His reserved demeanour and tattooed arms make Sebastian Kwek quite a mystery. As he sits huddled over a round white table at the coffee shop below Block 59 New Upper Changi Road, with the rain coming down in sheets, Kwek quietly contemplates the questions put forward to him.
Why did he choose to take over his grandmother’s ban mian (handmade noodle) stall, and what would he be doing if he didn’t enter the hawker trade?
“I would still have been a chef, whether it’s at my grandmother’s stall or working at a restaurant,” says the 26-year-old, who has been helping his grandmother since he was 14.
“When it comes to work, I realised I am better at physical things,” he says. His first proper training began when he was 23. He apprenticed with Enoch Teo, former chef-owner of Enoch’s European restaurant in Katong. Teo is now co-owner of casual French eatery chain Garcons.
“When I first started working for Enoch, I treated the restaurant as my own. I would come at whatever time I wanted and do what I wanted,” says Kwek, who candidly admits that he used to run amok with a gang when he was 13. “But working at Enoch’s restaurant showed me the importance of teamwork and discipline. You can say it made me grow up.”
Now, instead of sauntering into the kitchen at 11am, he begins his day at 5am, heading down to 456 Mian Fen Guo to start preparing the soup. Keeping to his grandmother’s recipe, he uses big ikan bilis (dried anchovies), sweet corn and salt to create the light, tasty broth. The noodles, he shares, are made the night before at home, using a big machine his grandmother has used for nearly 30 years.
“Most of the ingredients are the same ones my grandmother used, except the flour,” says Kwek, who tested different types before settling on an Australian import that “is more expensive but gives the noodles a QQ (springy) texture”. He shares that business has become better since he took over, and the stall goes through nearly 300 eggs a day (Kwek counts each egg as a bowl of ban mian is sold).
Though he doesn’t have the time to put too much thought into it currently, he eventually hopes to either franchise the business or experiment with selling Western renditions of ban mian, like a carbonara with poached egg on top.
“The good thing about being a hawker is that, if these ideas fail, I will lose just a bit of money, and I can quickly go back (to what I was doing before),” he says. “So if it works, good. If it doesn’t, at least I gave it a try.”
456 Mian Fen Guo
59 Food Court, Block 59 New Upper Changi Road