As a chef, Ming’s passion stems from the connection and community fostered through cooking. He firmly believes food is the vehicle and enabler for bringing people closer together.
His big break was with Lolla in 2012, and it didn’t come easy as he had to deal with his emotions that come with being a young, head chef who had never worked in a professional kitchen before. Ming managed to take control of that, and moved on to open other successful outlets such as Park Bench Deli and Afternaut, before stumbling into his latest project, Jam at Siri House.
Popspoken: How did you get into your current line of work?
Ming Tan: I made the decision in my army days, and ran a small private dining business with some rugby friends during my university years. Once I graduated, I started working in the F&B industry and haven’t looked back since! #noragrets
Popspoken: How does a normal day look like?
Ming Tan:I try and plan my day the night before, when I have peace and quiet. I start my morning clearing emails, speaking to colleagues and responding to queries for events. If need be, I head to the markets or the wholesale centres to take a look at ingredients.
Then, a couple of trips are needed for meetings between new and current projects, which are usually scheduled on a rolling basis every week.
Nights are usually spent on the floor for dinner service. The period after dinner is my most cherished of the day, because I feel like I am most productive from 11pm to 2am. It’s when I can think, plan, scheme, evaluate and come up with all manner of tasty ideas!
Popspoken: What are the top 3 apps you use in your creative work?
Ming Tan: Top 3 apps for creative work ah.
I really like using Trello to organise moving parts between teams, to log and track ideas and discussions. It really is far more than just a productivity app. I also like that it is very visual, and that helps me structure ideas in my head.
I set up my Instagram account to follow specific hashtags that are ingredient driven. For example, I am a huge oyster fan, and I am constantly looking at new ways to serve, shuck, plate, cook and eat these shellfish on Instagram.
Evernote! The power of these cross-platform and cross-device apps is that I can save ideas and record things as I see them, like recipes, food writing, images or ideas and then access them from anywhere, even on the go. I’ll admit that I am by nature rather disorganised. So an app like Evernote that helps me to save ideas the minute I give birth to them is excellent!
Popspoken: What is the biggest challenge you face as a creative in Singapore?
Ming Tan: Mimicry. Both to see it done to our own ideas, and to be associated with it.
Food is supposed to belong to everyone, so on one hand it is disingenuous to say “oh that dude is obviously ripping off XXX”- but on the other, there are certain key things about ideas and concepts that can be quite original, and due credit MUST be given to people and teams who put in effort to stand out in meaningful ways, if their work is borrowed or improved upon.
There is a mantle of responsibility upon chefs and owners to not cannibalise ideas- maybe wait a bit la, change it up as far as you can, then acknowledge the base idea (or don’t claim it as your own). If you can’t do that, then expect to get dissed.
Popspoken: What is your biggest creative pet peeve?
Ming Tan: The mimicry problem as discussed above, and the problem of ‘reference points’ that guests have. Since I’ve already talked about the first one, let me explain what I mean by reference points.
Every diner has an opinion, and these opinions are developed from them eating and dining at various places over the course of their tasty lives. Whenever you enter an establishment, it is inevitable that, to some degree, your brain will be trying to find a comparison or benchmark to use as a reference point. After all, you need at the very minimum two data points before you can objectively label something as good or bad. It is exceedingly rare for someone to not want to find good and bad aspects of a meal- you gotta have absolutely no opinions for you to neither like nor dislike your meal.
The problem here comes when guests peg what they have had before, in vastly different experiences to what they are consuming in front of them. I’ve heard guests compare charcoal grilled lamb short ribs to braised lamb shank; that’s like saying a bath towel made of edible rice paper isn’t successful in drying your hair. Completely different setting. If I had a wish here, it would be that diners learn to appreciate the experiences they have in front of them, in the present, instead of always trying to compare it to things that they’ve had before.
Popspoken: Do you have any advice for aspiring creatives?
Ming Tan: True creativity comes from balancing technical and practical know-how with an active imagination and some decent perspective.
I’ve seen very eager, very creative young cooks come up with complex, conceptual ideas that are horrible to execute and fail to address customer needs completely. It takes some years of experience to be able to understand the various tools/people/ingredients at your disposal and the likely reception of the end result, before you have a few hits that tell you your development process is on the right path.
Be less wacky at first, concentrate on good cooking craft and gaining exposure to all foods and techniques, before doing weirder stuff. Also, don’t get discouraged when your ideas fail. Behind every successful dish lies a heap of food that didn’t cut it.
Popspoken: Where do you go and what do you do for inspiration?
Ming Tan: Travel is the greatest form of education you can have, simply because it gives you exposure. You don’t know what you don’t know until you go and find out.
Unfortunately in this industry many cooks equate hard work and hours with success. Yes, hard work breeds success but exposure is the stuff that really tells you what the hell is going on in the world, and where you stand.
For cooks who make food from a personal place, travel also helps you find out what you enjoy. If I enjoy stuff, there is a pretty high chance I’ll try and capture similar flavours with similar ingredients and interpret that sh*t.
Popspoken: Are there any books or blogs you’d recommend?
Ming Tan: Big fan of books. The quality of writing in books is much higher, generally because these stories and opinions have been vetted by multiple sources and you gotta be pretty convicted and sure of stuff before you go through the trouble to write a book.
Down and Out in Paris and London – George Orwell
Poverty, extremely sh*tty working conditions and the innards of working in cafes by one of the greatest writers ever. Compelling read, difficult to remove images in your mind, fascinating.
Eating Mud Crabs in Kandahar – Stories of Food During Wartime – Matt Mcallester (editor)
The food that war correspondents ate whilst on assignment in war zones. Hardcore book that celebrates finding tasty human moments whilst lives are being taken.
Endless Feasts – Sixty Years of Writing from Gourmet – Ruth Reichl (editor)
A compilation of some of the best food writing ever produced. Some of these stories have the ability to transport you deep into worlds, regions and settings that are lush and incredibly well detailed.
Shucked: Life on a New England Oyster Farm – Erin Byers Murray
A writer decides to drop her day job and go do manual labour on an oyster farm. A month-long stint turns into a season, then multiple seasons, and the way she tracks the changes to her physical condition and her attitudes to food are beautifully wrought.
Popspoken: Favourite travel destination and why.
Ming Tan: I am a city boy, so any place that grows food and processes it is fascinating to me. I especially enjoy visiting wharfs, farmer’s markets, countryside orchards and farms.
Japan has got to be my ultimate travel destination, with its combination of sprawling metropolises and food producing regions. There is such a massive diversity across the various regions of Japan, from fine cultured food in cities with deep history, to more rough and tumble industrial areas that serve heartier fare. My ultimate destination in Japan is probably Hokkaido with its wealth of seafood and cold weather.
Popspoken: What have you worked on that you’re most proud of?
Ming Tan: I’d say that my colleagues and staff are my best scorecard. Food is about food, but food is ultimately about people.
If I can activate the right values in my staff and colleagues, it is only a matter of time before the right processes and products get developed. I am most proud of staff members that have grown more mature, accomplished and settled in their careers.
Popspoken: How do you approach getting stakeholders on board?
Ming Tan: Value systems are probably the most important piece of the puzzle. Everyone wants a stable job that they get remunerated appropriately for, in the industry that they love.
There is this Japanese concept called ‘ikigai’ that details a formula for living a meaningful, happy life. Can you get paid to do meaningful/useful work that the world values, in a line that you have a continuing passion for? The most successful teams are almost always the result of many previous failed attempts to form organisations that are bigger than any one person, or the sum of each team member.
I also believe strongly in the spirit of continued improvement- I find resting on previous success an arrogant way to deal with the effort that has been put in by a team. There is always an improvement to be found and had, if you choose to remain constantly open to criticism and constructive feedback.
I am also deeply appreciative of grateful attitudes amongst team members and partners. Everyone has strengths and weaknesses, and in order to grow, you’ll need to work with people that can shore up gaps in your own knowledge, as they rely on you to assist them in areas you have deep experience in. In my short lifetime this has proven very difficult, but I celebrate small steps in the right direction. The team I work with now is comprised of many talented individuals who are a credit to our organisation.
Popspoken: Is there anything you want to promote?
Ming Tan: A life in F&B is incredibly tiring and fraught with setbacks. It’s gonna suck for a good period of time before you find the right people and the right organisation to work with. If we structure our projects to take care of our staff and develop them throughout their time with us, an F&B career can be more rewarding than it is punishing.
New ways of doing business, new ways of organising team members and innovation will lead to improvements across all aspects of working in F&B. See ‘ikigai‘ above. Luckily industry folk are generally not seen as stubborn people… Oh, wait.
Popspoken: Where can people find you?
Ming Tan: I like to roam supermarkets late at night.
Popspoken: How would you like to be remembered?
Ming Tan: A polymath! Someone with deep knowledge across a range of subject areas. I am probably too disorganised to accomplish that, however.
It would also be nice to be remembered as an empathetic individual with good foresight who loved all things to do with food.
“Here lies Ming, Emotional Food Person”
Creatives In The Lion City is a series hosted by Sheryl Teo on Popspoken. Read exclusive interviews with artisan souls in Singapore, as we get behind-the-scenes with the dreamers and doers in various artistic spheres and creative disciplines.