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Tan Boon Hui Is All About Savouring Details

He might be the 'big picture' guy at National Heritage Board, but Tan Boon Hui is all about savouring details when it comes to food.

Mention museums and heritage and caricatures of stern, scholarly personalities come to mind. Yet, Tan Boon Hui, the group director of programmes at National Heritage Board (NHB), is infectiously energetic and disarmingly candid. Responsible for “connecting the dots” – such as finding out how one museum’s initiative can be extended to another – and finding opportunities to magnifying existing efforts, Tan is also the artistic director for the Singapore In France festival taking place from April to June in 2015. The 45-year-old sits on the working committee for constitution and membership of the International Biennales Association. The multiple hats that Tan wears all require him to maintain a bird’s-eye view of things but, outside of work, he prefers to savour the small details – especially in food.

How often do you have to entertain, in your capacity as group director of programmes at NHB?
I look after the exhibitions and outreach programmes – everything that is outward-facing. My job consists of working with many agencies and artists, so I generally entertain three to four times a week. When entertaining for work, I pick restaurants that are quiet enough for conversation. I also pick venues that understand the needs of business lunches – for example, serving dishes that can be had in small bites, or having wait staff who know not to ask if you want another drink every other minute when you are deep in conversation.

How important a role does food play in these negotiations?
A very important role – and not just during work meals. I eat alone a lot of times because that helps me think and, in those situations, I like to go to places with good food.

What is your idea of ‘good food’?
I’m a true-blue Singaporean in that sense – I like classic places such as Beng Thin Hoon Kee Restaurant and Singapura Restaurant in Selegie Road, complete with the old-school red carpet.

I also like cuisines that are not too complex, where a dish highlights just one very well-executed ingredient and brings out its seductive flavours – I like that better than dishes with a hundred different components on the plate. Having just one pure, exquisite element to savour is very exciting.

What are some fond memories from your childhood?
My mother never believed in buying cooked food – everything at home is prepared from scratch. She is also one who would frown at having kaya toast for breakfast; to her, that is not proper. So she would wake at five in the morning to cook porridge with dishes for our large Hokkien family, and there’s also an insistence on eating together at breakfast and dinner. Lunch is when we can eat “rubbish food” on our own! My favourite dish by her is a fried black tilapia with dark soya sauce drizzled over.

Are you the type who would bring local food or condiments along on long trips?
I never bring any food along because discovering the cuisine of wherever I am at is one of the pleasures that compensate for having to live out of a suitcase.

What are your most memorable meals abroad?
I try to go to places where the locals live. In Barcelona, I wandered into a little canteen where many cab drivers and delivery boys were eating, and had the most amazing Spanish omelette – it was so thick and fluffy.

I also chanced upon a restaurant in Montparnasse in Paris. It looked touristy because it was so huge, with maybe 50 to 70 tables and even a basement with a live band, but most of the diners there were local and the food was excellent. I had the best flambeed fillet mignon – and I’m speaking as somebody who doesn’t really like beef. It was very tender and the sauce was very simple, yet with deep layers of flavours. Furthermore, the serving is just small enough for you to crave more.

In Bangkok’s Chinatown, there is a Teochew restaurant right in the middle of the wet market. It has only two to five tables in that shack-like space, and you have to make an advance booking. Even then, sometimes you might have to sit at a little table that is put out in the side lane.

The menu is fixed and you eat whatever you are served, but the experience of eating very refined Teochew food – one of my favourite dishes is an exceptionally fresh steamed fish served with deep-fried minced garlic on top – in a shack in the middle of a wet market is completely original!

You’ve always shown particular interest in the person behind the work – be it historical material or new works of art. Do you have the same kind of interest in the person behind the food you eat?
I like food that has a handmade quality to it and I enjoy dining at restaurants where there are little variations in the dish on different visits – to me, they reflect the mood of the chef and show a certain human element, which I appreciate. And to me, Nigella Lawson is the ultimate food goddess because the sheer love she has for food turns the cooking process into a seductive form of art.

What are your pantry staples?
I always have fresh chilli padi and dried chilli. Depending on the dish I am having, I might make a chilli dip; or maybe just pound the chilli with a mortar and pestle for a fresh paste. I find commercial chilli sauces a little too sweet.

I also have Himalayan rock salt – its flavour is different from white table salt.

Any food obsessions?
At present, I’m obsessed with Japanese apples, which I purchase from Meidiya or the supermarket at Shaw Isetan. It’s like eating sashimi, in that the fruit is so fleshy. The fragrance is also very alluring.