Lunch With Sumiko

Lunch With Sumiko: Life for cooking doyenne Violet Oon has never been better

Violet Oon has not let business failures or a stroke get her down. At 68, life has never looked more exciting

For lunch with Violet Oon, we've decided not to go to Violet Oon's (and yes, I really wanted to use this line).

She had asked if we should eat at National Kitchen by Violet Oon at the National Gallery, "or should I select somewhere else?"

I said it'd be interesting for readers to know where else she eats at besides her three eponymous restaurants.

SPH Brightcove Video
Singapore's food ambassador, grand dame of Singaporean cooking, and chef Violet Oon speaks candidly on why there are so few women chefs, and how her role at her restaurant has changed since her children took over the business.

She mulls over this for a few days, then comes back with Spago. The restaurant by American celebrity chef Wolfgang Puck is on the 57th floor of Marina Bay Sands.

Spago holds special memories for her. Back in the 1980s and 1990s, Spago in Los Angeles spelt all that was exotic and exciting.

Through her food connections, she had also hosted Lee Hefter, now managing partner and executive corporate chef of Wolfgang Puck Worldwide, to thosai and chilli crab when he came to Singapore. Hefter invited her to drop in at Spago if she ever were in Los Angeles.

She took up his invitation and as his guest, she got the full works of dishes and wine. "I think people were thinking, 'Who's this? Is she a Chinese millionaire or something?' They practically gave me the whole menu. I nearly pengsan," she laughs, using the Malay word for fainted. "It was fun."

Chef and restaurateur Violet Oon chose to have lunch at Spago at Marina Bay Sands because she has fond memories of her first visit to Spago in Los Angeles. She has three restaurants here and she and her business partners, who include her two children, are looking to expand overseas. ST PHOTO: ONG WEE JIN

She remembers being impressed by how Spago showed that fine dining need not be stuffy.

"I was bowled over by the open kitchen and chefs in baseball caps," she says.

Like Spago and its particular Californian vibe, her Violet Oon restaurants offer diners an experience.

Violet Oon with son Yiming and daughter Su-Lyn in the 1980s. They learnt to cook by "osmosis" watching her, she says. PHOTO: COURTESY OF VIOLET OON

Besides the restaurant at the National Gallery, there is Violet Oon Singapore in Bukit Timah and Violet Oon Satay Bar & Grill at Clarke Quay.

In her case, what she offers is delicious, hearty Singapore food, especially Peranakan fare, served in a cool, classy, turn-of-century Singapore setting.

The look is what could be described as Romantic Colonial, with gorgeous dark green panels, deep timber hues, leather and brass, layered with airy rattan blade fans, vintage Peranakan tiles and potted palms.

The food is equally memorable, drawing from Singapore's diverse culinary heritage with recipes from Singapore's Chinese, Malay, Indian, Malay, Eurasian and Peranakan communities. (My favourite is the chendol with durian pengat sauce at Clarke Quay.)

Business has been brisk, especially at National Kitchen.

At 68 and having seen her fair share of business failures, life has never looked more exciting for Oon.

SHE arrives on time at Spago, a pleasant, airy restaurant with wide windows overlooking the hotel's famous pool .

She's wearing a Peranakan-inspired black jacket and walks with a cane. She's been using it since she had a stroke three years ago. She has since recovered and doesn't need it, but it gives her a sense of security.

She has a friendly manner that puts one at ease. But there's an exacting, perfectionist side to her that surfaces during the photo shoot later, when she directs the waiters to clear the table and fill up the glasses with water so the photographs look better.

We study the menu and she gets the tuna tartare cones and grilled iberico pork secreto - "always try something that sounds different", she says. I opt for the laksa spring roll and a burger.

People who know her say she has always managed to be upbeat when faced with challenges.

Sumiko Tan tried Violet Oon's recipe for satay ayam goreng. The dish was supposed to look like the photo on the left, but it turned out otherwise (right). Still, it proved to be delicious. Get the recipe at

One such challenge came in June 2014 when she had the stroke.

She was at her Braddell View home when she lost her balance on her left side. She called her son who took her to the Singapore General Hospital, where she learnt she had suffered a cerebellar stroke.

For weeks, she needed help to get out of bed and her eyesight was affected. "I was seeing things like that," she says, gesturing left and right. "Not double vision but it was, like, askew."

But medical science is amazing, she says, and a special pair of glasses helped correct her vision. And, true to her get-on-with-it nature, she adapted quickly and got comfortable while she recovered.

"I didn't want to leave," she says. "I stayed for five weeks. It was like Spa SGH. I surrounded myself with books, a DVD player to watch movies and for music, and that's it."

She also made sure she put on make-up and did her hair every day. "My generation must have make-up, right? And my mother taught me that one's hair must always be done," she says. "I realised that in life, that's all you need - your bed, your books, everything you need around you."

Has she always been so upbeat? "I don't think I'm deliberately upbeat, it's just like that, right? It's not a conscious thing to be upbeat."

She admits readily that she has had "some major failures" in her food business.

She was an arts then food journalist with The New Nation and The Singapore Monitor in the 1970s and 1980s, and later set up her own publication, The Food Paper.

In the 1990s, Oon, who had learnt to cook watching her aunts, went into food and beverage with food outlets including in Takashimaya, Bukit Pasoh, Bugis Junction and Holland Village. She also ran theatre cafes at Victoria Theatre, Kallang Theatre and the then Drama Centre.

All closed by the late 1990s and she focused on food consultancy.

She makes no bones that she is more a creative than business person.

"Actually I think being in a creative profession makes you realise that you can fail," she says. "A play can fail or succeed. A movie, however much effort you put, after it comes out, can fail or succeed. So I think that prepares you that not everything will be a success."

Running a restaurant is really hard work, she says. "People don't realise the long hours."

Working in the kitchen is also physically hard going, especially for women. "Can you carry things which are 30, 40kg that guys do? Especially in a Chinese kitchen. You have to throw that wok, which I cannot do."

That's the reason there are fewer women chefs, she says. "Most women are either pastry chefs or garde manger, which is cold kitchen, because both have nice air-con, very comfortable."

Our appetisers have arrived and we share them. She pronounces the laksa spring roll "interesting".

IN 2012, her two children decided to relaunch the brand and started a new business under Violet Oon Inc. She's a partner.

Tay Su-Lyn, now 40, had a fashion business at the time, and her son Tay Yiming, 35, was in marketing.

"As a parent, you must never pressure your children to do what's your dream, because they have their own dreams," says Oon, who is divorced.

They opened a bistro-style eatery in Bukit Timah that served Peranakan and Western dishes.

She wouldn't have gone back to doing a restaurant without them. "You don't start a new business at 60-something on your own, right? And I had failed before."

In late 2014, TWG Tea co-founder Manoj Murjani became a partner after dining there. He is chairman of Group MMM which does investments and acquisitions.

The Bukit Timah eatery was remodelled and reopened in June 2015, National Kitchen was launched in November that year, and Clarke Quay in February this year. There are plans to expand overseas.

Both her children are good cooks, she says. "It was osmosis, you know. I didn't really teach them. They just learnt along the way."

The grandmother of four focuses on the food aspects of the business. "I love the actual cooking, I love the actual trying it out, the testing. The science part is as fun as the art part."

She laments how traditional recipes are being lost as the older generation passes on, and urges Singaporeans to record their families' recipes.

She is all for a modern take on food but believes their heritage should also be preserved.

"Food should be evolving but every stage of it should be preserved. It's like in French food. You have bistro cooking, it's still authentic, and you have Escoffier, the classic cuisine of hundred years ago - it's still there," she says.

"There's a space for people who want to invent new things. But there's a space for what's traditional. For us, our space is authentic and traditional because we think there's not enough of it. You can have modern architecture but you still have your old. I think a culture has to reference its past."

But what has changed from the past in her kitchens is the quality of ingredients. Her son is "very obsessed" with things like the quality of meat they use.

As for awards - her restaurants didn't make it to last week's Michelin Guide Singapore 2017 list - their mantra is that they are in the business of making diners happy with their food, service and ambience. "If and when we get a Michelin award, we will be equally gratified and it will be a bonus."

Her criteria for what to serve is surprisingly simple.

"The food has to be yummy. Whatever you do has to be yummy."

I tell her that I can't cook. I get confused and flustered in the kitchen. Can someone like me ever turn out dishes like Violet Oon?

She has a solution for kitchen klutzes.

Adopt two personas - one the helper, the other the cook - and split the process into two days .

As helper, you cut, chop and measure all the ingredients required in a dish, then you put them in the fridge.The next day, you cook.

"When you try to do everything from beginning to end, it's very terrible because by the time you actually do the cooking, you're very stressed, you've lost the mood and are mentally exhausted."

Chefs, she points out, have helpers who do the preparatory work.

She also suggests mastering one spectacular dish.

"When I teach cooking, I tell people, don't learn the things that are ordinary, don't learn to cook rice, don't learn to boil an egg. Instead, learn spectacular things. Once you produce a spectacular dish, that will give you the confidence to try something else."

She has another tip: Take care with presentation.

"Nothing should leave your hand not beautiful, whether you're serving the President or you're serving a beggar."

To encourage me, she e-mails me a recipe for her satay ayam goreng after our lunch, which I attempt.

It doesn't turn out quite the way hers does because I don't follow her instructions properly, but even then, I know I have passed her test.

It is yummy.

Twitter @STsumikotan

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