Food is something that connects people from all walks of life.
It is something that can even connect people from different countries where they don't even speak the same language.
This is the guiding mantra for Chef Alvin Chiong who runs Peace Thai Cuisine at Hong Lim Food Centre.
But the 51-year-old is not your typical chef. He spends his free time doing outreach as a volunteer at prison and showcasing the storied triad-related history of Chinatown as a heritage tour guide for Triad Trails.
Speaking to AsiaOne on Nov 28, Alvin shares that he first started cooking when he was serving his National Service (NS).
Posted as a cook at the Commandos camp, the former drug addict had to make freshly cooked meals from scratch.
Inside this strict kitchen environment, Alvin learnt to make everything from bak kut teh to buttercake doughnuts for the starving army personnel.
After completing NS, he followed his passion and worked at a zi char place for a short period before moving on to another line of work.
During the period of instability in his life, Alvin shared that he fell into bad company and was incarcerated four times before he finally resolved to turn over a new leaf eight years ago.
While volunteering at the prison, he rediscovered his love for cooking through a part-time job working at the zi char restaurant Shi Tang by Mahota Kitchen.
Though he was well versed with whipping up Chinese and Western dishes, it was a chance meeting with Peace Thai Cuisine owner Simon Ng that set Alvin on the path of preparing Thai food.
New dishes, old-school techniques
Back then in 2020, Alvin was running his own home-based food business and "liked to R&D" on new dishes at home.
He started out as a waiter with Simon's other restaurant Peace Japanese Cuisine, but found himself back behind the fire once again as chef this August.
Alvin stepped up to the plate after the previous chef of Peace Thai Cuisine Dr Vic Lee suffered a stroke.
"I told Simon I'll stand-by for you — if anything were to happen, I'll come and help you here (Peace Thai Cuisine)".
While being a hawker is no easy feat, Alvin stated that "it's a matter of commitment".
"If you are a person who can work, you will do well."
Nowadays, Chef Alvin has not only filled the shoes of his predecessor but he has also put his own spin on the Peace Thai Cuisine menu, catering it to suit local tastebuds.
For instance, typically there is no such thing as wok hei flavour in Thai cooking, but Alvin chooses to incorporate it because it is something beloved by locals.
"I like to cook and invent new dishes that keep the traditional ways of cooking," he tells us.
Also, Alvin chooses to deviate from the familiar Pad Thai style to cook his noodle dishes in the Pad See Ew (Thai traditional char kway teow) style using flat wide kway teow noodle because he wanted to "try something which is not traditional".
While it may sound simple enough, Alvin confesses that it's down to a case of trial and error in refining his dishes with his boss Simon till they are ready to be served to customers.
The taste test
Insisting that we try his sliced beef Thai Pad See Ew dish, we were delighted with the fine balance between sweet and savoury flavours in his humble noodle dish.
The smokey wok hei flavour also added more depth to the otherwise bland kway teow and we like the fact that the sliced beef added a much-needed bite as compared to the traditional option of minced meat.
The star of the meal for us though, has to be his accompanying Thai chili sauce.
Tangy and packing some real heat, it feels like a pumped-up version of our chicken rice chili (sans the ginger) and is a departure from the Thai variety of either sweet or fish sauce based type of chili.
Furthermore, it is a testament to Alvin and his culinary skills that his weekly special menu item, minced beef garlic fried rice has become such a hit that it will now be added permanently to the stall's menu.
In fact, his popular minced beef garlic fried rice is such a hit that it has even gotten the thumbs-up from customers from aboard.
Calling it the best customer feedback that he has received to date, Alvin shared that he once recommended his minced beef garlic fried rice to a Japanese tourist.
After his meal, the Japanese tourist returned to the store with clasped hands just to commend and thank him on his fragrant fried rice.
Alvin said that really "made his day" and that all he wants as a chef is to "see on his customer's face that they really enjoyed my food".
Sticks and stones might break his bones, but words wouldn't
Nonetheless, it's not all smooth sailing for him since he has taken over.
For one, Alvin said that he has gotten negative comments about his food.
He shared that for "those people familiar to traditional Thai food", they "cannot accept changes" to the established recipe.
Citing the example of using sliced chicken thigh and beef in place of the traditional minced meat in his dishes, Alvin said that it can be upsetting when customers aren't open to try new things.
This also makes "it very hard for F&B operators to improve and come out with new dishes", Alvin claims.
Elaborating on, he mentioned how he "really don't understand" why in fine dining restaurants, no customers go up to the Executive Chef and question them when they deviate from the norm, but do so when it comes to hawker food.
Walking the talk
Still, Alvin is not one to dwell on such negative things and looks ahead at maintaining the good reputation that Peace Thai Cuisine has.
"It's still Simon's stall and he has an award-winning Japanese restaurant, so I hope I don't spoil the Peace [brand] name".
In the long term, Alvin hopes that Peace Thai Cuisine can offer more than just food.
Outlining his plan for those "standing at the crossroads" of life, he wants the stall to become an avenue for troubled individuals who "just came out of prison or need a job badly to change their life".
Alvin envisions Peace Thai Cuisine as a place of work where he can help "train, encourage and bring these ex-offenders back onto the right track".
And the best way that he can achieve this is to "set an example" for these lost ex-offenders by "doing what he preaches".
"If I talk and don't do the work, I don't think it's very fair for me to go and encourage people."
"That's why I always put myself in that position first before I tell someone it can be done."
Address: 531A Upper Cross Street #02-52, Hong Lim Food Centre, Singapore 051531
Opening hours: Mondays – Fridays, 10am – 3pm
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