Kitchen tough love

Restaurant Home's chef-owner Tan Yong Hua firmly believes that getting scolded is the best way to learn.

The 41-year-old recalls his experience of learning to cook ee fu noodles at the Marina Bay Golf and Country Club. He was then 15 and working as a chef de partie, or line cook.

He says in Mandarin: "It was after 9pm and the kitchen was no longer so busy, so one of the chefs, Chef Wong, suddenly told me he would teach me how to cook ee fu noodles.

"But he couldn't just tell me what to do. He had to keep scolding me and asking why I was so stupid.

"My hand was shaking so badly. But because I was getting scolded, I will never forget him teaching me.

"He was actually helping me to improve."

Chef Tan seized the opportunity to learn more from chef Wong and found cooking to be his calling, after having tried his hand at various jobs from building furniture to baking bread.

While he does not scold his staff like what his mentor used to do, chef Tan says he is "firm" in his approach.

He has since worked in popular Chinese restaurants such as Royal China at Raffles Hotel Singapore, Peach Blossoms at Marina Mandarin Singapore and Szechuan Court at Raffles The Plaza, now known as Fairmont Singapore.

Restaurant Home, which opened last August at Rail Mall along Upper Bukit Timah Road, is his second restaurant venture. He left his first business, Chu Dao in Joo Chiat, a year after it opened in 2011.

His wife, Sandra, 37, runs her own pastry business called Oven Creations. The couple have a nine-month-old son.

Another lesson he remembers from his days of getting scolded in the kitchen? "Don't go too late to dine at a restaurant," the chatty chef says.

"Chances are, it's not the head chef cooking your meal."

Instead, it may be trainee cooks such as his 15-year-old self behind the stove.

What are your childhood memories of food?

Eating nasi lemak sold from a van that cost only about 20 cents. It was nothing fancy, just ikan bilis and very fragrant rice, but I cannot find the same flavours any more.

What is your favourite local food?

Bak chor mee from a coffeeshop in Bedok Reservoir. I like the deep-fried dumplings with salted fish inside. The soup served with the noodles is sweet and not too thick.

What is your favourite destination for food?Thailand, for the street food. Sometimes on my days off, I will take the first flight to Bangkok - and the last flight back. I like the family-style zichar kind of restaurants with traditional food and flavours. I like Thai stewed meat and fish dishes that are sweet, sour and spicy.

Are you an adventurous diner?

In this line, you have to eat everything but I draw the line at eating dogs. I don't waste food and I'm not fussy. The most exotic thing I've eaten is donkey meat in Beijing. The meat is very tender.

What is comfort food for you?

Stir-fried vegetables with XO sauce. My XO sauce recipe, which is served at the restaurant, includes Jinhua ham, dried shrimp and dried scallops.

I like to eat vegetables as they taste the most "natural" - you need to marinate chicken or fish for the flavours to come out but not vegetables. I like to eat local spinach that is boiled until it is very soft.

You beat Thailand's Chinese cuisine Iron Chef in the Iron Chef Thailand cooking competition in September last year. Tell us about your experience.

I have never been so nervous as we had very little time to form a team. The ingredients were not what we expected. For example, they gave us extra large prawns as the competition's secret ingredient, which is something we don't normally work with.

In the TV show, you cannot see how gan cheong (Cantonese for nervous) everyone is. We finished plating our dishes only in the last two seconds.

If you could choose a secret ingredient for other chefs to cook with, what would it be?

Beancurd. It is such a simple ingredient but the hardest to master because it doesn't have much flavour. Not anyone can come up with 10 beancurd dishes immediately.

What is your worst kitchen disaster?

Working in a hotel's banquet kitchen a few years ago, with three weddings going on at the same time.

We were supposed to serve six deep-fried items, two for each wedding. The oil temperature was so high that three sprinklers broke.

There was water and oil spattering everywhere.

We managed to serve the dishes in the end because other staff from the hotel were deployed to help us.

What's your must-have kitchen tool?

Definitely the wok. We have nine in Restaurant Home's kitchen.

What is your signature dish at Restaurant Home?

Claypot fish that is steamed for 10 minutes with ingredients such as ginger, spring onion and lemongrass. These ingredients bring out the flavour of the three types of fish we use for the dish - marble goby, garoupa and green wrasse.

If you could invite someone to a meal with you, who would you pick?

Chef Wong, who taught me how to cook the ee fu noodles.

He would be in his 70s now, but we aren't in touch anymore. I would cook my version of ee fu noodles for him, which has less oil but just as much flavour.


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