A toast to traditional roast

SINGAPORE - Sleep is one thing Terence Chi craves most during Chinese New Year. In the run-up to the festive period, the founder of Guan Chee Hong Kong Roasted Duck literally feels the heat from having to roast as many as 1,600 ducks, chickens and suckling pigs - cooked the traditional way using charcoal - for reunion dinners all over the island.

While most roast meat producers use gas or electric-powered roasters, Guan Chee, which set up shop in Chinatown in 1980, has made traditional charcoal roasting its specialty. Every year, Mr Chi, along with 20-30 other chefs, starts roasting two days before Chinese New Year until the afternoon of New Year's eve, a gruelling process that takes the best part of 36 hours.

Guan Chee has been receiving orders for at least 1,500 roast meats each year. This puts it on par with roast meat wholesalers, such as Swee Aik Food Manufactory and Wang Xiang Shun Food Industry, which churn out around 1,000 to 2,000 roast meats.

For Mr Chi, looking at the large volume of meat roasted gives him a tremendous sense of satisfaction. "It shows that people recognise that the quality of our food is good, and that our customers are growing," he says.

Mr Chi first learnt the skill of charcoal roasting in 1980 when he worked at a roast meats stall. In charcoal roasting, controlling the fire is important. Compared to other types of roasters where the fire is even, the fire used in charcoal roasting has to be consistently maintained as the charcoal burns to ash.

"It's very traditional and not easy to teach. You need to diligently train each chef in order to produce the same taste," says Conica Lee, Mr Chi's wife.

Training a chef can take between six months and two years. Guan Chee's main chef, Jimmy Teo, says he took around three years to learn the skill. "To tell if the meat is cooked, or whether to build the fire, it depends on your feeling," he says.

The chefs have to meet the standard set by Mr Chi. The skin of the meat must be crispy with a nice colour, and the meat juicy. Similar to a "wok-hei" fragrance that is produced by stir frying food in a wok using high heat, the roasted meat must be infused with the scent and taste of charcoal.

Guan Chee prides itself on the full-bodied flavour of its roasted meats, an important factor that affects Mr Chi's decision to expand his business. "Only charcoal roasting can produce the traditional taste. We want to maintain the brand and this taste," Madam Lee declares.

She reckons there should not be too many outlets because there are just not enough chefs to head them. The couple also rule out setting up franchises. "We don't have the confidence that others will be able to maintain the quality of our food," says Madam Lee.

Guan Chee moved to Hougang in 1983, but it was only in 2007 that it opened another outlet at Suntec City's Food Republic. "Moving to food courts was the biggest challenge and change for us," says Madam Lee.

Their main concern was whether they would be able to use charcoal roasting to produce food of the same quality. They did not agree to food courts which only allowed gas roasting. Besides, rentals were higher and they were worried if people would accept their food along with the higher pricing. "Here, there are a lot of people who appreciate our food, but in a food court, how many will there be?" Madam Lee asks.

"If we don't try, we may not know if our food will really be recognised in food courts," she adds.

Guan Chee now has seven food court outlets, and it opened its first restaurant in Bedok Mall earlier this month.

Madam Lee reckons that her husband's quality control has been key to the firm's success. Mr Chi feels that expanding the business is a way to allow more people to enjoy the food. "It's like a service to the people," he says.

Shrugging off the high cost of opening a restaurant and their lack of experience, the couple decided to take the plunge and offer not only their well-known roast meats but other fine foods such as abalone to diners.

From Guan Chee's humble beginnings in a coffee shop to its present-day restaurant, it seems that traditional food still has its place in Singapore. Reminiscing about old-time favourites such as charcoal-roasted minced meat noodles, hokkien mee and claypot rice, Madam Lee says: "I think that those people around my age will also appreciate and miss these traditional foods."

Indeed, it is the public's craving for things traditional that gives the couple hope for the future of their business. Says Madam Lee: "A lot of people tell me that if I open a restaurant, I'd fail, but I won't think this way. It will make it, because where else will you go to find traditional charcoal-roasted meat?"

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