What’s being a chef about to you?
One of the things I realized after shooting my shows is that (this is with all due respect to all chefs cooking with passion) there’s no money in it. It’s only the idea that you cook for people and the gratification you get when they appreciate your creative ideas.
How have your culinary adventures inspired you?
Now I am moving more towards the idea of executing food with precision, which is not ridiculously creative. I am going back to classics; the same thing I am doing with my street food. But the thing about these guys making the most amazing street food is that they don’t get credit for it because they are selling it for four bucks. To me, that guy is as much a culinary hero as Thomas Keller; except that you take your hats off to Keller for all the ingredients and techniques he uses.
What is it like working for Bobby Chinn?
How my staff relate to me has changed a lot actually. I used to live in my restaurant. I would sleep in my restaurant for about nine months on and off, and I trained everybody. There were times when staff wanted to leave and I was like, “Where are you going? You don’t even know how to speak English properly and you want to leave? Think about what you are saying to me! You walk out that door and think about how much time I spend teaching you!” I told them to look at it as an education. So basically, I educated everybody with my standard of service from what I was used to and I was able to keep a lot of staff and make them work like dogs. But now I travel a little too much, and things have changed. That desire for knowledge from my staff isn’t really there anymore.
Where did your love of cooking come from?
I don’t know actually. The truth of the matter is, I think that as a kid you don’t really appreciate food and you just accept that you are going to eat whatever your parents feed you—whether you like it or not. In those days if you didn’t eat it—it’s called abuse now—you’d be disciplined. So you ate whatever was placed in front of you. I didn’t realize that food could actually be a horrible experience until I went to England and the food was absolutely horrific when I was a kid going to school. I had really great food from my Shanghainese grandmother who was a fantastic cook. She used to pay us a dollar if we gained a pound and my sister and I would just pig out.
So, any plans to open a Bobby Chinn restaurant in Singapore?
I’d like to. One of the difficult things about opening a restaurant in Singapore is that I find Singaporeans are very spoilt with their food. You can eat really well for $4, so why would they want to pay me $7 for a crème brûlée when you can have a plate of char kway teow for the same price? Why are all these great chefs coming to Singapore and why does (Anthony) Bourdain speak so highly of Singapore’s food culture? It’s the incredible variety. So if I were to do something here, it would have to be affordable.