Andrei Soen isn’t like some chef-owners who look you in the eye, tell you about how exacting their line of work is, then stare off into the distance like a grizzled war veteran.
“There’s a fun part to it too,” Andrei opines. “Our industry is labour-intensive, not like you’re working on a computer and sitting on a chair all day, but we have a nice community. I get to work with different people and pick their brains. If you want to make money, be a banker. All the people I know who chose to work in F&B have a passion for food or for drinks.”
The first time I met Andrei, it was 2016 and he was buzzing from station to station in his open-concept kitchen. He appeared to possess court vision (I would later find out that he plays basketball recreationally) and was completely aware of everything happening around him.
My friend Christian, who works in hospitality too, had brought me to Park Bench Deli after working an eight-hour shift. His choice of comfort food, or comfort place, after his tiring work day, was Park Bench Deli, where he knew all the employees. Even when orders are being fired at his kitchen at the rate of a Gatling gun, Andrei acknowledges each new customer that walks in and greets each returning customer by name.
When Andrei moved back to Singapore from San Francisco, he longed for his favourite comfort foods but could not find them. This drove him to take drastic measures – he opened a deli where he makes those comfort foods for himself and others who experience the same cravings.
His immediate goals for Park Bench Deli don’t include attaining gimmicky awards like a Michelin Star or attracting influencers to pose by his deli’s arched bay windows.
“I want us to be known as the deli that serves the best pastrami sandwich.” He doesn’t end his sentence with “in Singapore”, just “best pastrami sandwich”.
Singapore’s cognoscenti of American fare has already given Park Bench Deli’s Pastrami Reuben a thumbs up, along with other classics like its PBD Cubano and Mushroom Melt.
The establishment, which closed recently for construction, was furnished with blue and white tiles. Its bay windows, framed in a Bob’s Burgers shade of blue, were shaded by a classic emerald awning.
I remember Andrei once summarising in a video that Park Bench Deli is “a plagiarism of every North American deli that he loves”, which is somewhat depictive of the old Park Bench Deli’s interior. Some patrons say that its atmosphere reminds them of the set of Friends, others say Seinfeld, Cheers or It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.
Christian contemplated his after-work reward as he gazed up at the towering menus that emblazoned the wall of this sandwich shop. Originally a lunchtime-only eatery, Park Bench Deli was able to welcome Christian with open arms that evening because Andrei had extended its opening hours.
“Because after a while, we realised that people wanted our sandwiches at night too,” recounts Andre in his malleable accent, which he tweaks, depending on whether he is talking to foreigners or Singaporeans.
At the end of April 2021, Park Bench Deli will reopen with a new look. Its opening hours, which will expand to 9am to 10:30pm, will no longer be sandwiched. He’s kept its blue and white colour palette, but has added more seating – to be precise, the new hangout will have 42 seats.
“I don’t want groups of diners to feel hurried to leave, but feel welcome to stay. Growing up in the States, I always had all-day, all-night places that I could go to,” he reveals. “After running Park Bench Deli for about six years, we decided to expand our opening hours and renovate.”
Its new visage is the brainchild of Dean Chew, who is better known as Funk Bast*rd, co-founder of electronic music label Darker Than Wax. The deli’s walls, which were formerly decked in a mishmash of Americana, will now include an art gallery section that highlights local artists. Andrei also brought in his close friend Jeremy Chua, of 28 HongKong Street fame, to concoct a menu of classic American cocktails, albeit stamped with Jeremy’s trademark inventiveness.
“We’re rebuilding Park Bench Deli to feel more casual. Not that the old place wasn’t casual, but it had very lunchtime feels. The refurbished PBD will have a takeaway area, bar area and dining space. Its look will be clean, how do you explain it… We designed our mood board according to old-school delis and diners. Semi-modern but not awkward, so that it won’t look weird as it ages, just like diners in the States that have been there for ages but don’t age badly. Like bodegas where even big families with baby prams can eat comfortably. A clean messy.”
Andrei was raised by Singaporean parents who ran food and beverage businesses in the San Francisco Bay Area; a metaphor for his American deli that champions Singaporean art. Sporting a shaven head as smooth as that of a devout sushi chef, Andrei divulges that his goal is to expand the diversity of American cuisine available here in Singapore.
“I’d like to change Singaporeans’ perceptions of American cuisine and also introduce new American foods to Singapore,” he remarks. “Hotdogs, pizzas, burgers, bagels… these are not fully representative of the whole country, the same way chicken rice can’t singularly represent Singaporean cuisine. I wrote something down…”
He looks around a few folders in his laptop and reads: “American cuisine was built by immigrants on someone else’s foodways.”
He pauses to let me ponder his quip.
“Think Italian pasta, Irish corned beef and cabbage, Tex-Mex, Cuban-Spanish food in Miami, and other mixtapes of cuisines,” he elaborates. “With Cajun Kings, I was able to do that with food from New Orleans.”
“When I was about 26 or 27,” Andrei recalls, while visibly foraging through his mental archives. “My cousins asked me to do something new with them in Singapore – Cajun food. With Cajun Kings, we became the first in Asia to introduce the concept of Cajun seafood in a bag, served the New Orleans way.”
Andrei shares that he had the time of his life running Cajun Kings, and that he is still close friends with the former crew of Cajun Kings. However, the third culture kid missed many other facets of American cuisine.
“For four years, I never got to eat sandwiches. We would serve sandwiches as staff meals in Cajun Kings, but that was it. I thought to myself, if I miss (American-style sandwiches), then there’s gotta be other people from overseas who miss those types of sandwiches too. Let’s do a lunch thing and see what’s up.”
Andrei’s endeavour was met with a resounding ‘what’s up’. While other delis in the Central Business District had returning customers, Park Bench Deli amassed a cult following. Throughout the day, happy and gregarious groups of sandwich lovers would amble in and out of the semi-see-through deli. Whenever Andrei organised pop-up events or special one-off menus, hungry hordes would swell in front of his Telok Ayer eatery long before each event’s start time.
Throughout our conversation, Andrei constantly uses “we” and hardly ever says “I”. The next paragraph is an exception.
“I’ve succeeded because of my team. I’ve been blessed to be surrounded by good people. I just create ideas and the people around me help make it happen. A lot goes into a restaurant or bar that customers don’t see on the front end of things. I’m chill, but I push people to work smarter, harder and leave a mark before they leave my shop,” Andrei philosophises. “Singapore has one of the biggest hospitality industries, but it tells its people to become bankers, it doesn’t tell people to become chefs. I’d like to do everything in my power to help this industry grow and to help people grow. Many chefs join and leave restaurants, only knowing how to be chefs. When they don’t discover new skills and other parts of the business, they become very one-dimensional.”
While supervising construction, Andrei has also been teaching his chefs how to prepare more American dishes that will be added to the menu of Park Bench Deli version 2.0. These include the Loco Moco, a Hawaiian classic that started as a burger patty, fried egg and gravy slathered over rice and served to sailors; and the Hangtown Fry, a San Francisco-style bacon and oyster omelette that Andrei feels will resonate with fans of Singapore’s orh luak oyster omelette.
“I want to share memories of American breakfasts that I treasure. American breakfast is more than just avocado toast and eggs benedict.”
The Hangtown Fry
This returning Singaporean has championed many American epicurean ideas. Not all of them have been warmly received, but Andrei isn’t afraid of falling.
“A big thing I’ve learned is that there’s no such thing as failure,” he shares. “It’s about how you step up – and this is such a brutal business – and about how you learn from one another to get better.”
With this mamba mentality-like mantra, it’s no surprise that Andrei’s favourite athlete is Kobe Bryant.
When it comes to all things Park Bench Deli, Andrei talks with an undeniable passion. Although his choice of pronoun for Park Bench Deli is “we”, his gravitas when discussing Park Bench Deli makes it difficult to distinguish exactly where Park Bench Deli ends and where Andrei begins. Park Bench Deli is both Andrei’s memories of his past and his hopes for the future.
“We strive to serve the best kind of quality and will never skimp, like say serving you a frozen version of an ingredient. We pretty much make everything in-house. We work with bakers who bake our bread, but we make every other ingredient, every condiment, ourselves. A lot of thought goes into each of our sandwiches.” Andrei is a fervent believer in taste-testing his new dishes with all kinds of people too, “because you can put out something that you think is the best, but some other people might still think it’s sh*t.
What goes into making a good sandwich? I ask Telok Ayer’s sandwich maestro.
“I seek a balance in each sandwich. Likewise, I seek a balance in life. A good sandwich will translate to making customers happy on the other side of the counter.”
Every ingredient of that happiness, Andrei would prefer if we made ourselves.
Park Bench Deli is located at 179 Telok Ayer Street. The deli will be holding a Mother’s Day pop-up with Charlotte Puxley Flowers, rolling out a ‘Nasti Lemak’ menu in collaboration with creative studio Tell Your Children soon, and the original crew of 28 HongKong Street will be taking over Park Bench Deli for a 4th of July party.