How did your Roxy Laksa venture start?
I had been eating Roxy Laksa for over 20 years. It’s different from other laksa recipes which are very strong, spicy, punchy and rich. I find this laksa more feminine and balanced. You still get all the notes of laksa but it’s lighter.
The recipe belonged to owner Mike Lim’s grandfather (Lim Kok Seng), and has a history of over 60 years. The entire family had been raised base on this one recipe. His business originally started out as a pushcart outside Roxy Theatre. When it rained there was no business. So the theatre’s kind boss gave the hawkers a space indoors to sell their food. When the theatre closed in 1978, Roxy Laksa eventually moved to East Coast Lagoon.
Mike Lim’s children who are in their 20s are not interested to carry on the business. He was also very cautious of other buyers who wanted to purchase his business and recipe, so the earlier deals didn’t go through.
He then asked me if I was keen to take over the brand as I was interested to learn the laksa recipe. Our agreement was that I would buy the recipe and the brand. But in order to make money, I had to make it scalable – whether it’s in a paste or ready-to-eat form.
In 2016, we moved him out of East Coast Lagoon to Timbre+ at one-north. So while I was working on the ready-to-eat product, he continued working in his stall – cooking artisanally-made laksa. (Roxy Laksa has since ceased operation and the legacy lives on in this ready-to-eat meal).
How did you learn the laksa recipe?
In the process of learning, I had to wake up early to follow him (Lim) to buy the ingredients including freshly squeezed coconut milk from a specific place. As it’s such a closely guarded secret for him, he would close the shutters in his small hawker stall so that no one could see what he’s making. And there were no measurements involved. Ingredients were scooped using a small container that his father used before. So I had to follow and absorb everything. I couldn’t ask questions because he didn’t want anyone to hear our conversation. I had to write down whatever I could and take photos. But I went for many lessons and over time I brought my own measuring tools.
What was the production process like?
All the steps of the artisanally-made laksa were not very practical outside of the stall. So I had to figure out how to make it scalable, and turn his recipe into a paste. There was a lot of R&D until I got the flavour right. Over time, I had to bring that recipe to a production kitchen – which prepared it on a much larger scale. Right now, they use high pressure processing (HPP) to kill the bacteria. There are some molecular changes because of the pressure, so some texture and flavour will be different, and some nutrients are killed. But finally we got a product that’s as close as can be (to the original) given the constraints. It took two years for me to create the product which was launched on National Day this year.
What’s included in the packet?
In the packet (for one person), we have included taupok, taugeh, laksa leaves, fish cake, hard-boiled egg and noodles. We use “bi tai mak” as it’s easier to eat; regular thick bee hoon would absorb a lot of the gravy. It’s a chilled product which you can boil in a pot or heat up in the microwave. The product is currently sold at Cheers (at selected Esso stations) and on Redmart’s website. But our intent is to eventually bring it overseas.
Could you tell us more about your other F&B plans for next year, in particular your new restaurant in Niseko, Hokkaido?
My landlord at Wild Rocket is opening a hotel (called the Maples) in Niseko. She asked if I would like to go over and help her to set up the restaurant. I have been with her for 12 years, and she wanted to offer me this opportunity. I love Japan, and I’ve always wanted to open a restaurant where I don’t have to be present the whole year. So basically, a small place that’s charming, and with accessibility to good ingredients. So I said yes. We will be opened six months of the year, from November to April (the restaurant is slated to open in December 2018).
There are challenges opening up in a country with language barriers. But I’ve already gone up to meet the accountants, contractors, and designers etc.
We’re going to do modern Singaporean and Southeast Asia dishes using Japanese seasonal ingredients. And I’ve gotten a Japanese chef on board – the good thing is he can source for all the Japanese ingredients. And I can work on the Southeast Asian flavours, and marry the two together.
I’m really excited. We may do things like a ceviche marinated with kaffir lime and fish sauce. We could do laksa with somen, paired with king crab, crab roe or uni from Hokkaido. When you are skiing, you want to eat flavours that are comforting. When I’m skiing I always want to eat something hearty like Japanese katsu curry rice. At night, we may be a bit more experimental with craft beers and small plates. Moving forward, I would like to be involved in many different F&B projects, as I always enjoy doing new and interesting things.
(Photos by: Vernon Wong)