Foodie Confidential: Meat-lover once a vegan

Chef Sarah Jane Lin is a true-blue carnivore. She relishes nose-to-tail eating, including offal, and counts springy beef tripe as one of her favourite ingredients to work with.

It is no surprise then that the spunky 29-year-old is the owner of Carvers and Co, an 11-month-old restaurant in East Coast Road which serves hunky slabs of prime rib, beef and gammon ham.

It is hard to believe that the tanned, athletic-looking chef was a vegan for one year. She recalls, sounding embarrassed: "It was 10 years ago; I was experimenting and trying to be fit."

She was also a pilates and yoga instructor for eight years. However, things changed when she met her now-husband, Soh Wen Ming, 32, a musician and the manager of her eatery. Lin says: "He comes from a family of foodies and is a carnivore."

She succumbed to meat-eating pressure, triggered by Thanksgiving parties filled with turkey, ham and pies on her trips to the United States, where her husband studied.

The transition was also spurred by the need to gain muscle mass on her skinny frame, as she was not eating enough protein.

She says: "It was a natural switch; I felt a lot better and stronger."

Her 85-year-old grandmother was also happy that her vegan stint was over as Lin could eat dishes such as assam laksa, fried cuttlefish strips stir-fried with Chinese turnip and boiled soups, which she whipped up for weekly family gatherings.

Lin, who has a younger sister, started cooking at age 13 as she was sick of "tingkat" (food delivered in tiffin carriers).

Her father, 55, works in airport consultancy and her mother, 54, is a yoga teacher.

Inspired by celebrity chefs such as Nigella Lawson and Jamie Oliver, she learnt to cook pasta and roast chicken from watching their cooking shows.

The self-taught chef had a six-month stint under chef Damian D'Silva at Immigrants Gastrobar in Joo Chiat Road and was a partner in brunch cafe, One Man Coffee, in Upper Thomson Road.

What inspired you to open a meat-centric restaurant?

I like cooking a meat platter for friends and family and watching them tuck in. Roast meats are my comfort food and they remind me of Christmas.

What are your favourite types of meats?

Offal. I love the texture and gamey taste. I love that every part of an animal can be used.

How did you pick up butchery skills?

Besides picking up some skills from butcheries during a two-month farm stay in Italy, chef D'Silva taught me how to portion meats and remove the connective tissue when chopping them. I also read butchery books by Adam Danforth, an American butcher.

How did you start cooking professionally?

I was looking for a way to recover the cost of bringing home 30kg of farm produce - one litre of olive oil, cheeses and guanciale from my farm stay in San Cassiano, Italy. I started organising Italian Supper Club sessions at home. It got me thinking about taking cooking to the next level.

Tell us more about the Italian farm stay.

What was supposed to be a two-week honeymoon extended to two months. I did a lot of weeding and learnt authentic Italian cooking from the matriarch of the farm. As she did not speak English, I had to use Google Translate to record her recipes, such as meatballs and porchetta.

Why did you choose to work as a chef in Immigrants GastroBar?

I did not know much about Asian cooking and found out that chef D'Silva was looking for chefs. I wanted to be schooled in the proper ethos of cooking. I learnt Peranakan, Eurasian and Cantonese cooking from him, picked up knife skills and learnt to make rempah bases for different curries.

What is one piece of advice from him that you still remember?

He told me that as a chef, you have to do things the right way. It is not because customers will know, but you will. This advice resonates every time I cook.

What was the most challenging part when transitioning to cooking professionally?

Ensuring that the taste and texture of the dishes stay consistent. I learn how to set kitchen processes, down to measuring the amounts of every ingredient, such as salt, pepper and garlic used in the marinades.

You taught pilates. How different is it from running a restaurant?

The transition was drastic as I went from having an "own time, own target" work schedule to having a full-on job. The challenge is to accept that this is my life now.

What are your favourite ingredients to work with?

Fresh bay leaves. Adding them to stews and tomato sauces can change the tastes drastically. Pork lard, as it is crunchy and so flavourful, and tripe as it melts in your mouth when braised. It absorbs the flavours of the condiments that it is cooked in.

What are your favourite local foods?

Beef cheek rendang by chef D'Silva - it is very soft, gelatinous and rich in coconut milk.

I like the assam laksa from Penang Place, a cafe in Fusionopolis Way and the lard-filled Hokkien mee at Alibabar Hawker Bar in East Coast Road.

What hobbies do you have outside work?

I try to do yoga and pilates as they relax my mind and calm me. I also like watching live local music gigs.

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

My grandmother. I haven't had time to sit down with her to have a proper meal. I am quite close to her as she brought me up.

I always learn new things from her whenever I ask about recipes for Chinese dishes.


This article was first published on April 12, 2015.
Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to for more stories.