Singapore Michelin Guide: Young blood running old hawker traditions

Many hawker stalls named on the Bib Gourmand list of the Michelin Guide Singapore are run by young people

When one is thinking of hawkers in Singapore, it is likely that the stereotypical image of an aged auntie or uncle will come to mind. After all, most of the stalls run in Singapore today continue to be helmed by older folk - gatekeepers of carefully guarded recipes and time honoured tradition.

But as the Bib Gourmand list in the inaugural Michelin Guide for Singapore would suggest, perhaps there is something to be said for young blood reinventing the industry.

Of the 34 establishments honoured last Thursday, at least nine are run by young first-time hawkers or multi-generational families, with the second and third generation stepping up to the plate to keep their traditional family businesses alive.

Even at well-known establishments such as Tian Tian Hainanese Chicken Rice in Maxwell Road Food Centre, Balestier Road Hoover Rojak in Whampoa Makan Place and 328 Katong Laksa in East Coast Road, customers are now being served by scions of the original business owners, many of whom have sacrificed comfortable hours and steady paychecks to keep the hawker culture going.

For Balestier Road Hoover Rojak's Stan Lim, 43, being named on the Bib Gourmand list is a real honour, especially considering he gave up a decade-long job in sales three years ago to take over the business from his father.

He says: "It has been really encouraging, especially given how tough life can be when you are a hawker. But for me, it's been a pleasant surprise - especially since ours is such a handcrafted dish."

This is also the case for two first-time hawkers on the Bib Gourmand list: Gwern Khoo, 35, co-owner of Singapore-style ramen joint A Noodle Story in Amoy Street Food Centre and Douglas Ng, 25, owner of The Fishball Story at Timbre+ in Ayer Rajah Crescent.

For Khoo, the win was "particularly sweet" given his business has been running for only three years.

Both he and Ng knew early on that realising their dreams of running hawker stalls meant letting go of their more "illustrious" careers in the food and beverage industry.

Khoo had worked at high-end restaurants such as Waku Ghin and Iggy's and Ng ran his own Chinese fusion zi char restaurant in Anson Road.

Still, for Khoo, who started the business with his Shatec classmate Ben Tham, 34, there are no regrets about leaving behind his fine- dining past despite having to work gruelling 15-hour days in an environment that can get "unbearably hot" at times.

He says of his decision: "Starting a hawker stall can be the best way for young entrepreneurs to test out our ideas and concepts because it is a low-cost platform. It is undoubtedly a hard life, but then again, you shouldn't go into this line if you're in it for the short-term benefits."

Like him, Ng was quick to reiterate that the public should cherish Singapore's beloved hawker culture and not make snap decisions about hawkers just because they see long lines at a stall.

"At the end of the day, the public don't see the struggles hawkers have to go through to make a living - such as the time I raised my prices by 50 cents, but ended up losing 50 per cent of my business," says the Nanyang Polytechnic graduate of the difficulties he has faced since starting his stall in 2014.

"Many of us are doing this to keep tradition and culture alive. For this trade to keep going, it is important that the perception of hawkers and hawker food changes for the better."

And it seems that it is exactly this overhaul of the industry that these young ones are hoping to do - be it introducing technology to make their processes more efficient or putting their decades-old businesses on social media.

For the children of the owners behind 328 Katong Laksa and Bismillah Biryani in Dunlop Street, joining the business has meant taking traditionally run businesses into the 21st century.

Mr Ryan Koh, 33, whose mother started 328 Katong Laksa 18 years ago, has improved efficiency in the kitchens by introducing new equipment and upgrading point-of-sales technology at their six outlets across the island.

His two younger siblings, a brother, 32, and a sister, 30, also work in the business.

Like him, Ms Zara Salahuddin, 26, is also working at the back-end of her father's biryani business by helping him with styling and photography for his menus and updating social media accounts for the business.

The National University of Singapore honours graduate, who majored in industrial design, says: "Even though I had to coax my dad to convince him to put the business on social media, I feel that he considers ideas differently when they come from a family member because he knows we always have the best interests of the business at heart."

It is perhaps this passion that runs in their veins that has helped many of these traditionally run family businesses thrive, even in the hands of a much younger generation of bosses.

Since helping with his father's bak kut teh business Song Fa in 2006, Mr Yeo Hart Pong, 35, has expanded it from one small stall in a coffee shop to a successful chain with six outlets across the island. A seventh outlet is opening at Jem next month.

Ms Yap Xin Ling, 34, whose family started Na Na Curry in 1989 in Marina South, is also helping launch an e-commerce portal for the business so that customers will be able to order curry for delivery.

She says of her decision to take over the business one day: "It is undoubtedly a difficult industry, but it is one that can be extremely satisfying and rewarding if you have the passion for the business.

"At the end of the day, the recognition and awards are very encouraging. But to me, it is the desire to keep time-honoured traditions alive that makes it all worthwhile."

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Zi char gets its day

Eunice Quek

Besides being passionate about hawker food, an appreciation of the zi char scene here is very much a part of any local foodie's DNA.

And this has been affirmed as five zi char eateries made the Bib Gourmand list released last Thursday, ahead of the July 21 launch of the inaugural Michelin Guide Singapore.

The entries are Ka Soh in College Road, New Ubin Seafood in Sin Ming, Kok Sen in Keong Saik Road and Sin Huat Eating House and JB Ah Meng in Geylang. All of them are popular, drawing long queues at peak meal times and supper crowds.

The fuss-free home-style cooking - zi char in Hokkien translates to cook and fry - is deeply rooted in Singapore's hawker history, starting from before the 1930s.

Today, zi char stalls are dependable and affordable places to go to for a quick meal or a family-style feast.

Michelin's picks include zi char places that serve the classics and those that push the envelope.

Kok Sen is known for its claypot yong tau foo, big prawn noodles and curry fish head. At JB Ah Meng, san luo meehoon and white pepper crabs are the dishes to order, while Ka Soh is famous for its fish beehoon and prawn paste chicken.

The other two places are a little more upmarket.

Sin Huat Eating House might be housed in a dingy Geylang coffee shop, but its prices are more in line with those of high-end restaurants. The place is famous for its crab beehoon, steamed garlic prawns and steamed fish and the bill can come up to $100 a person.

New Ubin Seafood serves US black angus ribeye steak, carabinero prawn sashimi and foie gras satay.

It also hosts wine- and whisky- pairing dinners regularly.

The business opened in 1986 on Pulau Ubin, and after moving to several locations, opened in Sin Ming in 2008. By the end of this year, it will open a new outlet in the Hillview area.

On getting the Bib Gourmand rating, New Ubin Seafood's manager Pang Seng Meng, 61, says: "Zi char is truly Singaporean. It has also evolved over time - zi char didn't used to include crabs, but now it is synonymous with crab and seafood.

"Now, our biggest concern is managing the expectations of new diners who may have a pre- conceived idea of what food in our restaurant should be."

Like the hawkers on the list, the zi char business owners say the rating is an unexpected honour and believe it will help boost their businesses in the competitive food and beverage scene.

For Ka Soh, which has been in College Road for 20 years and began in 1939 at the Great World Amusement Park in Kim Seng Road, the recognition by Michelin will spur its expansion plans.

The business is being handed over to its third-generation owners Cedric Tang, 31, and his sister Candice, 34.

Ka Soh has two outlets in Kuala Lumpur and one in Surabaya. It is thinking of opening in Japan too, adds Mr Tang. There are also plans to spruce up its restaurant here.

He adds: "Even before the list was released, we had plans to update our look. We are also looking to expand and do different concepts, but are sticking to local food."

But for now, the others have no grand plans for the future.

Mr Chris Wong, 37, the third- generation owner of Kok Sen, says: "We will continue to maintain the standard of our food. We may introduce some new dishes soon, but we won't expand yet."

JB Ah Meng's Mr Wong Fong, 53, better known as "Ah Meng", says: "I've never thought of selling the business. Even when I'm older, I will still continue the business, although I may not be so active in the cooking."

A 15-minute walk away from JB Ah Meng is Sin Huat Eating House, whose chef-owner Danny Lee declined to be interviewed or photographed.

All he would say is that he has never heard of the Michelin Guide or Bib Gourmand, and, since he runs a small business, cannot be compared to the "big chefs" like those on TV.

The menu-less Geylang zi char eatery was named in 2011 by American celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain as one of "13 Places To Eat Before You Die".

Ms Grace Yip, 38, was surprised that Sin Huat made the list, as she believes that it does not meet the criteria of an average spending of $45 a person.

"Maybe it's the Anthony Bourdain effect. But I'm quite sure spending $45 a person at Sin Huat is not possible."

She was having dinner at Kok Sen last Thursday with her younger sister Ruth, 32.

Both frequent the packed Keong Saik Road eatery for its affordable food and enjoy its claypot dishes, big prawn crispy noodles and yong tau foo.

Ms Yip, a human resources executive director at DBS, says: "I expected Kok Sen to get the Bib Gourmand rating. It is always crowded but the food comes quickly, so we seldom have to wait for a long time.

"I'm also glad JB Ah Meng and New Ubin Seafood are on the list. It's nice to see local food get recognised in a way that makes sense."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on July 17, 2016, with the headline Singapore Michelin Guide: Young blood running old hawker traditions. Subscribe