Inside a dimly lit basement off Armenian Street, the future of hawker food is taking shape. And it’s looking pretty weird.
From a small makeshift kitchen space, Ming Tan prepares unusual versions of Singapore’s staple dishes. Chicken rice has been transformed into a block of mushroom-based vegan rice cake, while carrot cake is a brownish blended mush you slurp from plastic food pouches.
Meanwhile, laksa is essentially a bowl of rice krispies you’ll need to hydrate with hot water, while a cup of tau huay has been packed with enough nutritious fibre to get you through the day.
Is this some fancy molecular gastronomy take on local food? No, it’s the Substation’s SAD: The Last Meal event, a collaboration between the 32-year-old head chef of Jam at Siri House and visual artist Debbie Ding, which looks at what Singapore’s hawker food might be like 40 to 50 years from now – when everything needs to prepared fast, eaten on-the-go and less unhealthy than it is right now.
“I’m a massive food nerd in the sense that the world of food has so much to give – manufacturing, production, packaging, cooking, eating," he said. "I used to do food photography and styling, too. It was damn fun!”
Tan added: “I’m interested in anything to do with food – whether it’s imagining a dystopian future with your favourite hawker food, serving 500 to 600 sandwiches a day in the CBD or serving small plates in a nice space.”
YOUNG CHEF’S BAPTISM OF FIRE
Reimagining hawker food might seem like an odd detour for a chef known for, among other things, gourmet sandwiches, but Tan does seem to have a huge appetite for trying new things.
After bursting into the food scene as a 25-year-old upstart head chef at Mediterranean-inspired fusion restaurant Lolla in 2012, he went on to co-found a chiller venture, the popular gourmet sandwich spot Park Bench Deli. These days, he’s busy keeping things running smoothly at the three-month old Jam at Siri House at Dempsey Hill – with the occasional TV food show to guest in or co-host, during his free time.
Not bad for someone who didn’t go to cooking school – and reckons he would’ve been a marine biologist or even a furniture maker if food hadn’t been a passion.
“I started out doing barbecues for rugby teammates,” recalled Tan, who took up Southeast Asian Studies at NUS. “I had a lot of friends who were hungry around me, so one thing led to another and we were doing barbecues for friends of friends.”
While studying, he and current business partner and fellow chef Jeremy Cheok started the first incarnation of Jam as a private supper club. “We were baking macarons, doing barbecues, going to people’s houses – and some of these weren’t cheap dinners, like S$200 to S$300 per person,” he recalled.
"I had chefs twice my age being condescending to me – they’ll give me that ‘you don’t know what you’re doing’ look.”
Tan later briefly joined cooking events company Cookyn Inc before getting his big break with Lolla in 2012.
“They were willing to take a gamble on a chef that had never worked in a professional kitchen before. I was quite young to be a head chef and my first year was a s***show,” he recalled, sheepishly.
The first year at the Mediterranean-inspired fusion restaurant was a baptism of fire for the young chef.
“I wasn’t able to manage people, control my own emotions and temper. I wasn’t a pleasant person to work with and had a s*** tonne of insecurity. I had chefs twice my age being condescending to me – they’ll give me that ‘you don’t know what you’re doing’ look.”
Tan eventually got the hang of it. “I grew the most there – how to manage a restaurant and a team. And I liked the energy of the open kitchen, the loud music and the hot grill behind me,” he said.
READ: Kitchen Stories: How New Ubin Seafood became famous for its beef dish and 'heart attack' fried rice
LEARNING TO LEAD IN THE KITCHEN
By the end of his third year at Lolla, Tan decided on another adventure by starting Park Bench Deli with two partners. “Those were really fun years and a totally different style of food. Before us and Two Men Bagel House, everyone saw sandwiches as just things wrapped up that you get from a fridge,” he said.
His experiences running a kitchen (and a business) served him in good stead when he took on his latest challenge at Jam at Siri House.
The Art Deco-inspired 42-seater is the restaurant and cocktail bar part of the lifestyle-dining concept space Siri House at Dempsey, where Tan and Cheok handle the kitchen, while partners Mark Tay and Yap Hwee Jen manage the drinks.
The Asian-influenced menu – which includes dishes such as handmade pappardelle with crustacean sauce, pan-roasted tiger prawns and mussels; smoked soft shell crab with burnt garlic aioli and jicama slaw; and even a Chicken In A Biskit-inspired dish – is somewhat like comfort food levelled up.
Or as Tan described in a previous interview: “Homestyle dishes that are ‘zhnged’.”
After all the ups and downs, he describes his current situation as being in a period of growth – and knowing where he stands as the leader in the kitchen.
“You don’t need to be the best at anything – you just need to know who in the organisation can solve the problem. There are chefs in my kitchen who are stronger, faster and have better technique, and there will always be younger people better than you.”
Tan admitted: “I got very, very lucky. There are plenty of people out there who’ve worked much harder than I have to achieve some measure of fame or business stability, and plenty more who haven’t achieved that. Anyone who has some measure of popularity should treasure that and conduct himself as a good example.”
He recalled one memorable incident during his Lolla days, concerning a colleague in the kitchen from Myanmar.
“He was very steady and consistent, but sometimes he made small, careless mistakes. And I used to really chew him out. Until one day, he turned to me and said ‘I’ve done everything you asked me to do, there’s no need for you to shout.’ I realised this guy, who’s probably my age, uprooted himself without his family and sends money back home – the amount of patience to do all that, that’s tough. It was a turning point for me.”
FOOD WASTAGE AND SERVICE STAFF WOES
In 2017, Tan decided to travel – and found himself in Manila, Bali, Surabaya and Mongolia. “I was basically trying to figure out what food means in a market that’s larger than Singapore. It taught me that you can capture 100 per cent of the market here and that’s only six million people. If you capture 10 per cent in Indonesia, that’s 27 million, 25 per cent in Metro Manila, that’s 10 million. It’s a much bigger game,” he said.
“I got very, very lucky. There are plenty of people out there who’ve worked much harder than I have to achieve some measure of fame or business stability, and plenty more who haven’t achieved that."
Exposure to other food scenes has also gotten him thinking about larger issues like food wastage or the treatment of service staff.
“Singapore has a strong throwaway culture, and it’s not great for us in the long run. If we’re being wasteful, you’ll have a rotten society. But if you take care of food at all levels – not just the high end spectrum – you can potentially use food for much better good.”
Tan also observed “the service line in other countries are treated with more respect than in Asia – there’s the servitude thing. In places like Australia or New York or Los Angeles, people see being a server as a career. It’s not seen as a lower tier job like in Singapore, where when you tell people you’re a waiter or a cook, you get an eyebrow raised.”
Indeed, for all his food business ventures, Tan seems to have a bird’s eye view of food as culture.
Said Tan: “Food is just the end result. If food is not about people, it’s worthless. It should be celebrating culture, identities, telling stories, tracing lineage, pointing the direction of where society should go.”
Jam at Siri House is located at 8D Dempsey Road, Dempsey Hill, #01-02. Tel: 9667 0533. SAD: The Last Meal will be held from Mar 29 to 30. Tickets are sold out.