Meet Ng Yi Yi, Singapore’s very own Chef on Wheels (here).
Following his college graduation from Hwa Chong Institution, Yi Yi – in his own words, “a real food aficionado” – made the unconventional decision to further his studies in the world of culinary art. Before his matriculation later this year, Yi Yi has been busy running his mobile restaurant, “Chef on Wheels”, whipping up gastronomic delights and baking up confectionary treats for his guests and customers. Today, we hear from the chef himself, and learn more about his aspirations to be a professional restaurateur.
* * *
* * *
When and where did you learn to cook? Why do you enjoy cooking?
I come from a family that cooks everyday, so from young I’ve not been a stranger to cooking. I remember when I was about seven or eight, enthusiastically trying to cook omelettes after watching cooking shows on the television too. So even though I didn’t carry that enthusiasm as I grew up, I certainly wasn’t cack-handed when I started to delve into the culinary world.
My interest in cooking piqued in secondary four when my brother whipped up some western fare for a Christmas dinner, and I still remember the dish that started me off, a grilled salmon with orange and teriyaki sauce. From then on, cooking gave me a confidence and joy that I never truly received from academic education ( I was terrible in school, failing my math and sciences ).
Cooking involves so many techniques, intricacies and focus, and I really enjoy the challenges that come with it, and the satisfaction of plating up a dish of mouth-watering food after hours of toil, for me, far exceeds any accomplishment that can come after hours of mugging and receiving good results.
It never occurred to me till late 2010 that an education and career in the culinary arts was even remotely feasible. As a graduate from a rather good school, with a place in NUS, I was resigned to slogging it out in a course that I wasn’t even sure of.
I attended a university fair for Australia and UK schools, and after looking around at the art courses offered, I couldn’t resist taking a look at the brochure from the Le Cordon Bleu booth. The moment I set my eyes on the courses offered and the curriculum, I was sold. It was so professional, and well developed that I truly believed that I would not end up a beggar on the streets if I chose to be a chef.
Of course in retrospect, I think I see how God had worked to direct me to this path, and I truly thank Him for guiding me.
Was it an easy decision? Did you have to contend with opposing perspectives from your family and friends? How did you manage all these?
I faced plenty of opposition from my parents, them being the traditional type who would have loved to have a son as a doctor, lawyer or accountant. They were sceptical at first, and I felt they believed I was just being frivolous. Most of my friends who knew about my new conviction were supportive, some even envious I would say (given that they had no clear passion or direction).
I worked my socks off to convince my parents that this wasn’t just some airy dream, and I cooked every weekend no matter how tired I was from army. I invited friends over for meals, and over the many glowing compliments, my parents could see that I was serious, dead serious about pursuing this as a future. Of course my improving skills that satisfied my parents palates helped as well.
When contemplating options for their education prospects, individuals often struggle between idealism (what they enjoy doing) and pragmatism (what is perceived to be more “beneficial”)? Do you have any advice for those who cannot make a decision?
I still struggle with this at times. The fact that I’m now struggling with my diminishing bank account instead of going to find a typical office / data entry job represents this struggle well. Nevertheless, even if given the opportunity to choose many times over, I’ll still choose to run this business (inconsistent income) than to find a steady job that does not capture my entire soul and passion.
I’ll plead with anyone who reads this, if you find your passion and your direction, something that excites your soul and awakes your spirit, please do pursue and excel at it. I think about cooking all the time, when i wake up, when I’m with my friends, when I’m in the toilet, before I sleep. I constantly think about how i can improve certain dishes, what went wrong, what flavor combinations would work, etc. I believe it’s this passion that has pushed me to, I would dare say, to excel at what I’m doing. It’s the same passion that drives the most successful people in the world.
The world now needs people who care about what they do, we need doctors who would love and care for their patients as much they would for themselves, lawyers who truly care about their clients and also for upholding law and justice, teachers who want to nurture and mould young people.
I’ve seen too often people who study certain courses in university because of the perceived future income, or job security, and not because they’re interested in it. I believe that idealism coupled with a burning passion will bring about excellence and success, and a lot with it the pragmatic and “beneficial”.
You are currently running a food business, affectionately termed “Chef on Wheels”. What makes this endeavour unique, and different from traditional caterers?
What makes me different from conventional restaurants and food services is how I approach the way my food is prepared. I’m greatly intrigued by the composition of sauces and certain foods, so I make almost everything from scratch, as much as possible.
Because of financial constraints and business objectives, most restaurants use food that is processed or prepared by suppliers. I make my pasta, bread, sauces, condiments and desserts from scratch. And this is a claim that not many restaurants (bar those good ones) can have. More importantly, I care a lot about the food that I serve to my clients and friends. Some restaurants serve food that they don’t care about, or the chefs just follow the standard recipe given to them without understanding how the flavours and textures work. I think we’ve all been recipients of that at one point or another. And because I do not have the pressure of serving 100 customers a session, each dish that I send out receives the utmost care and concern.
In a tropical climate like Singapore, I would love to be able to serve a light seafood terrine in chilled tomato consommé to get the meal going. The main course would preferably be a rich meat, cooked soft and tender, like beef cheeks, braised pork belly or lamb shanks, and i would actually like to have two desserts, a clean flavored palate cleanser like a fruit sorbet or granita, followed by a hot and rich dessert like a souffle or tarte tatin. This way, I get to enjoy a range of flavors, from light to rich, chilled to warm.