SINGAPORE - Wild caught, hormone-free and homemade. Long before these became trendy catchphrases tagged onto restaurant menus, Pioneer Seafood was already well ahead of the pack. That's because Lee Choon Huat, the 75-year-old proprietor of the 35-year-old Chinese restaurant in Tuas has his roots deep in the fish trade. Having lived in the area since its days as a sleepy fisherman's village, he swears by only eating - and serving - the freshest catch daily, because that's what he's used to.
"Ours was the only Chinese family in a Malay kampung of fishermen. My brothers and I helped out with my mother's fish trading business, so we would gather near the jetty at the (now-defunct) Tanjong Kling beach to buy the daily catch from the fishermen and then transport it to the central fish market at Boat Quay for auction," he reminisces.
Subsequently, he helped out with the catching of fish as well, sailing out to Indonesian waters to fish every evening and returning only at daybreak the following day. "My favourite moment was always watching the sky slowly brighten as we were driving back to Singapore. We always drove towards the light - that's how we would find our direction home," he muses. Though the Tuas of today is more dusty industrial enclave than the seaside idyll etched in Mr Lee's childhood memories, the rapid modernisation of the area has not prompted him to up and go.
After a brief four-year relocation to Jurong Point mall in 2008, he decided to move back in July last year into a larger, 450-seater space within the Tuas Amenity Centre.
Return of signature dishes
Longtime customers of Mr Lee will cheer the return of signature dishes such as the prawn fillet with macadamia nuts coated with a golden orange sauce, or the baby squids stuffed with a homemade XO sauce so addictive that you can even request to buy it home by the jar. There are circa 2014 updates on the menu, too. The Teochew yam paste is entirely lard-free, with additions of Thai pumpkin and water chestnut mixed in instead for extra flavour dimensions.
"Tuas is a good place to be. Most of the big multinational corporations are here, they have the spending power and they need a place to entertain at lunch. If you open in the heartlands, you only get traffic on weekends," he explains. Private dining rooms with karaoke facilities on the second floor cater to the corporate crowd.
But the main attraction in moving back, he says, is that he now has a piece of real estate to call his own. "I bought these premises, so I don't have to worry about landlords raising my rent when I'm doing well. Back then, labour cost in Singapore would take up 20 per cent of your operating cost. These days, it's 30 to 35 per cent. So if your rent is high too, then what profit margin is there left?" Despite the increasingly inclement climate of the restaurant scene here, "if young people want to start a restaurant, I won't tell them not to do it", he says. "They should still try, but they have to survey the market even more closely."
He should know. He made the switch from fish trading to poultry farming in his early adulthood, by watching and learning from the Australian owners of a chicken farm he worked in as a teen, and later grew his own multi-million dollar business catering to a gap he sensed in the market for halal poultry.
In 1954, he set up his own business, Lee Brothers Poultry with his younger brother and they grew from door-to-door egg vendors to the owners of Singapore's largest chicken processing plant. As one of the few farms to offer halal chicken back then, the business grew voraciously on the back of demand from offshore markets such as the Middle East.
In its heyday, companies such as SATS Catering, Cold Storage and Brand's were among his customers.
The chicken business was wound up in the 1980s, shortly after they started the restaurant, and Mr Lee's younger brother died two years ago. He now oversees the business alone.
The two most important factors for staying the distance, he believes, lie in knowing one's product, and learning how to cook. "Even if you're not going to be the chef, learn the basics. And learn how to cook the hard way, don't take short cuts," he offers. For even little tweaks in the kitchen can result in large overall savings for the business. Instead of throwing away fish bones, one can use them to make soup, for instance. "Big organisations, especially, have high wastage, and that drives up prices for consumers in turn," he says. But it isn't just about the dollars and cents. "If you compete on price alone, there will be no end to price slashing. At the end of the day, you won't make any profits. It all comes down to quality and giving people good value that they want to come back for."
You'd think a man of his age would want to slow down to ride things out smoothly into the sunset, but Mr Lee has got bigger plans up his sleeves.
If all goes well, he hopes to expand with further outlets in the Jurong area. "We have to build a foundation first. Once that is built, I'll see if I can convince my children to take over the business," says the father of two sons and a daughter, all in their 50s. His older son is in property sales, while the younger son and daughter run a balloon design company.
"Running a restaurant requires long hours, especially weekends. But they want to run their own business, so I let them try that first."
Then with a cheeky grin brimming with youthful optimism, he adds: "But I'm sure I can at least convince one."
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