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 stallâ€”Madam Tanâ€™s Nasi Lemakâ€”at the famed Maxwell Food Centre, an invaluable, if short-lived experience that she found both humbling and educational. â€śIt was a great way to learn how to do your business, and to learn how to cook,â€ť she says. â€śNine square meters, thatâ€™s all I hadâ€”inventory, prep, retail, everything in that nine square meters.â€ť
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. â€śMy priorities have changed. Iâ€™m not interested in killing myself and working 17 hours a day,â€ť 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 Boardâ€™s food ambassador, and becoming a restaurant entrepreneur. And, at age 66, sheâ€™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 Oonâ€™s personal homage to Singaporeâ€™s diverse culinary heritage.
Oonâ€™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. â€śIâ€™m so fascinated by the whole story of food,â€ť she says. â€śThereâ€™s so much sentiment to it, and I feel this place really resonates with Singaporeans.â€ť One can sense this love affair in her new space, lined as it is with photos from her past celebrating inspirational moments with food.
Spainâ€™s renowned Elena Arzak, one of just seven female chefs to ever hold three Michelin stars, once said during an interview that â€śthe possibility of cooking was always in my heart.â€ť All these accomplished women would no doubt agree.
This article originally appeared in theÂ June/JulyÂ print issue of DestinAsian magazine (â€śLeading Ladies”).