Singapore chefs reveal what they feed their kids

Preeta, daughter of Chef Balasundram Pillai and Pramila Karuppiah, loves sweets but is careful not to over-indulge. With them is her older brother Shashidar.
PHOTO: Singapore chefs reveal what they feed their kids

SINGAPORE - A few times a year, Ms Edina Hong buys takeaway fast food to eat with her four-year-old daughter Keira - and she has to do this behind her husband's back.

He is chef Emmanuel Stroobant and he dislikes processed food, preservatives and deep-fried items. So fast food is frowned upon.

At home, he insists on "fresh produce, cooked simply". It is the same for the string of restaurants, including Saint Pierre, which the 45-year-old runs with Ms Hong. He says: "It's not so much what we eat but how we eat it."

Breakfast is the most important because that is when the whole family, including their younger daughter Mia, 18 months old, eat together.

Typically, he serves cold and hot items such as chopped fruit - mango, apple and persimmon - and a bowl of hot noodles. "The girls have their milk when they wake up at 6am but they sit at the table anyway, and eat however much they like," says Chef Stroobant.

When they eat hamburgers at home, the patties are made from a piece of ribeye. But Ms Hong, 41, confesses: "That said, we do cheat from time to time when daddy is not at home. We 'ta pau' (Hokkien for 'pack') fast food home."

Keira admits to liking french fries but adds: "I cannot eat too much of it. If not, I will become fat - like mummy."

Call it an occupational hazard, but Stroobant is certainly not the only chef to be particular about what he wants his loved ones to eat.

Chefs Life! interviewed say they carry over their professional food philosophies at home. They use fresh ingredients and cook healthy - steamed and poached rather than deep-fried.

Ian Hioe, senior sous chef at modern European eatery Blue Potato at Swissotel Merchant Court, is another strict dad when it comes to food.

The 39-year-old says: "The sweetest drink at home is Yakult and my children drink packet Milo only on occasion. They also hardly eat tidbits such as potato chips."

He adds that cultivating these habits when the children are young will ensure that they do not grow up with a sweet tooth and have fewer health problems such as diabetes later on.

He and his teacher wife, Ms Ong Wee Wah, 40, have two sons - Zechariah, eight, and Jeremiah, five.

The boys have little room to go astray in their food choices. Jeremiah is in childcare and his teachers know that he must stay away from eggs, fishballs, fishcake and cold drinks - all of which bring on his eczema or asthma attacks. Zechariah studies in the same primary school in the east where Ms Ong teaches. So mum drives him and his younger brother to grandma's home for meals after school.

Chef Hioe's culinary philosophy is to "let the food speak for itself", so fresh ingredients and minimal seasoning to "retain original flavours" are a must, he says. He goes marketing with the family to buy fresh ingredients when he has time to cook.

Founder of The Soup Spoon, Ms Anna Lim, 38, believes in homemade goodness for her two children - Isabella Chan, six, and Elijah, three. Flavourings, colourings and preservatives as well as anything from peanuts, dairy foods and eggs are not allowed, as her children get severe eczema after eating them.

When the children were under a year old, she pureed pumpkin or home-cooked beef stew, froze them into ice cubes, ready to be added into porridges.

The children are growing out of their dairy allergies, but Ms Lim still makes her own yogurt ice lollies for fun. Husband Andrew Chan, 39, who runs The Soup Spoon business with her, even brews his own beer in their townhouse in Katong.

The children eat food from McDonald's once in a while, "not so much for the meals but the toys", says Ms Lim. She adds: "Even if they had no allergies, home-cooked food is still the way to go. I believe in doing everything from scratch - you know exactly what goes in and what stays out."

When the chefs are too busy to cook at home, their food philosophy seems to have been conveyed well to their spouses.

Chef Chris Hooi, 47, of Dragon Phoenix restaurant, leaves it to his 42-year-old wife Summer Ha to cook "easy meals, done in minutes", two or three times a week. These include nourishing soups, steamed pomfret and poached broccoli with oyster sauce.

Ms Ha, originally from Hong Kong and now a Singapore permanent resident, supports her husband's eat-healthy philosophy. She says: "It's good for the body and you also put on less weight."

There is another benefit to cooking simply at home. "No standing for hours like I do in a restaurant, and there is less hassle and cleaning up," says Chef Hooi, who cooks once every other month at home.

Chef Balasundram Pillai, 39, also leaves it to his wife Pramila Karuppiah to cook for their two children. Instead of ghee and coconut milk, which are often used in Indian cooking, she turns to canola oil, yogurt and evaporated milk.

Better known as Chef S.R. Bala, he ran two Indian restaurants, including Empire Curry, until three years ago and is president of the Indian Chefs & Culinary Association (Singapore).

He "emphasises" traditional foods. "The spices in Indian food have enzymes that are good for the body," he says, adding that curry leaves are known to help reduce blood disorders and turmeric cuts down on acids in the stomach.

His 37-year-old wife cooks daily in the morning, so their daughter Preeta, seven, eats lunch at home before going to school. Their son Shashidar, 10, has it when he gets home.

As much as chefs would like to inculcate good eating habits in their offspring, they also fight against the lure of sweets and snacks for their children.

Preeta is happy with Chef Bala's healthy food philosophy at home, but she also "loves chocolates, lollipops and candy canes". If she had her way, she would take one sweet thing from the refrigerator every day, "even though my parents tell me not to take it".

Chef Hooi's 11-year-old son Alex says he has "just a few pieces of crackers and one or two Mentos sweets a day" when studying in River Valley Primary. This is because he is "used to healthy eating".

But when he was five and his sister Ada was three, they each chomped through an "A4-size bag" of potato chips or nachos dipped in cheese sauce daily for about two weeks.

Chef Hooi says: "It was like a free flow buffet - ridiculous for kids that age to finish a whole bag of chips a day." He questioned his kids after noticing that supplies ran out too quickly. Keeping the snacks out of sight and high up in the grocery cupboard took away the temptation to snack.

Despite the chefs' best intentions, their children grow up and form their own preferences with food.

Teenager Amos Soh admits to a curry breakout when he was about 13 and in St Joseph's Institution. The 16-year-old says: "When eating with friends in restaurants near school, I fell in love with Japanese curry. I went from zero curry to having it once a week."

This was despite being brought up on the simple "soup, vegetable and meat" dishes by his father, sous chef Edward Soh from the AquaMarine buffet restaurant at Marina Mandarin Singapore.

Chef Soh and his 43-year-old health-care assistant wife had insisted on using "less salt, oil and sugar" and cooking "more steamed" dishes when he cooks at home once a month.

To counter his son's meat-heavy food preferences, Chef Soh prepares stock-rich soups that are laden with pumpkin, carrots or tomatoes and side dishes that include stir-fried broccoli with garlic and soya sauce.

He prefers that his family eat more fibre for better digestion and less meat, which "creates acid" in the body and "isn't good for health".

So when the family eats out, the 50-year-old chef always picks a seafood steamboat restaurant. He says: "Steamboat has lots of vegetables and seafood is not as heavy as meat."

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