraints.
He recalls: "My mind went blank a few times as there were so many people watching me cook. I had to pretend I was cooking alone at home. "
Following his success, he advanced to a Higher Certificate course in culinary arts yesterday and is working towards attaining a Diploma in Culinary Arts. He is considering a career switch to become a chef when he graduates next year.
He says his wife, a 34-year-old accountant, has been his pillar of support during the cooking course, from buying kitchen tools for him to accompanying him to the library for "cooking research". The couple have no children.
Asked about making the transition from an office job to the kitchen, he says: "I will be venturing into uncharted territory, but nothing ventured, nothing gained."
What is the biggest thing you learnt from the cooking course?
The roll-cutting technique for chopping vegetables, which does not bruise the ingredients. It is easy, fast and requires less energy than chopping.
WHAT WOULD YOUR LAST MEAL BE?
My father's ngoh hiang and my grandmother's cockle omelette.
What is a surprisingly complicated dish that you have learnt?
French fries. I thought it involved just deep-frying strips of potatoes, but it is such a hassle to prepare. You need to wash the potatoes to remove excess starch, cut them into strips, boil and dry them and place them in a deep freezer to ensure they will be crispy when fried.
What is the toughest dish to cook?
My late father's recipe for ngoh hiang. He used a mix of lean and fatty pork in sliced and minced forms. That gave the meat roll a good bite.
I am still trying to figure out the proportions of the various cuts to achieve the same taste.
What two dishes would you take to a potluck party?
Roast pork (sio bak). Although it is time-consuming to prepare, it is more satisfying to roast it at home as the skin is crispier. It is also cheaper.
I'd also cook stir-fried prawns with salted egg because the sweetness of prawns goes well with salted egg.
Your father was a big cooking influence on you. Which of his dishes is your favourite?
Deep-fried carrot cake, his signature dish. It was crispy on the outside and soft inside. He used more shredded radish than flour, which gave more flavour. He used to cook it for Chinese New Year and I am continuing this tradition in memory of him.
Which chef do you look up to?
Chef Eric Teo. Before I knew him as a judge on the competition, I had seen him on Channel 8's Love On The Plate 3, which featured chefs cooking in rural areas. I was impressed by how he was determined to cook for villagers in Hanoi despite feeling unwell.
What are some of your favourite eating places?
Ru Ji Kitchen in Redhill Food Centre. I like that the fishball noodles have a traditional taste. The fishballs are springy and have just the right amount of saltiness.
For fish soup, I join the queue at Han Kee Fish Soup at Amoy Street Food Centre, which has fresh fish slices cooked in a light broth.
The rojak at Wah Yew Food Stall in Boon Lay Place Food Village uses a light and fragrant prawn paste sauce.
Do you have any advice for those thinking of a mid-career switch?
Don't procrastinate, don't wait till next week to think about it again. Look out for training opportunities and get down to it.
If you could have a meal with anyone, who would that be?My late father and grandmother. I did not see much of my father as he worked shifts as a truck driver. I regret not jotting down their recipes for dishes I enjoyed eating.
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