The co-founder of the famed nasi lemak restaurant The Coconut Club has died at the age of 40.
Mr Lee Eng Su, who was not married, died at home last Thursday, a family member told The Sunday Times yesterday (Sept 14), but declined to say what he died of.
The Coconut Club and its sister restaurant Belimbing Superstar, which has been open for only three weeks, closed on Friday and will re-open on Tuesday. Both eateries are in Ann Siang Road.
The Coconut Club opened in 2016 and shot to fame after Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong hosted Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte to a meal there that same year.
It also won a place on the Michelin Guide's Bib Gourmand list last year.
The late Mr Lee had spoken passionately about how nasi lemak is not just a dish but a "cuisine" when he talked to ST in 2017.
After attending a nasi lemak convention in Kuala Lumpur in 2014, the chef was inspired to perfect his own version, made from scratch.
Mr Michel Lu, programme director of a food and beverage (F&B) entrepreneurship course at Singapore Management University (SMU), brought friends from Hong Kong to The Coconut Club two months ago.
"I'm very sad and upset to hear the news," he said yesterday. "What he has done is very important for Singapore - to preserve heritage food that is authentic and true. It is done with a lot of care and I have a lot of respect for what they have achieved."
Coconut Club staff to whom The Sunday Times spoke remembered Mr Lee as not just a good and caring boss, but as part of their family.
Ms Laura Chan, a 21-year-old SMU student and part-time worker at the eatery, said: "When he interviewed me for the job, he told me about how everyone is family at the restaurant.
"When I told him about how much I love my grandparents, he cried because he understood how important that was. That was life-changing for me, because I've never met someone so loving. He has always been a beacon of light for all of us."
Single mother Michelle Paul, 29 and a full-time member of the service staff, said: "I was very broken when I met him, but he made an effort to always ask how I was and have good conversations with me."
She had not planned to stay in the F&B industry at first, but working with Mr Lee made her love The Coconut Club. "He had a dream for everyone and wanted us to grow."
Mr Nazrin Shah, 27, a chef at Belimbing Superstar, which specialises in Peranakan economy rice, recalled how Mr Lee helped him get through a break-up: "I wasn't myself then, but instead of firing me, he paid for me to go for therapy sessions. He always had a dream of educating the community and giving back to society. We want to carry on his legacy."
This article was first published in The Straits Times. Permission required for reproduction.