Foodie families: Violet Oon's Kitchen

SINGAPORE - Food has always been a part of Violet Oon's life. She learnt to cook from her grandaunts, became a food journalist, ran a food publication, the now- defunct The Food Paper, and published cookbooks.

Known for her attention to detail, the 65-year-old divorcee has overseen the food offerings for large-scale events such as the International Monetary Fund- World Bank conference in 2006 for 6,500 delegates.

She also ran a restaurant in Bukit Pasoh, had three theatre cafes and sold her famous shepherd's pies at Takashimaya Food Hall in the 1990s. These businesses eventually closed and she moved on to do food consultancy.

In 2011, her children Su-lyn Tay, 38, a mother of three who used to run a fashion business; and her son Yiming Tay, 32, who worked in marketing, started planning for Violet Oon's Kitchen, which opened on Bukit Timah Road in 2012.

Both the children look after the business, with Mr Tay running the day- to-day operations. The siblings also work on their growing bespoke catering business.

The restaurant has four full-time chefs, with Ms Oon cooking from time to time. She develops new recipes, trains the chefs and oversees the quality of the food.

The modern Singapore bistro serves Peranakan food and other dishes her children grew up eating, such as shepherd's pie.

Customers who love the food approached them to cater weddings, baby showers, product launches and corporate events and their bespoke catering service was born.

They work on about 30 events a month and customers find them mostly through word of mouth.

Among their unusual offerings are Peranakan-style canapes and four-course meals plated Western style but featuring traditional tastes, such as risotto rice cakes with beef rendang.

Q: Although your mother is the doyenne of Singapore food, neither of you have a food background, so how did you end up opening Violet Oon's Kitchen?

Su-lyn Tay (ST): The Peranakan food we grew up eating was made the way she was taught. We wanted to preserve this tradition, the cooking techniques and the way of preparing rempah.

Yiming Tay (YT): Traditional Singapore food is fading out. The children of the people who cook it don't want to take over. It's become harder to get authentic Singapore food and it will get harder.

Starting a restaurant was a bit of a risk, but my mother has that wealth of experience and although it seemed daunting, in a way, it wasn't.

What did you think of your children's decision to open the restaurant?

Violet Oon (VO): I was already in my 60s and you wouldn't start a restaurant in your 60s. I was thinking about it, about how their friends still remembered the shepherd's pies I sold in Takashimaya.

Yiming, who worked in marketing, felt that the brand must be quite strong for people to remember it after it's been out of the market for years. So it would be sad if we didn't make an effort to keep the brand.

What is it like working with one another?

SL: I come from a Peranakan family, people are very loud.

YT: It's difficult to keep it all in. Everything just comes out at the dinner table.

SL: But no matter what we fight about, we have our best interests at heart. That's why there's no resentment, no baggage. We can be brutally honest with one another.

VO: It was not easy, it was a trial by fire. You have to forget that your kid is your kid.

What do your children bring to the business?

VO: They eat out a lot and know what they would expect as customers. You know what Su-lyn once told me? 'Mummy, that's not Violet Oon standard. This is not what I remember. You better do something about it.'

SL: But I've had this food all my life. It's not as if I started eating it two years ago.

Do you think the business is in good hands?

VO: I was in hospital after a stroke earlier this year and they pulled off a wedding for 400 people seamlessly. Su-lyn did the decor, Yiming did the set-up and they sent me pictures while I was in hospital.

That was when I knew they could handle it.

This story first appeared in last month's issue of The Life digital magazine.

This article was first published on Dec 29, 2014.
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