Chef Eric Ong got into cooking because of grief.
His father died after a heart attack when he was 13 and the Dunearn Secondary student would brood in the school canteen.
A kind-hearted canteen vendor took an interest in him and allowed him to help out at her stall, which kept him busy.
During recess time, he fried chicken wings and made omelettes at the stall.
Ong, 42, says: "Besides earning some pocket money, cooking at her stall was interesting and fun and it started my passion for cooking."
After completing his O levels, he enrolled in hospitality school Shatec Institutes, where he picked up French cooking and pastry-making.
He is now the new executive chef of Grand Park City Hall in Coleman Street
He has worked in the former Westin Stamford (now Swissotel The Stamford) and spent 12 years working across China starting food and beverage concepts in a slew of new hotels, such as The Westin Beijing, The Westin Tianjin and Sheraton Jiuzhaigou Resort in Sichuan.
Ong, who is the oldest of three children, says: "Working in China was exciting. We could come up with larger-than-life dining concepts, such as having a two-storey brunch buffet station complete with dance and acrobatic performances."
He was also involved in the catering for events such as the Summer Olympics in Beijing in 2008 and the World Economic Forum meetings in Tianjin in 2010 and 2012.
A desire to spend more time with his two sons, aged eight and six, prompted him to return home. His 35-year-old Shanghainese wife is a commis chef in Genting Hotel Jurong.
He says: "It is great to work in the same line as my wife, as we can talk about food all the time."
What was the first dish you cooked?
When I was six, I learnt to cook mee sua with sesame oil and ginger. My mother had just given birth to my brother and was craving comfort food.
How did your interest in cooking develop in school?
Back then, home economics classes were reserved for girls only. However, the canteen vendor convinced the school principal to allow me to attend home economics classes.
I was the only boy in that class for three years. I was teased initially for having a different interest, but I thought that cooking was a skill that could earn me a living.
What did you learn in those classes?
It was my first time receiving proper training in the kitchen. I learnt how to make cookies, kueh such as ondeh ondeh and yam cake. They also taught us how to fry vegetables and make curries.
What was your first dish as a chef?
Maine lobster with orange dressing. The claws needed to be boiled separately from the body, as they take a longer time to cook, and we added salt to the water when boiling the lobsters in order to retain their flavour.
What's your favourite ingredient to work with?
Orange, as its citrus scent whets the appetite.
I like to use orange-infused oils in dressings for salads and appetisers. It is also a versatile ingredient, as orange skin can be used in double-boiled soups and in French dishes such as duck a l'orange (roast duck with orange sauce).
What do you think is the most difficult dish to cook?
Preparing duck demi-glace sauce can take eight hours. First, the duck bones have to be roasted with carrots, onions, leeks and celery until they turn soft and caramelised. Then, tomato paste and wine go into the mix. You need to experience the process to learn to make the sauce.
Which chef do you look up to most?
Chef Ivan Yeo, who is the former group executive chef of the Park Hotel group. I was a trainee chef in The Westin Stamford and he taught me about Western fine-dining.
I still use his formula when making sauces for meat-based dishes. He advised me to enhance the sauces with wine or vegetables, so the dish does not become too heavy on the palate.
What food did you miss most when you were in China?
Laksa. I could not find a proper version there, as they do not use laksa leaves and the coconut milk is not as thick and creamy.
What are the most bizarre dishes you have eaten in China?
Drunken live prawns. The live prawns are soaked in Shaoxing wine, ginger and vinegar for five minutes, which kills the prawns. The prawns taste very sweet and fresh. Another dish is braised lamb spine in a spicy stock. It can be addictive during winter.
What are your favourite Singapore foods?
I like the century egg and pork porridge at Yuhua Village Food Centre in Jurong East. It is comfort food that I can eat every day. I like the laksa from Let's Eat. The quality of the coconut-based gravy is consistent across the outlets.
What do you cook at home?
My kitchen is as big as my living room and it is equipped with two fridges and ovens. I love cooking with my wife. We make sukiyaki (Japanese steamboat), barbecued meats and Shanghainese dishes, such as Shi Zi Tou.
It consists of fried pork balls stuffed with duck egg yolk, coated with rice and braised in cabbage and dried scallop stock.
What do you have in your home fridges?
There will always be sauces such as ketchup, chilli and mayonnaise, oranges and yogurt.
If you could pick anyone to have a meal with, who would you pick?
My wife, who is a fellow chef. We always discuss how to replicate dishes we have tried in restaurants.
These experiments include trying to make the tomato sauce from Hai Di Lao Hot Pot and xiaolongbao.
This article was first published on May 31, 2015.
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