More than just flavours, smells and textures, food is about forging human connection.
At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, this essential ingredient was noticeably missing, as restaurants emptied and establishments pivoted from dining in to takeaway and delivery services.
During those trying times, Singapore’s chefs went about their day-to-day work with resilience and an unwavering passion for their craft.
As stove fires are lit, ingredients tossed into pans, and crowds return to restaurants across the island, we bring you behind the scenes to discover how our local chefs and restaurateurs banded together against the challenge* of a lifetime.
*This article was written during the early stages of the pandemic, when restaurants were unable to host dine-in guests.
Cooking up human connections
“Food brings people together. It’s an opportunity for people to socialise and enjoy each other’s company,” says Mastura Didih, director of Hjh Maimunah restaurant.
During the initial phases of the COVID-19, these human interactions were evidently absent, as restaurants resorted to takeaway and delivery services.
“[During phase 1 of the pandemic], I missed the chatter and laughter, and just seeing people getting together in our restaurant,” Mastura shares.
"There was a void, a limited connection, a lack of human interaction, none of the usual hustle and bustle,” confides Malcolm Lee—chef-owner of Michelin-starred Peranakan* restaurant Candlenut. “Dining-in wasn’t allowed, so our dining room was transformed into an office.”
Like a dish lacking a crucial ingredient, many restaurants had to adapt to the absence of their patrons. Ultimately, it was this deep, abiding connection between chefs and customers that allowed these heroes of the food industry to see silver linings in stormy clouds.
“Thankfully, our food—like curries, braises and soups—holds well, which allowed us to switch to delivery and takeout, despite it never being our main focus,” Malcolm says. “I thought of it as cooking for my family—packing food in tingkat (traditional stacked lunchboxes) and having it delivered to our customers’ doorsteps.”
*The term is an Indonesian/Malay word that means “local born”, which generally refers to people of Chinese and Malay/Indonesian heritage.
Food is love
From hawker centres and cafes to eateries and restaurants dotted all over the city, Singapore’s food scene has always been about the people.
At Keng Eng Kee Seafood, Paul Liew— third-generation operation manager of the family-run restaurant— is still serving up delicious zi char dishes, and has been doing so for more than five decades.
“As a family business, we care for our employees like family,” Paul says. “When news [about COVID-19] broke, one of the first questions my 90-year-old grandmother asked me about was the welfare of the staff.”
During the worst periods of the pandemic, this sense of love and responsibility extended beyond Paul’s immediate family and employees, to individuals across the island.
“I saw a lot of unity, a lot of strength [during that period],” Paul shares. “We saw people within and across the industry helping each other to stay afloat... we were delivering comfort food to healthcare workers, hoping to motivate them and give them strength.”
For Douglas—chef-owner of Fishball Story—the challenges of COVID-19 and the need to pivot towards food delivery meant sacrificing time that he could have spent with his family and loved ones.
“I had just become a father [during that period], and my son was seven months old”, he says. “I would really miss my family, as I’d have to leave my house while my son was still sleeping, take midnight orders for delivery and come back home late. That was the toughest part, but I’ve always loved being in this industry… I was born to be in it.”
Reimagining the future
The dining scene may have had to evolve during the worst of the pandemic, but with better days ahead, our chefs remain optimistic about a brighter future on the horizon.
To chefs like Paul, cooking is a legacy passed down from generation to generation, and it’s this love for the tradition that has allowed him to weather the storm.
“Food is so integral to Singapore—we have friends from Chinese, Malay, Indian and Eurasian backgrounds, and been exposed to all sorts of different cuisines” he shares. “[Chefs like myself] want to carry on this legacy, from grandparent to parents, from us to the next generation.”
“[The tough times] gave me a sense of appreciation… a new sense of wonder,” Malcolm says. “I think that we’re rediscovering our passion for why we do this, and are putting even more effort into perfecting our craft.”