Foodie Confidential: Head chef was illegal food peddler

Chef Ben Teo had an early but tough start to his culinary career. When he was 14, he was an illegal food peddler in Bedok Bus Interchange during the school holidays to earn extra pocket money.

He whipped up nasi lemak and steamed Nonya rice dumplings at a friend's home and sold them for 50 and 80 cents to shipyard workers at 5am and midnight. "I wanted to see if people would try my food. I sold 150 packets of nasi lemak in a day."

Those were stressful stints as he had to look out for hawker enforcement officers. He was almost caught once. "They confiscated my food and wares and I ran for my life."

Now 57, he is head chef of Peranakan Flavours, a year-old Straits Chinese cafe at The Ardennes Hotel in Jalan Klapa. Besides rare Peranakan dishes such as Belimbing (stewed pork with a sour fruit) and yong tau fu cooked in nanas (pineapple) sauce, he also serves dishes that he grew up eating, such as yam cake, which his late nanny used to make.

Teo, the ninth of 12 children, notes that his nanny ignited his love for cooking. As a toddler, he literally grew up in the kitchen as his nanny strapped him on her back while she cooked. At five, he learnt to pound spices to make sambal belachan.

He says: "My nanny could whip up Peranakan and Cantonese dishes with all the recipes stored in her head." His late father, who owned a liquor business, was a "true blue Baba" and insisted on having only Peranakan dishes at home, while his late housewife mother was Cantonese.

After graduating from Siglap Secondary School, he signed up as a kitchen apprentice in Li Bai Cantonese Restaurant in Sheraton Towers in 1985.

He has also worked in various restaurants in Bangkok and Kuwait.

As his only son, 34, who is in the IT industry, is not interested in cooking, he is passing his recipes to his godson, Gabriel Goh, 33, who is assistant head chef of Peranakan Flavours.

Teo, whose wife died from colon cancer in January at age 58, says: "I do not want recipes and cooking knowledge to be lost at my generation, or else Peranakan cuisine will become extinct."

You are Peranakan. Why did you start your career in a Cantonese restaurant?

Cantonese food was the "in" cuisine and considered fine dining. I wanted to go to a place where I could be trained properly in cooking.

What is the difference between Cantonese and Peranakan cooking?

A key ingredient in Chinese fine-dining dishes is the use of a superior stock prepared with Jing Hua Chinese ham, offal and lean pork, so they taste around the same. However, in Peranakan cooking, the rempah spices determine the flavours of a dish and give different bursts of flavours in the mouth.

How was it when you first started working as a kitchen apprentice?

It was tough. There was no hand-holding on the job. It was extra hard as my Mandarin was not good. I learnt the names of the dishes by memorising the menu. However, the menu changed every three months and I had to re-memorise them.

Which chef did you look up to?

The then-executive Chinese chef Chin Hon Yin at Li Bai Cantonese Restaurant in Sheraton Towers was my mentor. Back then, there was hierarchy in the kitchen and chefs would not bother talking to kitchen apprentices. However, chef Chin was strict but approachable.

What was one advice that made an impact on you?

I wanted to give up and work in the Western kitchen. However, chef Chin told me to persevere when faced with obstacles, not to be picky and that whatever I learnt will eventually become knowledge that I own.

What is your favourite ingredient?

Kaffir lime leaves. It does wonders in cooking. It helps mask the taste of frozen meats. I use it to cook dishes such as belimbing and chinchalok (stewed pork with fermented prawn paste).

What did you miss most when you were working overseas?

Rempah. My family would send me a bottle every few weeks and I would eat it sparingly.

What is your secret to a good bakwan kepiting (a soup with prawn, crab and pork meatballs)?

It is the stock that has been simmered for six hours with prawn shells and flower crabs, which has a concentrated taste, and the freshness of the pork.

Your all-time favourite Singapore foods?

I like Tian Tian Hainanese Chicken Rice at Maxwell Road Food Centre, especially its chilli. I also like the fried Fuzhou oyster cake stall there. I like its fragrance and it is quite a complex food to make.

What's your worst kitchen disaster?

During Sheraton Towers' first banquet in 1985, a chef burnt the dim sum pastries, which were meant to be the last course.

The head chef blew his whistle and got 20 kitchen staff to stop what we were doing and started rolling dough stuffed with red bean paste. It was total chaos and very scary.

What do you always have in your home fridge?

At least three types of rempah for curry and assam dishes. They're for my brothers who want to cook.

What do you think of modern takes on Peranakan cuisine?

It is taking a risk, especially when cooking for older Peranakans who are very particular about taste. Young chefs did not grow up eating the original dishes so they have nothing to compare with, taste-wise. For me, it is okay to change the presentation and ingredients, as long as the taste is preserved.

What do you like to do outside of work?

I like going to places such as Punggol Jetty to catch catfish or sea bass. But I do not cook them, I give them away.

If you could pick anyone to have a meal with, who would you pick?

My dad. He died when I was 20. I would cook dishes such as fish maw soup and green papaya soup with salted fish and ask if they are close to what my nanny cooked.

This article was first published on Mar 15, 2015.
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