Since leaving a marketing career eight years ago, Singaporean chef Shen Tan has dabbled in just about every corner of the local food scene. She started with a hawker stall—Madam Tan’s Nasi Lemak—at the famed Maxwell Food Centre, an invaluable, if short-lived experience that she found both humbling and educational. “It was a great way to learn how to do your business, and to learn how to cook,” she says. “Nine square meters, that’s all I had—inventory, prep, retail, everything in that nine square meters.”
Soon after, Tan unveiled her first restaurant, Wok & Barrel, where she attracted a loyal following with inventive mod-Sin dishes like bak chor mee (pork confit with tagliatelle in a spicy sauce) and rendang pizza. She closed the restaurant in 2013, opened another one at the Raffles Hotel Arcade (it shut down last year), and now runs a food-and-beverage consultancy while also serving as culinary director for Gastrogig, which curates secret pop-up food parties and private events. “My priorities have changed. I’m not interested in killing myself and working 17 hours a day,” Tan says.
Of course, one cannot discuss local chefs here without recognizing Singaporean food personality Violet Oon. She has seen and done it all over her decades-long career, from her early days as a music and food journalist to later writing best-selling cookbooks, serving as the Singapore Tourism Board’s food ambassador, and becoming a restaurant entrepreneur. And, at age 66, she’s just getting started.
Building on the success of her chic Peranakan bistro Violet Oon Singapore, and now partnering with TWG Tea co-founder Manoj Murjani, last November Oon opened National Kitchen by Violet Oon in the new US$380 million National Gallery. The intimate 70-seat space, decked out with black-leather banquettes, recessed mirrored ceilings, and original Peranakan tiles, is Oon’s personal homage to Singapore’s diverse culinary heritage.
Oon’s aunt handed down many of the recipes; others Oon draws from memory, like the chili crab she fondly remembers from visiting a particular Bedok Beach restaurant in the mid-1960s. “I’m so fascinated by the whole story of food,” she says. “There’s so much sentiment to it, and I feel this place really resonates with Singaporeans.” One can sense this love affair in her new space, lined as it is with photos from her past celebrating inspirational moments with food.
Spain’s renowned Elena Arzak, one of just seven female chefs to ever hold three Michelin stars, once said during an interview that “the possibility of cooking was always in my heart.” All these accomplished women would no doubt agree.
This article originally appeared in the June/July print issue of DestinAsian magazine (“Leading Ladies”).