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Head to Ginza for a vibrant food scene, says TungLok chairman Andrew Tjioe

He might be passionate about historical Chinese dishes, but Andrew Tjioe also has a taste for modernity.

Andrew Tjioe wears many hats. He is the executive chairman of TungLok Group; the president of the Restaurant Association of Singapore (RAS); the director of the Singapore Hotel and Tourism Education Centre (SHATEC); a committee member of the Franchising and Licensing Association of Singapore (FLA); and a council member of Singapore Business Federation (SBF). But beyond it all he is a fiercely passionate gourmet who is all for appreciating culinary heritage while embracing new flavours.

We sit down for a meal with him to talk about old food memories and new discoveries.

Tung Lok Group has over 40 restaurants in Singapore, Indonesia, China and Japan. Of the cities that you travel to for work, which ones never fail to excite you?
Tokyo remains exciting all the time. Similarly, Shanghai. There is always something new to explore in both cities – they are big, and the F&B scene is very vibrant. If you think Singapore’s food scene is buzzing, with some 6,000 F&B outlets nation-wide, you should go to Tokyo where Ginza alone has a few thousand restaurants! Shanghai is also catching up as a international food capital – all the big chefs of the world are trying to set something up in that city.

Any up-and-coming places that you have your eyes on?
If I hadn’t already had investments in Indonesia, this is when I will be most interested in the country. Joko (Widodo, current president of Indonesia) is a very convincing salesman of his country even with his limited English, and I saw for myself first-hand, his ability to connect with people during an APEC forum, which I recently attended. I will also be heading to Manila, mainly to source for alternative supply of crabs, but also to get a feel of the restaurant scene.

Do you have any favourite restaurants abroad?
There are plenty. For example, in Shanghai I would go to Mr & Mrs Bund, where I feel the casual but imaginative food, the lively ambience, the edgy decor all come together to make a good dining experience. And recently, I went to a very casual diner called Soto Madura Wawan in Surabaya. Their soup stock for their madura soto (traditional clear broth) was very good with many complex layers of flavours of spice. The soup is boiled for long hours so that the flavour of the beef is fully extracted. They would fish out the meat from the soup and slice it into your order. Though it wasn’t the cleanest place, it was super crowded.

Seems like you have a taste for the casual. What do you seek when you dine out?
I hardly go to fine dining places on my own – I find them too uptight. When I dine out I always look at the whole package, so even if the food deviates a little in terms of standard it wouldn’t matter as long as I had an enjoyable time. It is all about the total experience. Being a restaurateur who knows the challenges of the trade, I am also more forgiving as a customer. I never give the servers a hard time!

The Restaurant Associations of Singapore recently launched a book highlighting 50 restaurants as recommended by 50 restaurateurs, chefs and other personalities in the F&B scene. Among them, which are some that you frequent?
Shinji at Raffles Hotel, Restaurant Andre and Gunther’s. The common point that links these three places is consistency, which is hard to deliver.

What food memories do you have from your childhood?
I came to Singapore in 1971 and my father would take us out to the best restaurants once a week. But as a child growing up in Jakarta I ate street food: sop kaki – a soup made from leg of lamb; towgay ‘bengkok’ (Malay for ‘bent’) – a dish of beansprouts, oncom (Javanese fermented soya cake), and yellow noodles stir-fried in a spicy bean paste, so named because the hawker was also ‘bengkok’! I also enjoyed murtabak – or what is called minjiang kueh in Singapore. In Indonesia it is much larger, thicker and slathered with margarine before being topped with an assortment of fillings ranging from shredded coconut to chocolate.

Do you crave for foods of the past?
I am not sentimental about lost foods. The taste preferences of different generations are different – my father’s generation liked kway chup, and by the time it got to my generation it was already not so popular, and even lesser so today. Certain foods just won’t have that longevity. That said, I do hope that dishes which are iconic – such as laksa or Hainanese chicken rice – will continue to exist. But we need to shed the old to adopt the new. I am not one to reminisce about pork lard rice from the ‘good old days’ because I do not have my palate stuck in the past.

You do have a special interest in historical Chinese foods, however.
Yes. To still exist after decades or even centuries, these dishes have to have passed through the test of time. I believe in taking from the past and improving on it. For example, our dongpo pork (soya sauce-braised pork belly) is made using the same ingredients as the traditional version, but we cook it through sous vide for an unparalleled tenderness.

What about your own cooking style?
I used to cook quite a bit and would prepare home-style food. I probably inherited my father’s hospitality and love for food – he used to throw big parties and would prepare elaborate dishes – but now my restaurants are my ‘home’ and are where I entertain. That said, I am now in the midst of renovating my kitchen and will have a sunken stove for high heat wok cooking – hopefully with that, I will cook more at home! I like stir-frying because it is an efficient way of cooking – with a family of four you need to bring out all the dishes in the shortest time so that everybody can sit down together to eat. Chinese food to me is comfort food. If I don’t have it for two weeks I will miss it.