Well-schooled in serving Western fare, Hoe family runs Singapore American School cafeterias for 50 years

For 50 years, the Hoe family has run the cafeterias of the Singapore American School

For half a century, Mr Hoe Juan Jok, 68 (second from right) has kept the running of the SAS' cafeterias in the family, including (from left) his sister Hoo Juan Ang, his brother Hoe Juan Sim and his wife Chua Kim Lan. And they have no intention to re
For half a century, Mr Hoe Juan Jok, 68 (second from right) has kept the running of the SAS' cafeterias in the family, including (from left) his sister Hoo Juan Ang, his brother Hoe Juan Sim and his wife Chua Kim Lan. And they have no intention to retire.ST PHOTO: JAMIE KOH

They call themselves a traditional Chinese family of chefs, but the Hoes are better known among the American community here for whipping up mouthwatering, "authentic" Western fare such as fish and chips, roast turkey and beef stroganoff.

This June, they will have operated their food business from the cafeterias of the Singapore American School (SAS) for 50 years, spanning three generations.

In the early years, with little experience outside of Chinese and British cuisines, they had to rely on homemade recipes from SAS parents - including the wives of the school's superintendents - to cook simple meals like hamburgers and grilled cheese sandwiches. 

Mr Hoe Juan Jok, 68, who has been serving food at the school for five decades, remembers having to grasp the basics of preparing American grub. His late father, Ho Tee Jam, took over the SAS cafeteria operations on June 20, 1966.

"We had to try out recipes and adapt to the American style of preparing food," said Mr Hoe, who now runs the SAS elementary, middle and high school cafeterias with six other family members. "We worked hard to get things right."

The Hoe family now offers more than 40 Western and Asian meals such as sloppy joes, oxtail casserole, char siew rice and curry chicken. Besides serving cafeteria meals, they cater for events. Their Thanksgiving and Christmas turkeys have also decorated thousands of dinner tables over the years.

Today, his wife Chua Kim Lan, 60, and son He Xian Hao, 33 help out at the school in Woodlands. His elder sister Hoo Juan Ang, 74, and her son Tan Ching Wee, 43, as well as his elder brother Hoe Juan Sim, 77, and his wife Tan Teck Meng, 71, also run day-to-day operations .

"Culturally, we are traditional," he said. "But it doesn't mean that if you are Chinese, you can't cook Western food."

A half-century ago, the then 18-year-old started the first day of his new job at the cafeteria of the former SAS campus in King's Road.

Together with his father, sister Juan Ang and two neighbours, he served food from a hot kitchen that had only two wooden food preparation tables, a modest washing basin, a small soda chiller, a gas-run oven and a refrigerator.

In 1971, SAS expanded and some students had to attend classes at temporary quarters in Alexandra Road and Gillman Barracks while awaiting the completion of a new campus at Ulu Pandan. Then, more members of the Hoe family, including Mr Hoe's elder brother Juan Sim, and mother, Madam Tin Kok Luan, came on board to run the various kitchens.

When the Ulu Pandan campus was ready, the brothers moved over to run its cafeteria, while their father and sister worked at King's Road.

Mr Hoe's father retired in 1990, after which, his brother Juan Sim took over at the King's Road campus. In 1996, when the Woodlands campus opened, the family came together to run the cafeterias there. Today, they oversee more than 70 staff.

Many generations of students have tasted the Hoe family's creations. Former SAS student Vicki Rameker-Rogers, 38, who is now a teacher with the school, remembers skipping class one afternoon in high school to try Mr Hoe's fresh pita bread and curry. "It was and still is my comfort food," she said.

Former student Francesco Zargani, 48, marketing manager for a semiconductor manufacturer, added: "Tales from the cafeteria and tasty remembrances of many dishes are often the centre of conversation from alumni, always recounted with affection for the Hoe family."

Despite spending more than half their lives running the school's kitchens, Mr Hoe and his siblings have no intention of retiring.

"We've got a new generation to help us," said Mr Hoe. "We'd still like to continue and to support them."

For now, Mr Hoe's youngest son, Xian Hao, is following in his culinary footsteps. "I want to continue the family tradition. I don't want it to stop at my generation," noted Mr He. "If possible, I would like to take it even further."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on April 03, 2016, with the headline 'Well-schooled in serving Western fare'. Subscribe