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Taking My Father’s Advice To Become A Chef: Swatow City

(做厨师)不怕没有饭吃,不怕没衣服穿。

Being a chef means never having to worry about having enough to eat or clothes to wear.

Executive Chef Chen Zhuneng of Swatow City, on his father’s saying

Hailing from Hong Kong, Chen Zhuneng migrated to Singapore with his parents when he was just 18 years old. Apart from the 2 years that he spent on his National Service, Chef Chen has worked as a chef for all his life. Currently the Executive Chef of Swatow City, a classic Teochew restaurant that also serves up Cantonese cuisine, he has amassed more than 20 years of experience.

As he tells us about his father’s wise words, he breaks into a smile. “The company would give you clothes and food. Even if you don’t have money, you still can eat,” he says as he chuckles. Chef Chen’s own father was also a chef, and this golden saying encouraged him to pursue a career in the kitchen.

‘Swatow’ refers to the city of Shantou in the Guangdong Province. Famed for Teochew-style fare, which is often about capturing the purest, natural flavours of the ingredients, Teochew cuisine’s distinctive flavor profiles are thanks to a concoction of unique ingredients. This means using fermented bean paste, fish sauce, and pickled radish (a.k.a. caipor or cai pu) in abundance. Swatow City also serves up Cantonese or yue cuisine, which is more widespread in the province, and one that he is no stranger to as a Hong Konger.

A chef’s professional ethics

Despite Chef Chen’s cheerful nature and warmth, he has a strong code of ethics he lives by when it comes to work. Unsurprisingly, the holidays are always the toughest time for fellow chefs.

Nevertheless, he shares that the demanding nature of the job is a given. “Even before you become a chef, you should know what the job entails and why it is this way,” he says. “While everyone is enjoying their holidays and reunion gatherings, we’re still busy.”

Chef Chen expertly tosses the ingredients for oh-so-good wok-hei.

With his belief in a need to uphold his professional integrity as a chef, he has overcome all the challenges he encountered along the way.

Swatow City’s Teochew and Cantonese classics

Swatow City’s Teochew Double Boiled Shark’s Fin Bisque is made with soaked premium fins. Be assured that the fins are free of any chemicals or alkaline water. Only pure water is used to prepare the fins. The broth comprises a myriad of ingredients, ranging from duck to old hens, plus radishes and pumpkin for a touch of sweetness. After simmering for 8 hours, the broth is ready.

Still hot and bubbling, all ready to savour.

Served with lightly blanched bean sprouts and a fried dough stick to dip into the broth, the golden bisque is smooth, naturally sweet, and deeply imbued with flavours.

Swatow Group’s signature, and the all-time favourite of many loyal customers, is the Teochew Kai Lan Fried Kuay Teow with Preserved Radish 芥兰菜脯炒粿条 ($11). Cooked with a generous portion of pork lard that is rendered and fried to crisp chunks alongside garlic and cai por, the kway teow and kai lan is tossed well for a good amount of wok-hei. Chef Chen then flattens the mixture, making the kway teow resemble an omelette or pancake instead.

Chef Chen’s special toss to get the kway teow perfectly flat and golden brown.

The end result is delightful. A bite guarantees a blend of tantalizing textures; you’ll taste the crisp exterior of the kway teow, the crunch of the bits of pork lard and kailan, and not to mention the soft noodles too. It’s little wonder that this unique dish has captured the hearts and tastebuds of many.

Swatow City’s main attraction, the Teochew Kai Lan Fried Kuay Teow with Preserved Radish.

Following in dad’s footsteps

Just as Chef Chen took his first step into the culinary industry with his father’s encouragement, his daughter has also ventured onto the same path. Currently, she is enrolled in a polytechnic and learning about the ropes of culinary management, all in hopes of becoming a chef.

Standing for long hours in the wok’s heat, day in and day out, is no easy feat. At some point, Chef Chen wondered why his daughter would want a job that is so difficult. Laughing, he says:

她说她喜欢,她说要学像老爸这样炒菜。

She said that she liked it. She wanted to learn how to cook like me.

Executive Chef Chen Zhuneng, Swatow City
All smiles, Chef Chen!

And surely, Chef Chen must not have had it easy throughout his years in the kitchen. But he tells us that he has found real joy in the ups and downs of it all.

“The biggest sense of satisfaction in being a chef is when customers love the food you cook and that they’re happy to have the dishes you prepare. That is the greatest source of achievement,” he says.

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