MAN AT WOK
Henry Lau, Liufusifangcai
Entering the backyard kitchen of private dining space Liufusifangcai, the first thing that catches your eye is a well-seasoned wok sitting atop a zi char-style burner. It’s one of the first things Henry Lau got for the kitchen of his newly purchased Tembeling Road home – long before he started his private dining endeavour. From that point on, Lau, who became the go-to for carb dishes, has been regularly hosting potlucks with friends and family. “I did it all, including Hong Kong-style bee hoon and fried rice. I wanted to replicate the wok hei that’s present in good zi char dishes – something that’s becoming increasingly rare because people try to save time or cut costs.” While he’s cooked all of his adult life, Lau started Liufusifangcai after being retrenched in 2017. “Fate decided for me. Friends were always asking me to cook for them and their friends – and one thing led to another.” With the ample number of Peranakan and Western private dining chefs out there, Lau decided on something close to his heart: Chinese cuisine.
“It was only after I started doing the dinners that I realised why so few people were doing this. It’s extremely labour intensive,” shares Lau. His day usually starts at 6am and involves heading to the market and prep work before guests arrive at about 7pm. He both cooks and entertains. The positive feedback he gets – like the time a customer mentioned how Lau’s har lok (wok-fried prawns with dark soya sauce) was just like his grandmother’s – makes everything worth it. He describes the kitchen as his science lab and, although the most high-tech thing in it is a combi-oven, his empirical, meticulous approach has resulted in great praise. His signature black garlic chicken soup, for example, is the result of experimenting with home-made black garlic in countless dishes until he finally settled on his double-boiled chicken soup. His Hokkien mee involved mastering each component of the dish, including the stock, seafood, chilli and fried lard. To learn the technique of frying the dish, Lau travelled across the island to observe how hawkers fried their version and taste the finished dish. The result: a highly lauded dish that packs tons of umami and wok hei, with bits of fried lard that remain crispy even after being braised with noodles.
Vincent Pang, Pun Im
One of the first things Vincent Pang cooked was sweet and sour pork – and it was a deep-frying disaster. Instead of being disheartened, he honed his cooking skills, eventually reaching a point where cooking became, he says, “a form of therapy”. In 2019, worn out and disillusioned with his job in the finance industry, Pang left to pursue an education at Le Cordon Bleu Dusit Culinary School in Bangkok – a city he became intimate with during his travels for work. While the techniques and cuisines Pang studied were French, he spent his free time learning about Thai food and preparing it for his Thai classmates and friends. Six months into his course, the pandemic hit and Pang came back to Singapore at the start of the circuit breaker. Faced with uncertainty about his return to Bangkok and being stuck at home, he honed his skills by cooking for people. Not for free though, as he wanted honest feedback about his food. That’s when the idea for Pun Im – meaning “to share the fullness” in Thai – started gestating. Concerned that he was unqualified to be charging the public for his food, Pang initially donated all of Pun Im’s proceeds to charity – an amount that was matched dollar-for-dollar by the government as part of its efforts to counter falling rates of donations because of the pandemic.
Today, 20 per cent of the revenue from Pun Im goes to Food From The Heart, a charity that feeds the needy here. At Pun Im, Pang marries Thai flavours with his culinary training, resulting in a cuisine that’s predominantly Thai, but with Western techniques and ingredients. His take on Thai red curry, for instance, balances the typically sweet gravy with briny, crispy-skinned, confit duck leg. E-Sarn gai yang (Thai grilled chicken) is brined and roasted French-style for a juicy, more moist version of what is usually a dry dish. It’s the attention to such details that Pang wants to expound on for his dream restaurant: a Thai fine-dining concept where he can afford every intricacy – from the tableware to the stories – to show guests how much they’re treasured.
Annette Tan, Fatfuku
Journalist and Fatfuku founder Annette Tan grew up around food. She spent her childhood cooking with her mother in a house filled with cookbooks and had a prolific career writing about food. Now, she’s a private dining chef who is comfortable working alongside high concept, fine-dining chefs. It’s hard to imagine Tan having any doubts about anything food related, but she had her fair share of issues when starting Fatfuku in 2017. “I wasn’t confident that people would like the experience. When you do something like private dining, you’re putting yourself out there by welcoming people into your home and cooking for them. There weren’t many [private dining places] back then,” shares Tan. While she started with one session a week, Tan’s dinners soon took off and was the beginning of a steep learning curve. Being booked three months ahead with five dinners a week meant she had to learn to set boundaries and procedures.
“I didn’t tell people what time to leave. I was taking all the bookings and didn’t know when to collect the money,” shares Tan, who was still writing as well. After cooking for hundreds, Tan still regrets never having the chance to ask her mother for advice since she passed on before Tan started Fatfuku. Of course, all the hard work has paid off as Tan now has fans that swear by her signatures such as sugee cake, pork belly buah keluak biryani and crispy mee siam. The lattermost – a “chao tar” bee hoon-inspired pancake of pan-crisped mee siam covered in rich, punchy gravy – is closest to her heart as the mee siam is a family recipe. In fact, many of this self-taught chef’s repertoire of flavours have their roots in her Peranakan family. “I wanted to cook something I grew up with and knew intimately since it was going to be a business. You can’t fool around if people are paying for your food. At least I know this cuisine is in my blood.”