Tenacity is, perhaps, our most important takeaway from the events of 2020. With raging calamities and bushfires, a whole pandemic to deal with and lockdowns all across the globe (and much more)—our lives have been utterly shaken up, to say the least. It’s not a stretch to say that it was a year where challenges were hurled at us relentlessly. But we have found ways to soldier on.
In our #HumansOfF&B series, we chronicled the ways in which F&B businesses in Singapore have coped with obstacles (both new and old) in a feat to keep Singapore’s culinary scene going.
And, as we move into a brand new chapter with the arrival of 2021, let us look back at stories of strength and grit from our local F&B owners.
1. Ami Arita, CEO of Suzette and Henri Charpentier
If I were to distill the story of Ami Arita, CEO of Henri Charpentier, I’d say that it is one of love. Having worked as a lawyer for 15 years, Ami-san left the legal practice to pursue her love for pastries. She found herself at Le Cordon Bleu, one of the finest French culinary academies, and met Goki Arita, who was to succeed Suzette and Henri Charpentier.
They fell in love and the rest is history.
2020 has been doubly challenging for Ami-san. While being separated from her family in Japan, she had to also cope with the pandemic’s negative impact on her business. Despite all odds, she still found ways to spread joy. Ami-san recalls how the Henri Charpentier team returned to the brand’s birthplace, Ashiya, to give financiers to every school student in town in 2017.
In a similar move, the Singapore team distributed care packages to frontline heroes at the Singapore General Hospital and Mount Alvernia Hospital throughout the circuit breaker.
2. Beppe De Vito, Chef-Restaurateur of Amò
Helming the kitchen at Amò is Chef-Restaurateur Beppe De Vito, whose journey in F&B began he was just 9 or 10 years old. “I used to go around throughout the town to bring the coffees around”, he recalls.
As he grew older, it was only natural for him to continue walking along this path. With this, Beppe went on to catering school and took on various summer jobs in the meantime. “It was an opportunity for me to go and see the world,” he says as he recounts his trips all around Italy.
Beppe’s devotion to his craft is indisputable. The secret to Amò’s famed pizzas, such as the Truffle Pizza (from $37.45), were not born nor discovered overnight. Instead, it took years for Beppe and his team to shape and knead Amò’s creations to perfection. Speaking about his approach towards cooking, Beppe says: “It’s about finding your own story in that recipe.”
Truly, Beppe’s fearlessness and determination to bring his restaurant and fellow crew to greater heights is admirable.
3. CM Sum, Founder and Owner of Sum Kee Food
Serving up beloved, family-style zi char fare is Sum Kee Food, which has soared high under the wings of owner Mr CM Sum. Before the brand took to ground with its first store in Batam, Mr Sum worked as an air steward.
Commenting on how the business has coped with the year’s challenges, Natasha, Mr Sum’s daughter and second-generation owner, shares: “We, as a family, [had] to sit down together and re-strategize on how to drive the business.”
Undeniably, the family is the heart of the restaurant. But what is perhaps more remarkable and memorable is their genuine love for their patrons. “We are going to look after you,” Mr. Sum proudly proclaims, before asking for customers to send in their likes and dislikes about the brand. “We will always do our best.”
4. Danny Chan, Founder of Yu Cun Curry Fish Head
Founder of Yu Cun Curry Fish Head, Danny Chan, started the business in 2014 after having worked in the F&B industry all his life.
However, it was not all smooth-sailing. Initially, Danny faced difficulties in attracting new customers and getting Yu Cun’s name to people out there. Nevertheless, the family business has succeeded and is now managed by both of his sons. The eldest son of the family, JJ Chan, supervises the kitchen that cooks up the signature Claypot Curry Fish Head (from $34.72). On the other hand, Darius handles the brand’s operations and marketing efforts.
“To have both sons understand my pain and struggles, and lend me a helping hand—it is truly my biggest blessing,” Danny concludes.
5. Drew Nocente, Chef-Owner of Salted & Hung
Meet Chef Drew Nocente, the man behind Salted & Hung. At the core of his culinary philosophy is a fervent commitment to minimal waste.
“We used everything we could… we use every part of it,” Chef Drew recalls. The restaurant pays homage to his way of life as a child, where little is wasted in the kitchen.
With arduous R&D processes and intricate cooking methods, Salted & Hung’s (and, by extension, Chef Drew’s) approach toward food is certainly unconventional. This inclination towards experimentation and risk, however, has been central to his success.
Regardless, Chef Drew is motivated by a principle that all good F&B establishments share: that customers come first. “The biggest thing I personally want for my guests is to make sure they have a great night,” he says.
6. Jun Cheang, Head Chef at Yum Cha Restaurant
At Yum Cha Restaurant, Head Chef Jun Cheang steers the team who makes the eatery’s delicious baskets of dim sum.
Jun’s story began when he learnt to make the delicacies in a dim sum factory. As his interest in traditional cuisine deepened, Jun joined a traditional biscuit house to widen his experiences.
Preserving the traditional heritage of dim sum still motivates Jun, but that hasn’t stopped him from being innovative. Amidst Yum Cha’s plethora of traditional har kow and siew mai, you’ll be able to spot baskets of colourful, cartoon-like baos. Resembling pandas, cows, and pigs, these buns are a feast for the eyes and are immensely appealing to younger ones, too.
Attitude, interest, and passion have led to his success, Jun says. While a keen fascination with the art of traditional, handcrafted delicacies got him to step foot into the F&B world, his eagerness to learn and unwavering zeal has brought him this far.
7. Kun Miao and Qin Quan, second-generation owners of Yu Kee Group and Yu Kee Duck Rice
Mention duck rice and the first place that probably comes to mind isYu Kee Duck Rice. Behind the brand and their 26 outlets across our island are second-generation owners of Yu Kee Group, Kun Miao and Qin Quan.
As you may have heard, many who take over their parents’ F&B businesses struggle. Second-gen owners are often caught between the obligation to carry on their parents’ ways while wanting to take risks— but this is not the case for Yu Kee.
“They’re alright with letting us try, and ultimately, with letting us fail.”
Yu Kee Group’s newest venture into bubble tea, with Taiwanese brand CHICHA San Chen, has garnered huge success from the brand’s first store on local shores. This time, their fearlessness and willingness to take a leap of faith has definitely paid off.
8. Mint, Chef-Owner of The Social Outcast, and Noelle
Despite its name, the team behind the unique grill-and-roast eatery are no outcasts. Meet the formidable forces behind The Social Outcast: Mint, the chef-owner, and Noelle, his partner-in-crime. Their charry signatures are roasted using the Mibrasa, a high-end charcoal oven from Spain that has taken much effort to procure and fly into Singapore.
After his father’s health ordeal, Mint traded in his corporate job for a place in the food industry and came up with the concept of The Social Outcast. At this point, dissuading voices from top chefs poured in—the journey was never an easy one. Nevertheless, the duo stayed true to their vision of the eatery.
And, having taken that leap of faith, Mint and Noelle have definitely found success with their signature meats and fiery passion.
9. Mrs Violet Kwan, Founder of Lana Cakes, and second-generation owner Jason Kwan
Established by Mrs Violet Kwan in 1964, Lana Cakes has been creating their well-loved chocolate cakes for generations of Singaporeans. Mrs Kwan learnt the art of baking from her aunt, Lani, who was visiting from Honolulu. When Mrs Kwan opened up the cake shop, she named it closely after her beloved aunt.
After 5 decades of running the business and at 89 years old, Mrs Kwan decided to retire. Her son, Jason, has managed the ins-and-outs of the business since 2016. Today, Lana Cakes remains true to its artisanal nature. The process of handcrafting and baking in small batches is still central to the bakery’s philosophy, despite high demand for its cakes.
10. Muhd Farhan, Manager of Boon Lay Power Nasi Lemak
Making magic behind the well-loved Boon Lay Power Nasi Lemak is Farhan, who began as a kitchen helper at the stall. His 13-year-long journey with the brand has seen him taking on the roles of driver and store assistant.
Despite difficulties posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, Farhan continues to look on the bright side of life. “We are still wanting to do well”, he adds optimistically. “We’re trying to contribute everything that we have.”
Indeed, perseverance is definitely in Farhan’s vocabulary. Juggling family, work and studies isn’t easy at all, but Farhan has kept on going—simply out of love for what he does.
11. Paul Ooi, Founder of Penang Place
Paul Ooi grew up in a traditional Peranakan family, an hour’s drive away from one of the centres of the Straits Settlement—Penang. As a homage to his hometown and its well-known street fare, Penang Place was born.
Paul’s journey was not easy, much like many of our restaurateurs featured in the Humans of F&B series. Unknown to us before we met him was that he started the business during one of the most challenging times in his life. Having been retrenched from a multinational conglomerate in 2002, Paul had to continue to provide for his family and his 6 children as the sole breadwinner. Therein came Penang Place.
In 2020, declining footfall has had a huge impact on the business. However, Paul has kept all of his staff, including the 7 chefs from Penang and the service and kitchen crew. “We need to do right by the people who depend on us for a livelihood,” he explains, and it is clear that Paul sees them as extended family.
12. Reuben Chua, COO of Yun Nans
Meet Reuben Chua, founder and Chief Operating Officer of Yun Nans. When we met him, he was working on-the-ground in the restaurant—personally attending to guests, ushering them to their seats, and clearing tables alongside the service crew.
Reuben’s foray into F&B would not have happened without his prior career as an investment banker. On a work trip to China in 2015, Reuben found himself enthralled by the diversity of the Chinese F&B scene. Thereafter, he fell in love with Yunnan cuisine and decided to bring it back to local shores.
After operating Yun Nans for a year and a half, Reuben says that he has a newfound appreciation for what goes behind the food. “It’s all about the hard work of the kitchen and the chefs,” he elaborates. Indeed, at Yun Nans’, providing customers with good food and a to-die-for dining experience is a collaborative effort.
13. Shirley Tee, Outlet Chef at The Marmalade Pantry
Leading The Marmalade Pantry, a homegrown bistro in the heart of town, is Chef Shirley Tee. Revealing how she came to join the culinary world—a predominantly-male industry—Shirley says: “I am without an education. But a lot of jobs require certifications or qualifications, so I chose to be a chef to learn useful skills.” At 22, she started as a cook and progressed up the ranks, becoming a commis chef and eventually taking on her current position as Head Chef.
Shirley’s perseverance is admirable. While her path has been full of hurdles, she has overcome each and every one of them. And, surely, Shirley’s soulful creations capture the effort and care that she puts into her craft.
14. Terence Chi, Founder of Guan Chee Hong Kong Roasted Duck
An unwavering commitment to tradition is how it rolls at Guan Chee Hong Kong Roasted Duck. Terence Chi, founder and owner of the renowned business, shares his philosophy.
“As long as our food is good, customers will come.”
After working in a roast duck stall and learning the basics of charcoal roasting, Terence embarked on the business in 1983. Insistent on tried-and-true methods and constantly striving for improvement, Terence and the staff at Guan Chee are masters at their craft. At the end of this arduous cooking process is flavourful roast duck—juicy, tender, and imbued with the smoky breath of wok-hei.
15. Toh Ah Gek and Toh Eng Han, Owners of Nature Vegetarian Delights
Meet Toh Ah Gek and Toh Eng Han, the brother-and-sister duo behind Nature Vegetarian Delights, a quaint little eatery located at Upper Serangoon Shopping Centre.
Having been vegetarians for over 30 years themselves, they share: “It was our late mother’s wish for us to adopt a vegetarian lifestyle… We want to further her wish by making food that will change people’s perspectives of vegetarian food.” Many items on the menu pay homage to their mother’s legacy. For one, take the Ah Ma Mee Hoon Kuey (from $6.80), a dish that Mrs Toh used to make for her 12 children during family dinners. Til today, the chewy, hand-pulled mee hoon kuey, made with their mother’s love, is still fondly remembered by the Toh siblings.