Growing up, the chime of the school dismissal bell did not spell the end of the day for Mr Han Guo Guang. After school, the then 13-year-old headed to his parents' eatery, Jing Hua Xiao Chi in Neil Road, to cook.
Due to a shortage of kitchen staff, he was tasked with pan-frying pot stickers, or guotie, for dinner on weekdays, with just one day off a week. He worked full time in the kitchen on weekends.
Mr Han, now 37, says: "My mother used to tell me I could not fall sick, so Panadol was my best friend. I would try to finish my homework in school as I would be too tired when I reached home at 11.30pm on most days."
The gruelling task of frying pot stickers gave him burns and blisters as the flames would lick up the edges of the pan as he shifted it around the stove.
Today, he is the food director of the 25-year-old home-grown eatery, renowned for its pan-fried mixed seafood and pork dumplings, steamed pork dumplings and "Chinese Pizza" (minced pork, shrimps and chives sandwiched between puff pastry). He took over the reins of Jing Hua Xiao Chi from his parents last year.
His two younger brothers, aged 31 and 35, are in banking and entrepreneurship and are not involved in the business.
Mr Han is married, with four children aged between four months and 15 years old.
Jing Hua Xiao Chi has expanded beyond Singapore - there are three outlets in Japan and a branch in Milan, Italy, opened last year.
He hopes to change the perception that good dumplings come from only China. He says: "Singapore-style dumplings are more delicate, with light-tasting and fresh fillings, compared with the versions in China, which are more greasy and use thicker dough."
Which dish is the most challenging to make?
Boiled dumplings. It was very difficult to learn as my mother would wrap the parcels in one swift move. I had to ask her to slow down repeatedly. She used to wrap dumplings at the shop from 2am every day. She can wrap them with her eyes closed.
What is the secret to making a good boiled dumpling?
I will taste a bit of the dumpling's raw filling - it should taste light and fresh, with a sweet aftertaste from the crabmeat.
Where do you go for good xiao long bao?
I used to visit Ding Tai Fung in Paragon as that's the flagship outlet. However, I avoid eating it outside of work as I eat too much of it there. If my kids crave it, I would take them to Yan Palace in Hong Lim Complex.
What was the first dish you cooked?
My father taught me how to cook sirloin steak over the phone when I was 10 years old. He instructed me to marinate the steak with salt, pepper and mustard for 20 minutes. I waited for him to come home and pan-fried the steak for one minute on each side for it to taste "bloody". I still follow the recipe today.
What are your favourite foods?
I go to Outram Park Roasted Meat at the Smith Street hawker centre for roast duck twice a week. I love to gnaw the bones at the tail end as that's where the marinade is most concentrated. For kway chap, I go to the Toa Payoh Lorong 1 hawker centre and I like the bak chor mee at Block 58 in Bedok North Road. I like its wonton dumpling and strong garlic taste.
What is your childhood memory of food?
I remember my mum took my brother and I to Azmi Restaurant in Serangoon Road when I was 12 and we ordered chapati. It was the first time we went out for non-Chinese food.
What's your worst kitchen disaster?
When I was 15, I cracked an egg into a frying pan which was filled with hot oil as I was curious. It exploded and my hands were scalded by hot oil. It was so painful, I cried. After seeing a doctor, I went back to work in the kitchen.
What is your guilty pleasure?
I love beef steak. I will pan-fry and sear it. If I am too busy, I will buy deep-fried chicken wings.
What do you always have in your fridge at home?
I always have pork ribs for boiling soups and tubs of Ben & Jerry's ice cream that my kids love. They love vanilla-based flavours.
Do you cook on your days off?
I usually boil herbal soups, such as ginseng, old cucumber or lotus root pork rib, and cook steamed sea bass for my children.
What do you like to do outside of work?
I am an active temple volunteer. Every day, I spend three hours in the morning at Lian Shan Shuang Lin Monastery in Toa Payoh before work to meditate and help tidy up the compound. It makes me feel rejuvenated and alive.
What do you like to eat after work?
I have been trying to lose weight, so I will eat just a few slices of salmon sashimi from the supermarket.
If you could pick someone to have a meal with, who would you pick?
Mr Lee Kuan Yew. I want to thank him for what he has done for Singapore. I really respect him because without him, Singapore would be a very different place.
This article was first published on Feb 1, 2015.
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