Is Your Chef From…

One of the questions that customers often ask me is, “Is Your Chef Italian?” This question used to annoy one of my chefs. He felt that the implication was that if the chef wasn’t European, it meant that the food was probably not good.

I understand where he’s coming from. However, I also worked on the reverse. Would I be able to accept a European behind the kitchen in a Chinese restaurant? The answer would be that it would be a struggle to do so. We all have, as they say, preconceived notions of who can do what and when it comes to food, we all have a certain sense of nationalism.

For the native eating his or her cuisine, it’s about the taste of home. For the outsider, eating a different cuisine is about having a flavour of another culture. When I lived in England, going to a Chinese restaurant was about being with “MY” people. Going to a Chinese restaurant was inevitably about introducing my English friends to “MY” flavours in “My” environment (I use the word “MY” sparingly. The language that is part of me, is in fact English. My spoken Cantonese is horrible and I am Chinese illiterate. However, other than my physical appearance, being able to communicate in something other than English marked me as different from my peers, which give me a sense of purpose.)

So, when you look at this question from the perspective of a dining experience being a nationalistic one, the question “Is your chef from…s,” is in fact a compliment and now that I have started a part-time gig in a Vietnamese restaurant, I get the same question with a twist – “Is your chef from Vietnam?”

Does it matter if this Pizza is prepared by someone from Naples?

The answer to both questions is no. The owner and main chef of the Bistrot is French and the team in the kitchen for the better part of the last few years is Tamil and Filipino. At the Vietnamese restaurant the guy doing the cooking is Filipino. I believe that this is a sign of progress and part of the way that the world should be. Food is one of the most treasured parts of culture. When someone from a different culture can recreate food of a particular culture to an extent where people don’t realise that the person preparing the food isn’t a native, it’s a sign that culture can be celebrated and enjoyed by any and everyone.

If there’s anything that unites human beings, it is the need to sit down for a good meal and good food is one of the things that helps break the ice between people from different worlds. In Singapore and Malaysia, one of the nicest sights is watching local Tamil’s tuck into Bar-Chor mee or local Chinese tuck into Roti Prata or Roti Cannai as they call it in Malaysia. The experience of having and enjoying a cuisine is an act of taking in another culture.

So, it goes without saying that the next step in cultural participation is going in and learning how to prepare the cuisine of another culture to a level where the “natives” of that culture enjoy your efforts.

It’s not who prepares the food but who enjoys it that matters.

Which brings me back to my experience of living in England as a Chinese boy. I remember English people telling me that one of the best ways of judging a Chinese restaurant was by the number of Chinese people who ate there.

They were right. The best Chinese food in the UK was inevitably in London’s China town because it served food that people who knew Chinese food would eat. In the small towns where the owner of the only Chinese take away was inevitably the only Chinese person, the food was inevitably what English people imagined Chinese food to be (I remember my mother asking a waiter at Chinese restaurant in Hamburg what was good on the menu – the answer was “nothing – it’s served to cheat the Whites. In another incident, I remember being in the Thai restaurant in Petersfield, the small English town where I grew up. Mentioned that my stepdad was going to Bangkok the next day – whereupon the waitress said “Oh, you’ll get real Thai food.”).

Now, I apply this experience to the restaurants that have been my home. The Pizzeria & Grill and the Bistrot had regular customers from Italy. The Vietnamese restaurant where I’ve been working at has more than it’s share of Vietnamese customers (including my 21-year-old).

So, if you want to figure out if a restaurant of a particular cuisine serves, don’t focus on culture of the chef but on who the customers are. That would give you an idea of the “authenticity” of the food. Celebrate that chefs can produce cuisine from all over the world.

I go back to my earlier point on whether I would accept a Westerner cooking in a Chinese restaurant. Yes, I would struggle if I saw a blond-haired blue-eyed chap behind a wok. However, if I noticed lots of Chinese people eating there it would signal to me that he was producing good Chinese food. My respect for this person would grow because it would mean he was passionate enough to learn Chinese food as a Chinese tasting it.

Many of us forget that the product is not the person doing the work but on the work that is produced.



Tang Li

*Although I’ve been based mainly in Singapore for nearly two decades, I’ve had the privilege of being able meet people who have crossed borders and cultures. I’ve befriended ministers and ambassadors and worked on projects involving a former head of state. Yet, at the same time, I’ve had the privilege of befriending migrant labourers and former convicts. All of them have a story to tell. All of them add to the fabric of life. I hope to express the stories that inspire us to create life as it should be.




11 Responses to “Is Your Chef From…”

  • Tangli Buchikonya:

    Has anyone ask you “Is Your Chef Chink?”

    GD Star Rating
  • PAP is Finished:

    Nowadays, so many types of fusion cuisine. So many chefs travel to learn other cultures’ style of cooking. I just want my food to be great.

    I do find some of the Chinese food in Sydney and Perth too salty. But that was the 1990s.

    GD Star Rating
  • Merobok:

    By the same token, Hotels tend to grade themselves on the basis if they have a European General Manager they will be seen better in light of travellers and the public.
    Owners of hotels also think in a warped way. Are these so-called “Angmos” really good? On the other hand, think of Asian GMs who have performed well and not recognized!
    This stigma has to go as it has been shown that Asia is leading the way towards economic development, with higher productivity than western countries! And they are led by Asian GMs and executives.

    GD Star Rating
  • xoxo:

    So,if we can accept xo chye tow kueh cooked by FT-indian chefs,why cant we learn to accept gahmen from other singaporean political parties when they are SINGAPOREANS???

    GD Star Rating
  • Gary:

    Tang Li,

    “Many of us forget that the product is not the person doing the work but on the work that is produced.”

    Your last sentence is thought provoking. Many thanks for this.

    GD Star Rating
  • #06-195 Huang Ba Dan:

    Look what happened to KFC after they changed hands. Nowadays have to guarantee exchange on TV.

    GD Star Rating
  • Tracey Ching:

    Thought provoking my ass! Halimah is an Indian and never a Malay. Halimah was born as an Indian. Halimah will die as an Indian.

    GD Star Rating
  • Michelin Star:

    Tang Li,
    “Many of us forget that the product is not the person doing the work but on the work that is produced.”

    Thought provoking? Also my ass!
    Customers only inquire about the chef to compliment/complain AFTER they had dined! Not before!! This bloke spins his story to suit his own narratives.

    GD Star Rating
  • This is Sg:

    In Sg, PAP sets the tone, 61% agree and the rest have no choice but to go along with it.
    In 2015, the question is “Are you a Malay?”
    If the answer is Yes, a Committee will review your answer. One person makes it among other fixes, and becomes a multi millionaire, thanks to PAP.
    This question is taboo, I think – “Are you a Chinese?”
    Maybe PAP forgot to ask Heng Swee Kiat this question before they appointed him as DPM.
    I think HSK is now regretting for saying older Singaporeans are not ready for a non-Chinese PM.
    Is he a pure Chinese?

    GD Star Rating
  • Ummm ...:

    I think the chef was not well paid. Pay him a bit more and he may not feel offended by the question anymore. If he still does, increase his pay some more, this is how PAP retains talents. It works! And he will be an absolute Yes man too.
    Ask Halimah if she feels offended if asked “Are you a Malay?” I am sure she will be happy to say Yes.

    GD Star Rating
  • Soccerbetting2:

    Reported on Straits Times :Quote-”Lobster meals and other frills at private hospitals: Should medical insurance pay for these?
    Some policyholders question necessity of such frills, asking the authorities to probe if these are fuelling jump in healthcare costs, claims

    Mount Elizabeth Novena Hospital’s wok-fried lobster for patients.PHOTOS: LIANHE ZAOBAO, KARYN LOW

    Tan Ooi Boon
    Invest Editor
    You are admitted to hospital for treatment and are pleasantly surprised that the meals come with choices such as wok-fried lobster and slow-cooked aged black Angus beef.

    After a few days of such sumptuous meals that are worthy of top hotels, you are told that you can be chauffeured home in a Mercedes-Benz, thanks to a complimentary limousine service provided by the hospital for patients who are leaving on weekday mornings….”Unquote.

    Response : Lobster meal at hospital paid by medical insurance ? That is why I say those e*** b**$* women wing e*** backside are very e*** ! Feasting on Lobster at expensive hospital paid by medical insurance footed by all people who buy insurance ! Few years back ,my bill for 7.5 days hospital bill is around $12000+ without operation and the small bowl of rice of the lousiest grade poorly cooked some more and by around the fifth day of stay,I can only finished half that very small bowl of plain rice ! And that is class c ward still charge over $12000 just for scans only !

    GD Star Rating

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