It Changed My Life

It Changed My Life: A thing for noodles turns Jason Lim into Singapore's ramen king

Eatery founder tried on several hats before deciding to make a living from his passion

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With a passion for ramen, Jason Lim learnt all about making the Japanese noodles from a ramen master, set up his own restaurant and eventually opened the only ramen school outside Japan.

Mr Jason Lim has a thing for noodles. He had mee pok for breakfast, and has just wolfed down a plate of satay beehoon from a well-known stall in Sembawang Hill Food Centre for lunch.

"It is my staple; I need to have it at least once a day," he says.

His obsession is his career. The 43-year-old is the founder of Men-Tei Ramen, rated by well-known food blogger Leslie Tay as one of the best ramen restaurants in Singapore.

The congenial man also set up and runs famed Yamoto Noodle School's first, and only, ramen school outside Japan.

Making a living from his passion was not a game plan.

It happened by accident, long after he chalked entries such as policeman, digital marketing agency owner and entrepreneur on his resume.

Friendly and chatty, he is the youngest of three children of a businessman and a housewife.

His early years were comfortable - he grew up in a three-storey semi-detached house in Sennett Estate.

His parents had a rocky marriage which ended in divorce.

Mr Jason Lim with his colleague in Men-Tei Ramen, rated by well-known food blogger Leslie Tay as one of the best ramen restaurants in Singapore. After Mr Lim fell in love with ramen in Japan, he signed up for a week-long course at the famous Yamato Noodle School in Kagawa, which taught him everything about making the noodles. He opened Men-Tei in Robinson Road in 2009. ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG

Growing up, Mr Lim saw his father, who had a chain of shops selling electrical appliances, only once a week.

However, the stock market crash of 1987 - when the Dow Jones dropped almost 22 per cent in a single day - crippled the latter's business.

The Sennett Estate home was repossessed and his father left Singapore for Hong Kong.

Together with his mother and two siblings, Mr Lim went to live with a paternal uncle for a few years before settling in their own four-room HDB flat in Bedok.

Despite the instability, he grew up happy.

"I guess I was happy-go-lucky. I was close to my cousins, and a couple of my uncles took good care of us," says the former Catholic High student.

Although he picked up smoking and drinking as a teenager, he never ran afoul of the law and he passed all his exams.

His O-level results were average, but a junior college was willing to take him in because of his swimming skills.

Mr Lim with his classmate, Mr Ivan Orkin, at the Yamato Noodle School. Mr Orkin is now a famous ramen chef in New York. PHOTO: COURTESY OF JASON LIM

"When we were growing up, my siblings and I woke up every morning at 5.30 and trained until 7am. We went into the pool again after school from 4.30pm until 7pm. My brother was in the national team; I swam at club level," he says.

Mr Lim rejected the junior college's offer. Swayed by a career talk he attended, he enrolled at the Singapore Polytechnic to study marine engineering.

But by the time he graduated in 1994, he was convinced he wanted to give the industry a wide berth.

"I went for an industrial attachment at Keppel shipyard. Everything was oily, dark and slippery. During lunch breaks, workers would just eat their lunch, get a piece of cardboard and find some place to sleep. Then the bell would ring, and they'd go back to work and get greasy and dirty again. I was pretty sure I didn't want to do that for the rest of my life," he says with a laugh.

He signed up with the Singapore Police Force instead.

"I loved the job. Every day, I went to work with the anticipation of something new and exciting happening," says Mr Lim, who was posted to the Bedok police station after completing his training at the Singapore Police Academy.

Illegal immigrants from Indonesia often tried to enter Singapore by boat or sampan near the East Coast Park in those days.

"Trying to nab them as they hid in the park and among the trees at night could be quite scary."

After two years and stints as a field instructor and company commander, he was transferred to the IT division to explore the use of technology in police training and operations.

Among other things, he worked on firearms training simulation and computerised systems for patrol cars.

The stint made him realise he had a knack for computers.

"I was a late bloomer. I learnt all my technical skills in the police force," says Mr Lim, who was made a junior inspector in less than five years.

A motorbike enthusiast, he started using his Web design skills to build a website called Bikers' Paradise. It gained traction and motorbike dealers were soon advertising on the site.

He decided to turn it into a business and roped in some friends to help run it.

In 1999, he decided to leave the police force to make a go of his Internet advertising business, which he named Ads Professional. Within six months, he incorporated it into a Web design agency called Active Fusion.

"It was the beginning of the Web design craze then. The business was quite lucrative," he says.

Resourceful and gung ho, he pitched for and successfully nabbed accounts such as Citibank and CapitaLand.

His staff strength went from three to 20 within a couple of years, and he opened an office in Kuala Lumpur.

The learning curve, he says, was steep.

Because they could not afford to hire experienced people, they had to figure out many of the technicalities of website building themselves.

But the time soon came when he found the constant travelling exhausting and the business tricky to manage.

"We were juggling multiple projects. The technology was changing so fast and prices for Web design were also dropping," says Mr Lim, who married a former flight attendant in 2000.

By 2004, he had sold both businesses in Singapore and Kuala Lumpur for sums he declines to disclose. But they were handsome enough for him to take a two-year break during which he served in the Lions Club and enjoyed fatherhood. He has three children, aged seven, 10 and 13.

By this time, his father had returned to Singapore from Hong Kong and started an import and export business in electronic parts.

"He had a Japanese friend who made coin dispensers for jackpot machines and other components for slot and ticketing machines. He asked my dad to help him market them outside Japan and my dad asked me," he says.

For the next few years, he travelled frequently to trade shows and casino exhibitions in Australia, Japan, the United States and Europe to market these coin hoppers.

In Japan, he fell in love with ramen and would eat it whenever he could. The fascination grew and he even found himself attending ramen trade shows and exhibitions.

After two years, the Japanese manufacturer of the coin hoppers scaled down the business because of stricter regulations governing pachinko parlours, which are its major clients.

"I told myself I'd better think of something else to do," he says.

That was when the idea of starting a ramen shop started percolating in his head.

"From the ramen exhibitions I attended, I knew the technology and know-how was very mature. I thought it would not be that difficult," he says.

He decided to fork out more than $5,000 to attend a week-long course at the famous Yamato Noodle School in Kagawa. The course emphasised "digital cooking" or precise measurements and procedures to ensure consistency and quality.

"It taught me everything - how to prepare broth from scratch, make different flavoured oils, how to make chashu," he says, referring to stewed pork belly.

The course was conducted by Japanese ramen master Kaoru Fujii, who runs Yamato Manufacturing, which makes its own noodle-making machines. An interpreter was on hand to translate for foreign students.

Mr Lim's classmates were in the ramen business, including Mr Ivan Orkin, a famous chef who has since authored a book on ramen and now runs two famous ramen restaurants in New York.

When he returned, Mr Lim found a shop space in Robinson Road and plonked in about $200,000 to open Men-Tei in 2009.

The first nine months, he says, were the toughest of his life.

"I learnt how to cook eggs at Yamato but cooking 10 eggs is very different from cooking 100," he says with a guffaw.

Working out precise measurements for ingredients and sauces took a lot of trial and error. He also spent a lot of money buying equipment to help him get the precision he needed.

"I was in the restaurant at 6am and there until 2am. Thankfully, the response was good," says Mr Lim, whose restaurant is open only for lunch on weekdays.

It didn't take long before he got offers to start a franchise. He rejected them.

"There are many obligations when you are a brand owner. I didn't want to be shortsighted and just grab money," he says.

Instead, he became a ramen restaurant consultant, charging between $20,000 and $30,000 for each project. It more than kept him busy and his clients included those from Indonesia and China.

Because he was recommending its noodle machines to all his clients, Yamato Manufacturing soon appointed him its distributor for Singapore and the region.

In 2013, he started a cooking school The Eureka Cooking Lab (TELC) in Thomson with his classmate, Mr Alvin Lim. The place also became a showroom for the Yamato noodle machines.

Mr Fujii was impressed when he visited Mr Jason Lim in 2015.

"He said: 'Why don't we do something together?'"

That's how the collaboration between TELC and the Yamato Noodle School started. Mr Fujii felt Singapore was a good place to start his school's first overseas branch because it attracts a lot of foreign students and English is widely spoken here.

The school, which takes just eight students per intake, took off in February last year. Held every month, the course costs $5,000 and is conducted over five days by Mr Fujii and Mr Jason Lim.

"They learn all that I learnt and more," says the entrepreneur, adding that he imparts all that he has experienced while setting up Men-Tei. "I teach them how to calculate profitability, how to budget, work out capital expenses and everything else."

More than 90 per cent of the students are foreigners from Europe, the US, China and the Middle East.

"We have no problems attracting students. Our July intake is full," the entrepreneur added.

Exciting times are ahead for Mr Jason Lim, who recently inked a deal to take Men-Tei to Nanjing in China. He says: "The next phase is to expand the business beyond Singapore."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on June 18, 2017, with the headline A thing for noodles turns Jason Lim into Singapore's ramen king. Subscribe