When it comes to making lasting first impressions on overseas guests, food often does the job.
Clearly, Singapore is not short of fancy restaurants that serve up innovative dishes. There are also reliable establishments that many of us fall back on for, say, an extravagant 10-course traditional Chinese banquet dinner or an elaborate Indian fine-dining feast.
So when someone told me that he took his Eastern European counterparts to a coffeeshop stall selling $3 bak chor mee for dinner, I was taken aback. There are cooler venues (in terms of interior conditions and vibe) that also serve local fare – or Mod Sin for the more adventurous – where suits would most definitely be more comfortable.
It turns out that they had a ball, even though perspiration trickled down their flushed fair skins and their shirts clung to their sweat-drenched torsos. Weeks later, after they had returned home, these UHNWIs reminisced about the steamy bowls of spicy noodles that set their tongues on fire, washed down with ice cold Tiger beers.
“No one talked about that expensive Chinese restaurant which had such an uninspiring menu and served even more unremarkable food,” the local businessman said, not mincing his words.
This brings to mind British food historian Alan Davidson’s explanation of the appeal of street food in his magnum opus The Oxford Companion To Food. He wrote: “Street food in a given place is often far more interesting than restaurant food. Generally speaking, wherever it is found it will be likely to represent well-established local traditions; in some places a tour of hawkers’ stalls may be the quickest and most agreeable method of getting a feel of local foods.”
Isn’t it true that notable events are often linked with food, whether they are new culinary experiences or kitchen disasters? Serving sophisticated foods or planning elaborate events doesn’t always result in guests having unforgettable meals.
In a recent study by the New Zealand Institute for Plant & Food Research, about 80 per cent of the 886 people surveyed revealed that meals were memorable when good food and company were combined, and 60 per cent said they remembered meals that were fun.
A friend remembers his experience at the revered The Fat Duck not because of the experimental masterpieces that Heston Blumenthal served. All he recalls about the restaurant is a £300 (S$618) return cab fare – he and his wife had taken an hour-long taxi ride from central London to Bray where the restaurant is. The smarter and more economical method would have been to take a train and then hire a taxi. Their meal cost just over £300 when they visited a few years ago.
I know of a CEO who invites overseas business partners to his home where his resident chef whips up hawker fare such as fried carrot cake, char kway teow and wonton mee. Equally adept at delivering five-star hotel-quality food, the versatile chef sometimes offers do-it-yourself popiah so guests have to roll up their own spring rolls and get their hands dirty, dispensing with the polished Christofle cutlery carefully laid out on the dining table.
This head honcho said: “No point taking them somewhere else when I can offer them a better dining experience at home.”
For when it comes to the most memorable meal one has had, “the occasion is vividly recalled, but in the telling of it, there may be not a word about the food,” observes distinguished professor of psychology Paul Rozin at the University of Pennsylvania in his research.
He added: “It is the setting, the sounds, the light and other sensory feelings that continue to burn in the remembrance.”
Word of that CEO’s hospitality and his resident chef’s prowess has spread among his business associates, one of whom confided that he is one of the privileged few to have dined at his home. “It is seemingly simple fare but you can tell his attention to detail. It shows a lot about his character,” he told me.
Little wonder that mere weeks later, news of a multi-million dollar deal between those two parties made headlines.