Jason Tan, head chef and co-owner of European restaurant Corner House at EJH Corner House in the Singapore Botanic Gardens, never thought he would work in the culinary industry, let alone run a restaurant of his own.
In fact, he did not even think much of being in the kitchen.
When he was 15, he took a holiday job as a kitchen hand washing pots at a now-defunct cafe in Upper Bukit Timah to earn extra pocket money.
Washing and scraping the base of pots, not the most glamorous of jobs obviously, did not interest him, but it was "a good experience" nonetheless, the 32-year-old says.
It was only when he was given a chance to cut vegetables and learn to make pizza dough that his attitude towards work in the kitchen changed.
The bachelor, the younger of two sons of a housewife and a retired crane operator, says: "The thought of making dough from water, yeast and flour got me thinking about how food was made.
"I realised that a few simple ingredients, when put together, could turn into something delicious."
His older brother, 35, is a secondary school science and mathematics teacher.
It was that kitchen experience about 17 years ago that sparked the Bukit View Secondary School alumnus' lifelong passion for cuisine and cooking.
After secondary school, he studied culinary arts at hospitality school Shatec.
He worked at several upmarket restaurants, including Les Amis at Shaw Centre, the now-defunct Le Saint Julien at The Fullerton Waterboat House and Sky on 57 at Marina Bay Sands.
He also worked at the Mandarin Oriental, where he ran the kitchens for in-room dining and international buffet restaurant Melt; and at Michelin-starred French chef Joel Robuchon's Robuchon a Galera (now Robuchon au Dome) in Macau.
Did you set a goal for yourself when you were in culinary school?
Yes, a realistic one. I noticed that most of the sous chefs, especially in the hotel I was working at, were in their 30s or 40s. So I told myself that by the time I turn 35, I want to be a sous chef too.
How did you spur yourself to become who you are today?
I told myself that if I wanted to be a good chef, I would have to give it my best and put in the necessary effort. If I wanted to make a name for myself, I would have to push myself.
You are 32 and now co-own a restaurant. How do you feel now that you have achieved this goal?
It's a dream come true. But getting here also meant a lot of long hours and sacrifices - that's why I'm still single.
Did you ever consider giving up your dream, given the long hours?
No. What kept me and keeps me going is my passion for food and cooking and my thirst for knowledge.
Ask me to read a novel and I will probably fall asleep after 15 minutes, but when it comes to cookbooks, I can read them for days.
What is your favourite ingredient to work with?
Onions. I never used to like them when I was growing up because I didn't like vegetables. But as a chef, I've come to like them because they are very versatile.
My favourite type of onion is the Cevennes onion, which is from a mountain range in France. It is sweet and delicate.
You can confit and caramelise them, as well as make onions into a foam, broth or emulsion.
Describe what a perfect dish means to you.
To me, the perfect dish is like a woman: If she looks good, she should be of good character once you get to know her.
I think the same should apply to food: If it looks good, once you eat it or "get to know it better", it should taste good too. A dish would be incomplete if it doesn't taste as good as it looks. It's all about managing expectations.
What is your comfort food?
Some years ago, my mother bought chicken rice from Kim Heng Chicken Rice at Block 16 Teck Whye Lane, a stall in a coffee shop near our flat.
I have been hooked since. There is nothing fancy about it, but it is just wholesome.
I also enjoy the cheese chiffon cake and the Original Kyushu Ramen from Tampopo, which has outlets at Liang Court and Ngee Ann City.
What is your biggest food indulgence?
Ice cream, especially Ben & Jerry's. I can finish a whole pint of Strawberry Cheesecake ice cream when I'm in the mood.
What dish of your mother's do you enjoy the most?
Her sweet and sour chicken with lychees. She uses either fresh or canned lychees for added sweetness.
It tastes a little different to me now that I'm older, but it still brings back a lot of memories.
If you have to recommend one local restaurant to someone from out of town, where would it be?
JB Ah Meng in Geylang Lorong 23 for its tasty san lo mi fen (fried sliced fish bee hoon) that has good wok hei (breath of wok), white pepper crab and its deep-fried eggplant and capsicum.
It opens till late.
This article was first published on Nov 23, 2014.
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