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Entertainment, Food & Beverage

Maverick chef

Not content with just owning his eateries, chef Willin Low also wants his staff to be their own boss.
The Straits Times - June 13, 2011
By: Rebecca Lynne Tan
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Maverick chef

You do not have to be a foodie to have heard of Willin Low. Most Singaporeans will recognise him as the upstart chef of the renowned Wild Rocket restaurant.

And intertwined with that, he is the chef who put a rocket under Singapore's gastronomic scene with daringly original and innovative takes on local cuisine.

His fame has spread far and wide - he has even been praised in The New York Times.

He wows diners with Singaporeinspired pasta dishes cooked with well-loved local items such as tau yu bak, a traditional Hokkien dish of braised soya-sauce pork belly and scallops with haebi hiam (dried prawn sambal).

He even serves his roast Chilean seabass with chye poh (preserved radish) garlic confit on a bed of chicken congee.

The 39-year-old chef-owner of Wild Rocket at the Hangout Hotel in Mount Emily is all the more remarkable because he is not a trained chef - he used to be a lawyer.

Six years ago, he traded his suit and briefcase for chef whites to open Wild Rocket. Now, the maverick chef is taking the unconventional route yet again.

He is going into the wilds of Punggol Park where he will open Wild Oats, a 350-seat cafe-restaurant, later this month. The $500,000 eatery is his single biggest investment to date and the site will be bigger than any of his five eateries put together.

'I live in Aljunied GRC and my surname is 'Low', too, and this is the biggest gamble of my life,' says the congenial chef with a laugh.

Workers' Party secretary-general Low Thia Khiang left his ward in Hougang to contest in Aljunied GRC at the General Election last month. At the time, his move was said to be the greatest gamble of his political career.

Indeed, the self-taught chef has been busy growing his restaurant group that began with Wild Rocket.

These days, other eateries under his umbrella include Wild Oats bar at Mount Emily, mid-tiered burger restaurant Relish at Cluny Court in Bukit Timah and at myVillage in Serangoon Gardens, and casual burger joint Burger Bench & Bar at Cineleisure Orchard.

But General Election jokes aside, this Low is dead serious about making his expensive new venture work.

The chef, who usually cooks at Wild Rocket, meets Life! at month-old Relish in Serangoon Gardens and has obligingly swopped his chef whites for a casual blue cotton shirt, smart khakis and dark leather loafers from Camper.

The smile fades as he tells this reporter that his new venture cannot fail because it is not just his money that has been invested into the Punggol Park outlet - about 50 per cent of the shares belong to 14 of his employees.

In fact, besides Wild Rocket and Wild Oats at Mount Emily, which are owned by Low and his two silent partners, his staff own about half of all the other restaurants.

He says: 'When I opened Wild Rocket, it was purely selfish ambition but going forward, I needed something else to drive me.'

His dream for each of his staff is that they may one day be able to own their own HDB flats.

'A lot of the staff came from proper jobs at fine-dining restaurants. I told them I could not pay them what they were getting, but I promised them that when we made money, they would receive it in monthly bonuses. And if I could help it, they would not be employees all their lives. They would be co-owners with me.'

That was why he opened Relish in 2007 at Cluny Court and Burger Bench & Bar in 2009.

The staff own varying shares and have put in between $5,000 and $25,000 each. And if they do not have the money to do it at that point in time, Low and his partners will pump the money in first and deduct it from the staff's salary later.

The restaurant group's operation manager Sam Lim, 32, who has been working with Low from Day 1, has about a 10 per cent stake in the business.

He says: 'What impressed me most about Willin was this idea he had of having his staff as his future business partners. I had never heard of anything like it and unlike most bosses who don't deliver, he has.

'I thought it was an interesting concept and as a boss, he is a very genuine person and I trust him.'

Low does not believe in borrowing money from the bank and so growth has been steady and organic.

Relish is known for its hearty burgers such as the 'Ram-lee' burger - Low's take on a Malaysian burger where his premium minced beef patty is wrapped in an omelette and served with a rich sun-dried tomato relish.

But he is more famous for his modern Singaporean cuisine. Some popular dishes over the years include laksa pesto pasta - a pesto made from laksa leaves, pine nuts, sunflower seeds, fresh chilli and olive oil; and rogan josh lamb shank with couscous lemak - an Indian lamb shank served with fluffy couscous cooked in coconut milk.

He uses familiar and modern ingredients but sticks to the 'spirit of local food', and even keeps Hokkien terms such as chye poh and haebi hiam on the menu.

'The Singaporean palate is sophisticated and confident enough to accept variations of dishes we grew up with,' he says.

At his new restaurant at Punggol Park, he will be cashing in on the craze for the Hong Kong-style cha chan teng or teahouse, but offering his take on it with local fare such as laksa and mee siam, as well as dishes including instant noodles with dark soya-sauce braised chicken. The eatery will also have Western dishes such as chicken chop.

He likes the park because he used to play there as a child and feels that its beauty should be shared by other Singaporeans.

There is no doubt he has done nothing short of well for himself as a chef and restaurateur.

He is one of Singapore's culinary ambassadors who has taken his modern Singapore dishes to events all over the world, including New York's Luckyrice Festival, an annual Asian cuisine festival.

The eloquent Low, who is also conversant in Hokkien and Mandarin, is a Singapore boy through and through and has done the country proud with his appearances on lifestyle show The Martha Stewart Show and in popular American cable television reality show Top Chef, which pits upcoming chefs against one another.

But some of his bigger highlights include having Wild Rocket and Wild Oats mentioned in The New York Times food and travel sections on more than one occasion, cooking in celebrity chef Daniel Boulud's kitchen at DB Bistro Moderne in New York and being named one of the world's top 100 emerging culinary stars in Coco, a prestigious gastronomy book.

In January, The Business Times asked Boulud which restaurants in Singapore impressed him and the chef named Wild Rocket as one of them, which for Low, was 'the icing on the cake'.

Low says: 'It has been an amazing journey. Never in my wildest dreams did I think I would have five restaurants or be responsible for the livelihoods of 50 people or have the chance to cook in Daniel Boulud's kitchen.'

Not bad for someone who started cooking seriously only six years ago.

The law graduate from the University of Nottingham, who has been called to the bar in both Britain and Singapore, practised for eight years - first as a litigation lawyer at Wong Partnership, then as in-house legal counsel at real-estate conglomerate Far East Organization and SIA Engineering, a subsidiary of Singapore Airlines.

Climbing the corporate ladder meant long and tiring work weeks but he looked forward to weekends which he spent cooking for friends and family.

Somehow, the Victoria School and Victoria Junior College alumnus knew he would be his own boss one day but was clueless as to what he would do.

'I just didn't know what I was going to do - all I knew was that I was going to start my own thing at some point.'

After much encouragement from friends, he started charging for his weekend meals and began moonlighting as a chef-for-hire, with his friends and colleagues doubling as waitstaff.

He was first bitten by the food bug during his university days when he had to cook out of necessity.

The youngest of three children - his sister, Millie, is a physiotherapist and his brother, Wilkie, is a doctor; both are in their 40s - the self-confessed fussy eater says he just could not stomach the dull dormitory food. Think over-cooked boiled veggies and unpalatable dry meats.

'I just could not eat the food in the hostels - it was horrible.'

His mother, housewife Ng Poh Choan, 71, recalls her son being such a fussy eater as a child that at times, she would punish him by sending him to his room whenever he refused to eat.

Says Low, who detests dishes such as over-cooked fried black pomfret in soya sauce: 'I would tell my mother the food was over-cooked and she would send me to my room immediately.'

But little did his mother realise that he never went hungry - he always had a stash of Calbee prawn crackers, which he would eat very quietly.

'I used to put it in my mouth and wait for it to soften before I chewed,' he remembers fondly.

But at university, munching on prawn crackers was not an option. Instead, he survived on fried bee hoon with canned ter kah or braised pig's leg and his mum's chicken porridge.

His calling to be a chef came one day while pan-frying prawns in his flat. The poor student could afford only three giant prawns and eight Thai lychees, of which two turned out to be rotten. He shared it equally with his two housemates - each had one prawn and three lychees.

The prawns were fried in butter and garlic with a squeeze of lemon and chopped parsley and tucking into it was utter bliss, he says.

That was when he realised that, perhaps, he could cook for a living.

The finicky eater and instinctive cook finally left the law profession in 2004 to pursue his passion for cooking.

'I quit without a job. I had wanted to plan my route but a friend had told me that if I planned it, I would have no incentive to leave my cushy job. But if I quit, it would force me to do something about it - so that's what I did.'

By then, he had saved enough to set up a restaurant. Unlike many of his peers, he did not own a fancy car or a condominium back then. He now drives a four- year-old white Suzuki Swift.

His parents are divorced and Low lives with his mother and older sister in a corner terrace house in the Hougang area. His father is a remisier.

Although his parents had initially expressed concerns about his career switch, they have been supportive ever since.

Madam Ng says: 'I felt that if he had a passion for cooking, he should pursue it. He could always go back to law if it did not work out but doing what makes him happy is far more important.'

Even with the go-ahead from his parents, Low realised he needed some experience but figured he would be left with no money to open a restaurant if he were to attend culinary school overseas.

So, he crossed that option out.

While looking for a restaurant opening, he took on a job with Tiger Airways as its legal counsel.

A month later, he landed a job with chef Roberto Galetti of upmarket Italian restaurant Garibaldi in Purvis Street. He went from earning about $8,000 a month as a lawyer to $800 a month as a kitchen helper.

He continued part-time work with Tiger Airways once a week on his day off and at night after he was done with dinner service.

He learnt to bake breads and cakes at the restaurant group's other outlet Ricotti, before moving into the Garibaldi kitchen a couple of months later.

Says chef Galetti, 41: 'When he came to work for me, he was very humble, very interested and you can see that he was driven by passion.

'And I thought, why not? Who trusts lawyers nowadays, but let's see if we can trust him. He was a very fast learner.'

But on his first day at Garibaldi, Low admits he was completely lost.

'I nearly died,' he says. 'Chef rattled off a whole list of dishes and all I caught was 'no pepper'. I really had to learn from scratch.'

Chef Galetti would pull him aside to explain things and even taught him how to hold and use a knife.

It was amid the hustle and bustle of a crazy kitchen one night that Low felt enlightened. 'I was really happy - it was almost as if I had been teleported into the kitchen, and I enjoyed it. That was when I thought, hey, I could really do this.'

He left Garibaldi after six months because he had volunteered to help in Acheh after the 2004 tsunami devastated the area, but that fell through.

He kept his job with Tiger Airways and also took on another job as legal counsel for a media company, and continued with his chef-for-hire business on weekends.

Low, who had even contemplated opening a hawker stall at one stage, finally found a space for his restaurant, Wild Rocket, and opened it in 2005.

The restaurant started with three people - himself, one sous chef and Sam Lim, his operations manager who is with him to this day.

He might be a busy chef-restaurateur of five successful restaurants and another one on the way, but he reckons that had he known his path would turn out this way, he might not have had the guts to do it.

He laments: 'It would be foolish to think I did it by myself without help from the big man up there. It would be foolish to think I did this by myself without all the people who make this work daily.'

Opening a restaurant was a gamble, but he took a chance on his dream with his inventive cuisine and there is no turning back.

 

 

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