Long queues formed yesterday at Ah Tai Hainanese Chicken Rice at Maxwell Road Food Centre, after word got out that its cook was behind the famous Tian Tian Hainanese Chicken Rice three stalls away.
Just last week, business was slow, but yesterday, the chef, Mr Wong Liang Tai, told Life! that he sold about 500 plates at lunch time. He ran out of chickens before 3pm.
More than 30 people were in the queue at its peak around 12.30pm. Customers, some of whom waited close to an hour, whipped out cameras and mobile phones to shoot pictures of the crush.
Passers-by pointed at the stall and commented that “that’s where the Tian Tian man has gone”.
Chicken rice sellers at two rival stalls opposite resorted to shooing the snaking line of Ah Tai patrons away from their storefronts to make a clear path for their customers.
The Sunday Times had reported that Mr Wong, 53, set up the stall last month after he was sacked by Tian Tian in October last year. They said he shouted at staff, he said he felt under-appreciated.
Most of those interviewed said they went to the stall after reading the story.
Others had hoped to visit Tian Tian, but found its shutters down – the stall is usually closed on Mondays – and joined the Ah Tai queue instead.
An ardent fan of Mr Wong’s chicken rice said that Tian Tian has not been the same since he left.
“I was a Tian Tian customer for around 20 years,” said Mrs Angie Tay, a management consultant in her 50s. “And when I went back after he left, the chilli and rice were different, the chicken was chopped clumsily and the overall standard had dropped.
“I stopped going to Tian Tian and was really happy to find out from the newspaper that he had set up shop here – and for 50 cents cheaper too.”
She pointed out that several of his co-workers had left Tian Tian to join him at Ah Tai.
“How can he be a bad colleague if people came over with him?” she asked.
Investment trader I.W. Ooi, 56, agreed. He said: “The soup here at Ah Tai is so good I have to lift the bowl to my mouth with both hands because using a spoon takes too long.
The stall ran out of chicken feet when I got there, but the spare parts are just so soft.
“I normally would never do this, but I just had to come back to the stall to compliment the chef.”
Even tourists were caught up in the chicken craze.
San Francisco-based physician Anthony Chiu, 46, learnt of the dispute between Ah Tai and Tian Tian from the article.
“My hotel is nearby, so I decided to give the chicken rice a try,” said Dr Chiu. “The chicken breast is very tender and the vegetables are very fresh.” In the interest of fairness, though, he said he would patronise Tian Tian today.
But not everyone was impressed.
Administrative officer Jeremy Boon, 27, queued for more than half an hour for his plate of chicken rice.
He said: “The chicken here is not cut well. The skin is too thick. The chilli is dry.”
Calling the queue “terrible”, he said he would go back to Tian Tian for the original deal.
Mr Wong told Life!: “Sunday and Monday brought a huge increase in traffic because my old regulars saw the article and recognised me. They didn’t know where I went after I was forced out of Tian Tian, so I was very happy to see them again.”
Mr Colin Shia, 52, an airline executive, called ahead to order chicken rice for himself, his wife and his god-daughter.
He said: “Taste-wise, it’s about the same as Tian Tian’s. But service-wise, Ah Tai is so much friendlier.
“They display the ginger here, they give you as much condiments as you ask for.
“Tian Tian is run like a big business, with additional outlets and many employees – they just serve you your food and you go. It’s a lot more personalised with Mr Wong.”
This story was first published in the Straits Times on April 24, 2012.